When one begins watching Akira Kurosawa’s "Sanjuro", it’s easy to accept it as a stand-alone film. Though it is best known as the sequel to 1961’s "Yojimbo", the two films have nothing in common in terms of plot, and all that Toshiro Mifune’s lovably gruff ronin (once more calling himself “Sanjuro,” which simply means “thirty years old”) needs to do to re-establish his returning character is walk into the room and yawn like the old lion that he so closely resembles.
Sanjuro’s latest adventure sees him reluctantly agreeing to help nine young and eager samurai rescue a chamberlain from a corrupt superintendent and his conniving cronies. The beauty of this film lies in its simplicity. From the first scene, in which Sanjuro prevents the samurai from making a rash decision (and not for the last time), the film takes off, unraveling its lively story at an appropriately steady pace. It’s easy to tell just from this film why George Lucas so greatly admired Kurosawa as a storyteller (although there’s no denying which one is the superior of the two, especially considering both the success of this film and the unforgivable mess that Lucas made of his "Star Wars" prequels as a writer). Here, Kurosawa shows just as much skill in writing and direction as he does in some of his more monumental works, thus elevating "Sanjuro" a good few notches above the average action flick.
As comforting a presence as Kurosawa is behind the camera, there is Mifune before the camera. Although he literally enters the story by chance, this is certainly his show, and he plays his iconic, hard-browed warrior in delicious fashion. While greed was his main motivation in "Yojimbo", he seems here to bear more of a conscience, disguised though it may be. It is clear to him that, without his help, the nine samurai will surely blunder their way to their graves, and he does his best to help them do the right thing. However, in keeping true to his nature, Sanjuro remains a rogue, loner figure throughout the film, described at one point as an unsheathed blade and at another as the kind of man who only ever utters praise in the form of abuse. Even when working for a righteous cause, he is always an outsider.
Also carrying over from "Yojimbo" is Kurosawa regular Tatsuya Nakadai, who once again plays the main bad guy: a ruthless, cold-blooded killer who represents both the most significant threat to and a mirror image of Sanjuro. This is most clear in the pair’s final scene together, a show-stopping Mexican standoff sequence that once again reminds one of the lineage the two Sanjuro films share with spaghetti westerns.
As with many of Kurosawa’s best works, "Sanjuro" entertains on multiple levels. Despite its quick and often astonishing violence, this film is also very funny. The young, idealistic samurai make a great comedic team with the wiser and more sensible Sanjuro, their naiveté matched beat for beat by his blunt, common-sense attitude. There is also a great reoccurring joke in a captured prisoner who unofficially and nonchalantly turns over to his captors’ side. He often interjects and adds his own input to their strategizing sessions – until he remembers his place and retreats back to the closet to which he has been detained. Small touches of light humor like that make "Sanjuro" so much sunnier than the grave affair that it could have been in the hands of another team of filmmakers and actors.
"Sanjuro" is a good example of how what could have been merely a good film was instead made into a great film. Kurosawa and Mifune are as good as they ever were here, and the contributions from cinematographers Fukuzo Koizumi and Takao Saito, production designer Yoshiro Muraki and composer Masaru Sato are certainly commendable. Together, they make this tale of samurai, conspirators and camellias into something truly special and enjoyable.