In Yojimbo, our hero survived Kurosawa’s relentless judgment for the greedy, evil, and cruel by acting out of kindness when it really mattered. Along the way, we were treated to an amusing and violent film that was equal parts morality tale, jidai-geki (period film, usually featuring a Samurai) by way of Western, and showcase for Toshiro Mifune’s charm. In the follow-up Sanjuro, Kurosawa delivers a film that equals the original for all of these elements, but forces the audience to reckon with what violence means to a man like his titular character. In essence, Kurosawa will entertain us, but he will also demand we reflect on the sword as a means to an end.
The story kicks off with a group of nine young Samurai plotting to root out corruption from their region’s government and bureaucracy, under the leadership of Lord Chamberlain Mutsuta. I’ve seen the movie several times, and while you watch you get a handle on who the bad guys and good guys are in the division, but the important part is that these guys are acting out of a desire to do good. The problem is that they are young, and don’t have enough experience to figure out the truth of where the corruption lies. Thankfully, that flea-bitten ronin Sanjuro just happens to be crashing in the same cottage where they are having their secret meeting, and he offers some sage advice that helps them out of an immediate jam. See, they voiced their suspicions of corruption to the Superintendent (against their influential uncle’s wishes, who was working behind the scenes to capture the bad guys in a more shrewd manner), and the cottage is surrounded by enemies within minutes, thus proving that Mutsuta is NOT the corrupt one. The young samurai are eager for the fight, but Sanjuro tells them to hide in the floorboards and he’ll smooth talk the Superintendent’s small army out of killing all of them. It works, and now Sanjuro has found himself a new adventure to amuse himself and maybe score some sake and a hot meal.
Tatsuya Nakadai, who played the foppish and charismatic villain Unosuke in Yojimbo, is back as a different character named Hanbei Muruto. While not as sniveling and slimy, he’s still a formidable and stoic presence, and a worthy antagonist to Mifune’s lovably slovenly Sanjuro. He’s essentially the head enforcer of the superintendent, who has now kidnapped Mutsuta and is being held prisoner at an undisclosed location by the corrupt officials. The young samurai and Sanjuro come upon Mutsuta’s wife and daughter when they return to town, and the wife becomes an essential element to the strongest theme of the movie. She is an excellent judge of character, and senses Sanjuro is a man of violence tempered by the last remains of a good soul. But she makes clear to him that his sword is too often drawn, and that the best sword is one that is never drawn. These words seem to disturb Sanjuro, and he carries them with him for the rest of the film.
Through a series of deceptions, coincidences, and ultimately a fortuitous realization that Mutsuta is being held captive next door to where the nine samurai are staying, a plan is hatched to deceive the superintendent’s army to leave. Sanjuro manages to infiltrate the corrupted official’s men and become acquainted with Muruto, and he is able to tell enough clever lies to save his own skin and reduce the guard around Mutsuta. He kills people when it endangers his new friends, and when the plan requires it, but Mutsuta’s wife reminds him that he too often resorts to violent means for his goals to be achieved. The end result is that the Superintendent is implicated, Mutsuta is freed and reinstated as Lord Chamberlain, and the corruption has been rooted out.
But that is not the end.
Sanjuro, much like he does in Yojimbo, and Kambei and the remaining ronin in Seven Samurai, are left with very little at the end of the film. They are instruments of violence used by others to right a wrong, to correct an injustice, but they themselves do not share in the spoils of their effort. And for Sanjuro, the words of the Chamberlain’s wife echo in his mind, of a sword left in its sheath. He is running away when the nine samurai find him on the road out of town. Facing off against him is Hanbei Muruto, who was bested by Sanjuro’s tricks and now seeks to either kill or be killed for his humiliation. The duel is forced, and Sanjuro bests him in spectacular fashion, with a single stroke of the blade and a geyser of blood and gore. Muruto has been killed, and Sanjuro was not able to keep his sword in its sheath. He may be the hero of the film, and he may live another day, but Kurosawa demonstrates that his way is violence, and he must reckon with that every day and walk a lonely, transient existence. In Yojimbo, Mifune’s ronin was the lucky man that walked away alive. In Sanjuro, he’s the lonely soul that must live with all the killing he has done and will continue to do.
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