WTF ASIA 190: Sanjuro (1962)

Otherwise known as the lounging samurai.

Sanjuro Movie Poster (11 x 17) - Item # MOV199644 - Posterazzi

Available in CanadaFrancethe United Kingdomthe United States, and perhaps a few other countries. Approximately 96 minutes.

 

 

 

 

 

This movie wastes little time setting up the premise. At a shrine, nine samurai sit in a circle, already in the middle of a conversation. Apparently, they are worried about corruption within their clan and have drafted a proposal to eradicate it. The leader of this squad, a young man named Izaka Iori, asked his uncle, Chamberlain Matsuta, for support. Unfortunately, Matsuta tore up the proposal, and even suggested that he may be the mastermind. So, Izaka met with Superintendent Kikui, who expressed support and asked to speak with the group. Well, the men are upset to hear about Matsuta, but are happy to hear that Kikui, as expected, is on their side.

They are all laughing with joy when they hear a yawn. From out of the darkness in the next room emerges…well, he doesn’t give his name, so let’s call him Toshiro. Looking unkempt and slovenly, he sort of shambles into the circle.

Toshiro mentions having heard the story, which gets the other men to grab their swords to stop him from leaving. He calls them imbeciles for acting like he was going to go anywhere. Izaka demands to know why he is here, and he says that it was free room for the night. And he argues that they should be grateful that he heard the story, as he can give an impartial outsider’s perspective. He assumes that Kikui is the more handsome of the two men and this group has been judging them on their looks. Matsuda does care if he looks like a fool while Kikui is merely presenting himself of a good person.

The men are offended that Toshiro is completely contradicting Izaka’s conclusions. But Toshiro argues that enabling a revolt runs counter to Kikui’s job as superintendent. Plus, he told Izaka to gather his men in one place. Izaka says that they are meeting him at this shrine tonight. If Toshiro’s instincts are right, then this shrine is a trap, and he is trapped with them.

And…uh oh…a bunch of men are approaching.

Izaka’s men prepare for battle, but Toshiro peeks through the holes in the walls and notes that they are surrounded. He sits down, not necessarily relaxed, but less tense than the others. He calls them fools and tells them to put their swords away. They don’t listen to him at first, but he says that they will all die. Toshiro has a plan…sort of.

Kikui’s men are all around the outside. A representative tells Izaka’s men to surrender. Toshiro opens the front door, revealing only him. None of the other men appear to be inside. He asks what the racket is about, acting like he has no idea what is going on.

A few men enter the building to look around and Toshiro throws them about. More men try to enter and he shoves them collectively down the stairs. A man tries to fight him, but he hits the guy with his still-sheathed sword. Toshiro walks down into the crowd and manages to knock down several other men who try to attack him.

Eventually, one man tells the others to fall back, as it is a waste of time trying to kill a skilled fighter who is not their target. He introduces himself as Muroto, and tells Toshiro that there is an opportunity to serve in the clan if he so wishes. Then he leaves…as do the rest of Kikui’s men.

After Kikui’s men leave Toshiro goes back inside and closes the door. He says that it is safe and Izaka’s men emerge from under the floorboards.

Later, Izaka and his men bow in thanks to Toshiro. He says that thanks are not needed, though money would be nice. The men are…less grateful to hear that, but Izaka does give him a bag of money. Toshiro takes some of it and returns the bag. He is about to leave, but then turns back around and asks them what they will do now. Izaka says that Toshiro has opened their eyes, so they will rush to Matsuda and apologize to him. Toshiro smiles and leaves.

Wait. No. He turns back around again and says that Izaka’s uncle is in danger. Kikui has probably realized that Matsuta has learned of his corruption. Thus, Kikui would be smart to arrest him. Well, now the nine of them are definitely going to Matsuta’s. Toshiro stops them, first saying that there are “ten of us” and refuses to see the others blunder their way to their deaths.

 

 

 

Okay, fifteen minutes in and we are finally away from the shrine. Toshiro accompanies the others as they sneak onto Matsuta’s estate. It seems to be quiet, but all of the doors and windows are closed. Toshiro throws a rock into the pond and the splash gets three men running out to see what happened. After a while, one of them says that it was probably a fish, so they all go back inside and close the doors. Izaka recognizes those men as working for Kikui, and that was his uncle’s room.

Toshiro crouch walks away and the others crouch-walk behind him single file like a centipede. Toshiro asks if there is somewhere that they can hide. Izaka says that there is a barn nearby. So they head to the barn.

On their way, they encounter a woman running out of the estate. Izaka recognizes her as a servant named Koiso and asks what is going on. Koiso starts to cry, so they take her to the barn.

After calming down a bit, Koiso is able to explain that Kikui arrived with many men, taking everyone by surprised. They locked up Matsuta’s guards in the main house and took him away. She does not know the whereabouts of Izaka’s aunt or his cousin Chidori. She says that there are maybe 14 or 15 on watch. She was able to escape because she was sent to get sake and, after behaving the first time, they let her go on her own the second time.

Toshiro tells Izaka to send her back, as her disappearance would raise alarms. Better to get Kikui’s men drunk, so they can rescue Chidori and her mother. Izaka agrees and asks Koiso to go back. Still probably terrified, Koiso accepts.

Toshiro tells the other nine that she is a samurai, and more reliable than them. After a long pause, one of them says that they are grateful, but also complains that Toshiro is inappropriately rude in his language and annoying in his taking charge of everything. He also disapproves of rescuing the Chamberlain’s wife and daughter before rescuing the Chamberlain himself. Toshiro counters that they cannot rescue Matsuta until they find out where he is or knowing of Kikui’s plans for him. Finding his wife and daughter should be easier, and they may have some information regarding those previous questions.

So, it is settled. Toshiro takes three men with him to rescue “the old lady” while the rest look for Matsuta. One of the men volunteers his house nearby as a meeting spot for the two groups. The man who most frequently talks back to Toshiro warns that that is right next door to the traitorous vice- chamberlain Kurofuji. Toshiro considers that a good choice, as no one would think that they would dare hide so close.     

So the six samurai sneak out of Matsuta’s compound and run in all directions.

Toshiro plans the raid with the other three. The plan is mostly him fighting the three drunk guards and the rest doing cleanup, and then meeting back at the barn with the rescued women. He notices that the others seem unexcited, and asks whether they wanted to take part in the fighting. He says that he fears that they will get him killed if they draw their swords.

They are about to go when they notice Muroto emerging from Matsuta’s room. While the other guards sound all drunk and loud, he is sober and quiet. Well, abort plan. Toshiro says that Muroto is a tiger compared to the three kitty cat guards from before.  Muroto summons the guards and yells at them for being drunk. He tells them to wash their red faces in the pond. As the three go to the pond, Muroto leaves for the main house, probably to scold the other guards who also got drunk.  

Resume plan. When the three guards are done washing their faces, Toshiro rushes in. He knocks down one and kills the others. Two compatriots take the surviving guard prisoner while the third runs into the house to get Matsuta’s wife and daughter. It all takes about fifteen seconds.

Izaka and Toshiro return to the barn with the women. Izaka’s aunt and cousin give some information. The official story was that Matsuta was going to destroy the evidence of his corruption, and Kikui arrested him to prevent that. Toshiro, once again off to the side and not really looking at any of them, seems kind of impressed at that ruse. Izaka’s aunt…okay, the movie does not give her a name, so I am calling her Takako. Takako asks who he is, and all Izaka can say is that he is an ally who saved his life and the life of his men. That seems to be enough for Takako and Chidori. They both kind of look at Toshiro inquisitively, which makes him…a little uncomfortable.

Matsuta’s wife…okay, the movie does not give her a name, so I am calling her Takako.  masks his discomfort with impatience at the other two men who have not arrived with the prisoner. Takako says that it is fine, as she is still a little tired from the running. She also kind of marvels at the…hay? Apparently, she has never been in the barn before. Chidori says that she and Izaka came here a few times. Well, now it is Izaka’s turn to look uncomfortable, and he leaves to find the others. Chidori tells her mother that they would come here to doze off in the hay. She demonstrates. Her mother says that that is not very ladylike, but she is not particularly upset at that, and lies back in the hay as well.

Izaka and the others return with the prisoner. They took so long to come back because they had been dunking the guy’s head in the pond in the hopes that he would talk. Toshiro muses that he may not know anything, but they will have to kill him since he saw their faces.

Takako disapproves of killing the prisoner. And while she is grateful for the rescue, she also disapproves of Toshiro having killed the other two guards, calling it a bad habit. She tells him that, he is like a sword without a sheath; he may cut well, but the best sword is one kept sheathed. Toshiro looks uncomfortable again. She turns to the uncooperative prisoner and invites him to come with them, assuring him that he will not come to harm. He seems to accept her offer.

It sounds like the other guards are getting close. They run to the rear wall and Toshiro sends some horses to the front gate to distract the guards. He arrives at the wall to see the other men over the wall. Takako and Chidori say that they cannot climb the wall, so Toshiro bends down and tells them to use him as a footstool. Takako continues to protest, but Toshiro argues that her continued hesitation may force him to kill more men. She apologizes and steps on him.

And they have escaped. They make their way to the house next to Kurofuji’s. Toshiro requests sake, saying that he is smarter when he drinks. The men confer. They conclude that Kikui plans to pin his crimes on Matsuta, force him to write a confession, and then make him commit hara-kiri. Chidori worries, but her mother calms her down, say that Matsuta is shrewd and will not make things easy for Kikui. She then asks what the next steps are. Toshiro says that rescuing Matsuta is all that is necessary. After that, Kikui’s plans will collapse. Of course, if they fail to rescue Matsuta, then they will be finished. Takako asks them to do their best, but to also refrain from excessive violence. She then asks what his name is.

Oh…his name…? Toshiro looks out at the camellia flowers outside and says that his name is Tsubaki Sanjuro…or Camellia 30-years-old. The women chuckle at this blatant lie and Takako says that he is a most interesting man.

 

 

 

 

 

Originally an adaptation of the novel Hibi Heian, this movie’s script was altered to make it a sequel to Yojimbo, which was released eight months earlier. I have not made articles for film sequels unless one counts Lady Vengeance, and I don’t. I made an exception for this movie mainly for two reasons. The first is that I personally prefer this movie to Yojimbo. The second is that it is very different from Yojimbo in many respects. While it is not quite as separate from Yojimbo as Lady Vengeance is from the other Vengeance Trilogy films or For a Few Dollars More is from A Fistful of Dollars, it still works as a complete standalone film, with simply a few nods to the first. This is not merely Die Hard in an airport. The character of…Sanjuro…is different here. Some of it may be that he is in a different point of his life from where he was in Yojimbo, but it could be that the different environment and caliber of the characters here cause him to act differently.

The movie seems both larger and smaller than the first movie. Larger in that the buildings featured are mostly larger this time around, but smaller because less of this movie takes place out in the open. There is none of the wide vista from the introduction to the original. Also, the movie is almost fifteen minutes shorter, that does not usually happen save for some cynical cash grab. I guess that altering the script to make it a sequel in the first place is a bit of that, but only kind of. It is not simply trying to one-up the original or give the viewers more of the same.

While Yojimbo was set in this desolate middle-of-nowhere town, Sanjuro is set primarily in a Samurai town, one with fancy houses, a castle, and a lord. Instead of helpless nobodies cowering at the whims of lowlife gangsters, this is a place full of high-class samurai. Not necessarily all hardened warriors, but government officials and administrators. They are not simply morally corrupt fools facing off against other morally corrupt fools, but well-meaning fools facing off against morally corrupt geniuses. So, the character of Sanjuro has to act differently.

The Sanjuro in Yojimbo stuck around simply to bleed the contemptible riff-raff dry and then eradicate them from the town. Here, his motivations are a bit more…unclear. I mean, yeah, this is a more clear-cut narrative of good versus evil than in Yojimbo, so of course a good guy character would side with the good samurai against the bad samurai. But the Sanjuro in Yojimbo was only a good guy by default since practically everyone else was either a scumbag or a hopeless do-nothing.

Perhaps here, Sanjuro sees the good in the nine samurai and their ability to actually do good if they were only guided in the ways of the world. So, maybe there actually is a good heart inside. Of course, he cannot outright say that; he is still the Sanjuro of the previous movie. He has to call them idiots and imbeciles and other insults. Yet, the contemptuous bite is not quite there. The same could be said of this movie in general. It is still an irreverent and satirical subversion of the samurai genre…but it is a bit more gentle and humanist. Perhaps I like it more because of that.

Even the more resentful of Izaka’s group recognizes that Sanjuro could have just walked out of the shrine and left them to their doom. Instead, he explained to them that the danger that they were in, helped them to hide, RISKED HIS OWN SAFETY by fighting off Kikui’s men, took only a portion of the money that Izaka gave him as a reward, and then stuck with them when he realized that they were not out of trouble. There was no real sign in Yojimbo that he would do something like this, perhaps because there were no people like this whom he interacted with. Additionally, while the actions of the gangsters in that small nowhere town could affect only the town’s inhabitants and people who get pulled into the town’s orbit, the actions of this clan could potentially have consequences for the entire province.

Sanjuro can see that these men are good men, but they are naive. They were brought up to follow all of the tenets of the samurai without the real-world experience to know that it does not always work. They are like if Ned Stark did not understand that he was Ned Stark…and he was obsessed with refinement and propriety…and there were nine of him. I mentioned only Izaka by name because they are all pretty much like Izaka. Yeah, one seems to speak up more against Sanjuro, but they are mostly indistinguishable, and kind of put in the effort to behave like a single organism. It is most obvious when they are all sitting or crouching in formation, with Sanjuro lounging off in the corner somewhere.

They all gather around Izaka at first, but as Izaka increasingly yields authority to Sanjuro, they start to gather around him. Kurosawa may be poking fun at the way that their inability to even consider thinking for themselves is part of their upbringing as a samurai, but it can also be interpreted as a straightforward advocacy for strong leadership. Who knows? It is interesting that Sanjuro tells the other samurai that Koiso is a real samurai when she went back to serve sake to Kikui’s men. Is it because she did what he told her to do with minimal fuss? Perhaps. Or it could be because she did her duty despite a completely reasonable fear for her life as opposed to the foolhardy arrogance of Izaka’s band. 

Stephen Prince, the guy who did the commentary for the Criterion Collection, suggests that Kurosawa may have been treating this story as a sort of wish fulfillment, where Sanjuro was able to serve as a mentor to the next generation of warriors, even if they initially rejected him. By contrast, the 1960s generation of Japanese filmmakers tended to ignore or react against Kurosawa. Now, sure, it may be a bit of an ask for these radical leftist rebel artists trying to break the system to see something of themselves in these untested ,idealistic, well-mannered, brainwashed, groupthinking do-gooders who are trying to fix the system…especially when the jaded, grizzled, individualist war veteran of a protagonist is constantly showing them up and calling them idiots. On the other hand, the Japanese New Wave directors love to make the audience put in the hard mental work of extracting any meaning from the twisted metaphors in their movies.   

Despite supposedly having a larger body-count than Yojimbo (or so I am told), there is a different take on killing as well. Or, at least Sanjuro killing. Even at the start, he is not as bloodthirsty as he was before. He leaves his sword sheathed when fighting off Kikui’s men. Is it because he has more respect for actual samurai warriors than he does for gangsters? Could it be that he is confident enough in his skills to know that he could humiliate enough of them that the rest would back off, but prudent enough to know that he cannot take them all if they want revenge against him for killing their comrades? Who can say? He may have been sincere in his cynical reasoning behind preventing the other samurai from killing the guards at Matsuta’s house, but he could have also been trying to protect them from having to kill at all.

On top of that, Takako’s criticism of his killing does get to him. It may be a little hypocritical of her to say that, given that her husband is a samurai, but he is more of a government administrator (similar to some of his corrupt enemies) than a hardened killer. Regardless, he tries to take it to heart and tries to do things without killing people. Whereas in Yojimbo, his only reasoning for not killing an enemy is that he figured that he could have more fun goading another enemy to do it for him. But, here, he genuinely tries to minimize casualties and gets upset if that is not possible. Of course, once again, turning this into a sequel to Yojimbo means that the audience expects a violence. So even if the Sanjuro of this movie is a changed man, some blood still must be shed.

I know that I was not really able to talk about this movie without constantly comparing it to Yojimbo, but despite that, I still believe that this movie stands on its own, and can be watched without having seen its predecessor. Can it be watched first before watching Yojimbo? That might be a little awkward an experience, but yes, of course you can. In any case, if you somehow have never seen this movie, I highly recommend it.

 

 

 

 

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