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“The Best Sword is Kept in its Sheath”: Akira Kurosawa’s “Sanjuro” and the Reluctant Samurai…

I got to write about Akira Kurosawa earlier this week for The Escapist, which was great. However, having rewatched a bunch of his films at the weekend, I had some more in-depth thoughts I wanted to share on them. One in particular. I recorded a podcast on Sanjuro last year, which might also be of interest.

Sanjuro is something of an oddity in the filmography of director Akira Kurosawa.

The film is one of only two sequels in Kurosawa’s filmography, following on from Sanshiro Sugata, Part Two seventeen years earlier. It is also the last of Kurosawa’s black-and-white samurai films. While Kurosawa did make other black-and-white period films, such as his last collaboration with Tushiro Mifune in Red Beard, he would not return to stories of warlords and swordsmen until Kagemusha and Ran in the eighties.

Sanjuro is somewhat underseen among Kurosawa’s black-and-white samurai films, which is interesting. It is the sequel to one of Kurosawa’s most influential films. Yojimbo famously inspired one of the formative spaghetti westerns, A Fistful of Dollars, and so helped to inspire a renaissance in American westerns. It introduced a basic plot that was often emulated, leading to remakes like Last Man Standing. When Sanjuro is discussed, it is often in terms of its striking final scene, in which the eponymous samurai strikes down an opponent, resulting in a geyser of blood.

This is a shame, because there’s a lot of interesting stuff happening in Sanjuro, particularly in relation to the forms and conventions of the samurai genre. Kurosawa’s samurai films are at once archetypal and deconstructive. To a lot of international audiences, films like Rashomon, Seven Samurai and The Hidden Fortress are shorthand for the Japanese samurai films of the fifties. However, they are also surprisingly critical of the idea of the samurai. They draw on the cinematic language of John Ford westerns, but predict the cynicism of Sergio Leone westerns.

This is perhaps no more obvious than in Sanjuro. The film originated as an adaptation of Shūgorō Yamamoto’s short story Peaceful Days. Kurosawa had been working on an adaptation of the story before Yojimbo, but the success of Yojimbo saw the studio approaching Kurosawa to make a sequel. Kurosawa took an interesting approach. He wrote the character of Sanjuro into the story of Peaceful Days, replacing the unskilled-with-a-blade ronin from the source novel. Kurosawa also turned up the humour in the script.

The result is fascinating. Watching Sanjuro, it often feels like the title character has wandered into a situation that its protagonists have mistaken for a romantic historical epic: a story of virtue triumphing over corruption. Sanjuro spends a lot of the film openly ridiculing the nine samurai at the centre of the film, picking apart their understanding of how the world works, and generally rolling his eyes at the heightened melodramatic elements of the narrative. Sanjuro is the story of a samurai whose blade is so sharp that it cuts at the narrative that contains him.

The opening scenes of Sanjuro do not feature the title character. Instead, they focus on a group of young samurai who are explaining the strange situation in which they have found themselves. The local chamberlain, an ugly old man who by his own admission bears an uncanny resemblance to a horse, has been caught scheming against the local superintendent. The local superintendent is a savvy political operator and a known hero, so the young samurai have informed him of the chamberlain’s plot against them. They are waiting in a remote location to meet the superintendent.

It is only once these stakes have been established, and this scenario articulated, that Sanjuro announces himself. In what becomes a recurring visual motif in Sanjuro, it is revealed that the samurai has been present for the entire scene, but just hasn’t involved himself in the narrative. Sanjuro is sharing the same shelter with the young warriors, but has been lurking in the shadows. He emerges from the darkness, and proceeds to rip apart the young warriors’ entire understanding of the plot in which they find themselves.

Sanjuro speculates, based on what he has overheard, that the young samurai have made a number of naive errors in judgment. They assumed that the chamberlain was the villain of the story because he was ugly and that the superintendent was the hero because he was gallant. Instead, it seems likely that the chamberlain had a valid reason for moving against the superintendent, and the young samurai effective spoiled his carefulness. This allowed the superintendent to move against the chamberlain. This remote meeting is an excuse to tidy up loose ends.

As happens throughout Sanjuro, the wise old wanderer is entirely correct. The superintendent dispatches a group of soldiers to murder the young samurai. Sanjuro seems to look upon his companions as too dumb to survive if left to their own devices, and so seems to take on a moral responsibility to protect them. It is a surprising earnest motivation in a film that is otherwise quite cynical. Sanjuro appears to be motivated by nothing more than conscience – his unwillingness to let these naive young souls wander gleefully to their own deaths.

Despite his name above the title, it is very clear that Sanjuro is a quest in this narrative. Kurosawa stresses this. Sanjuro is not as visually rich as something like Throne of Blood or Yojimbo, perhaps reflecting its somewhat diminished reputation in the Kurosawa samurai canon, but it is still constructed with a great deal of care. Kurosawa often frames the younger samurai in lines and rows, with an emphasis on symmetry and on structured composition. The movie treats them like ornaments within a classical framework.

In contrast, Sanjuro himself always seems like an odd element. He is often positioned off-centre and even off-screen. One delightful sequence involves the young samurai getting really worked up by a (reckless) plan and ready to run into battle, only for Sanjuro to slam the door shut – revealing that he had apparently been listening to the entire conversation just out of shot and couldn’t even muster up the energy to interject. It’s one of the funniest gags in the screen, as Sanjuro deflates the energy of the scene simply by revealing his own presence.

Even when Sanjuro is in shot, he is often visually contrasted with the more earnest samurai. While they stand, he leans. While they sit rigid, he slouches. He frequently reclines and lies down, even during sessions that his colleagues treat as formal occasions. He never positions himself to complete the symmetry of a frame. He is often out of alignment from the rest of the cast, whether placed squarely in the foreground or the background. One extended sequence consists of Sanjuro sitting in the background of a romantic sequence, rolling his eyes at the corniness of it all.

Sanjuro seems motivated to protect the young samurai from their own idiocy, but he seldom hides his frustration or contempt for their earnestness. “I’m out of patience,” he declares at one point. “I’ve had enough of you idiots.” Later on, when asked if he wants to join the young men as part of one of their plans, he sighs, “It’s a stupid plan, but the excitement might keep me awake.” It is a rare hero who has so much contempt for the narrative in which he finds himself.

Sanjuro is in on the joke. The film has a delightfully visual sense of humour, one that often makes jokes at the expense of the heroic young men who imagine themselves caught up in a classic samurai tale. At one point, skulking around in the bushes, the nine young men follow Sanjuro like a weird human centipede. There’s a repeated sense that Sanjuro would move a lot more smoothly if the title character didn’t have to effectively babysit these nine fully grown men.

Repeatedly, the characters’ earnestness gets them into trouble. At one point, they taken an enemy soldier captive. He is tied up and locked up. However, the samurai later come home to find their hostage enjoying some sustenance in the main room of the home. The lady of the house had released him on his honour. He remakes of how absurdly trusting she is. Ultimately, the captive doesn’t try to escape, the film makes the point that he could easily have done so.

At the same time, Sanjuro’s cynicism comes from its own strange romance. Sanjuro repeatedly suggests that the character wants to avoid bloodshed where possible. At one point, Sanjuro infiltrates the enemy ranks. However, the young samurai do not trust him, and so get themselves captured. They are tied up, and facing execution. Sanjuro has to break cover and murder an entire room full of enemy soldiers.

The sequence is shocking. It is surprisingly brutal in the context of an otherwise lighthearted movie. Sanjuro tears through the enemy army like a force of nature. He hacks and slashes, while they panic. There is no sense of honourable combat here, no dignified one-on-one fencing. This is slaughter. Sanjuro slashes fleeing opponents in the back. He stabs at enemies desperately trying to hide behind a door. This is not glamourous or thrilling. It is brutal. Nobody is more horrified than Sanjuro himself, who scolds the samurai, “This butchery is all thanks to you.”

The young samurai do not trust Sanjuro because he has little time for the trappings or formalities of the culture around him. After he saves them the first time, they acknowledge, “We don’t know how to thank you.” Sanjuro honestly responds, “Some money would be nice.” Later on, the fact that he admitted wanting money to feed himself is used against him. It is treated as a marker of craven vulgarity and untrustworthiness, rather than simple frankness. (Sanjuro is no mercenary; he declines the fancy clothes offered at the end of the film.)

Sanjuro repeatedly sacrifices his dignity and his honour to try to minimise the loss of life. The chamberlain’s wife repeatedly scolds Sanjuro for his uncouth attitude. “That just won’t do,” she complains. “Killing people is a bad habit.” She chastises Sanjuro as “a sword without a sheath.” However, as they make their escape from captivity, the chamberlain’s wife refuses to do anything as undignified as climb a wall. Sanjuro points out this will force him to murder more people, before lowering himself to serve as a footstool to help the older woman escape.

Sanjuro underscores that its protagonist had the right idea. At the end, the chamberlain is freed and hosts a dinner in honour of the young warriors who rescued him. However, he also points out that their excitement led to much more death than he had planned. The chamberlain had been investigating the superintendent and his co-conspirators in the hope that he might “force them to retire quietly.” Now they are all dead. The chamberlain seems a little saddened by the loss of his enemy. “I could have at least had his life spared.”

This sentiment plays out in the final scenes of the film,as Sanjuro tries to quietly leave town. He is confronted by Hanbei Muroto, the warrior who had served as the right-hand man to the superintendent. Muroto feels betrayed by Sanjuro, who had manipulated him and won his trust. Muroto forces Sanjuro into a duel, a fight that Sanjuro clearly does not want. “Draw!” Muroto commands. “I’d rather not,” Sanjuro sighs. “It isn’t worth it.” Even in the midst of all this, Sanjuro tries to protect the stupid young samurai from the far more talented Muroto.

As such, there’s a strong ambivalence about samurai culture that runs through Sanjuro. It is very much of a piece with Kurosawa’s other samurai films. In many of Kurosawa’s films, the samurai are portrayed as outdated and old-fashioned. The only true samurai in Rashomon speaks as a ghost through a medium, more of a memory than a man. In Seven Samurai, the wandering band of heroes suffer greatly to protect a group of villagers that they realise are cynically exploiting them and will profit greatly after their deaths. Yojimbo brings guns to Japan.

This is perhaps most obvious in Throne of Blood. This is Kurosawa’s adaptation of Macbeth. However, Kurosawa makes several key changes to the Macbeth template. Most obviously, Shakespeare wrote Macbeth as a tribute to James I, and so the play ends with the restoration of order. The title character’s reign of terror is treated as a historical aberration that is corrected as the universe is righted. Throne of Blood offers no such happy ending. The film opens with a marker that establishes the memory of Cobweb Castle, confirming that everything in the film turns to dust.

More to the point, though, Throne of Blood invests a greater degree in the idea of fate than Macbeth. It suggests that Washizu has no real agency once he encounters the spectral forces in the woods prophecising his ascent. His wife Asaji points out that as soon as his warlord Tsuzaki hears about that prophecy, he will have to murder Washizu. As such, murder and betrayal is framed not as an unusual event, but as the natural order of this particular society. “I want to live in peace,” Washizu protests. “There can be no peace,” his wife responds.

Throne of Blood suggests a hypocrisy at the centre of the code of honour that defines the samurai film. “You want something, but act as if you do not want it,” the strange witch in the woods observes. Both Miki and Asaji acknowledge a simple reality that Washizu never articulates, “Every samurai longs to be master of a castle.” Most damningly, Throne of Blood suggests Tsuzaki holds no high ground here. “Have you forgotten His Lordship killed his own master?” Asaji prompts. “He was compelled to to preserve his own life,” Tsuzaki responds. He may be similarly compelled.

Throne of Blood is perhaps more cynical than Sanjuro. It suggests that an entire culture built upon a warrior code must inevitably collapse into itself. The unsheathed blade is a dangerous thing. Whereas Macbeth believed in the stability of the status quo, Throne of Blood suggests that murder and mayhem is the status quo. The idea of codes of honour and duty just place a veneer of respectability on the surface of violence.

It’s notable how many of Kurosawa’s samurai films lean on the idea of performativity – the gulf between illusion and reality. Throne of Blood draws heavily from noh theatre, reinforcing the idea that its samurai characters are effectively playing at appearing like honourable men. In Sanjuro, the superintendent understands that it is more important to appear honest than to be honest. In The Hidden Fortress, Kurosawa reverses that dynamic – a samurai and a princess must play at being ordinary people if they are to survive and win.

This theme carries over to Kurosawa’s later colour samurai films. Kagemusha is the story of a thief who is hired to serve as the double to a warlord. When the warlord dies, the thief is left impersonate the man. In doing so, the thief comes to embody the ideals of the warlord, rather than the man himself. The impersonation of the warlord is arguably purer than than the man himself, because it exists as a larger than life object. This is a larger Kurosawa theme, but it intersects with his samurai films. The idea of a code of honour is perhaps better than the men who live it.

Even Kurosawa’s most conventional and straightforward samurai film, The Hidden Fortress, is notable for actually placing its heroic samurai hero at the edge of the narrative. The Hidden Fortress features Tushiro Mifune as the most heroic soldier that he has ever played for Kurosawa. General Rokurota Makabe believes in honour, duty and obligation. He is consistently shown to be a character of incredible moral virtue and patience. He is a clear-cut hero, with little ambiguity.

However, despite affording Mifune top billing, The Hidden Fortress is not about Makabe. Makabe only appears twenty minutes into the film. Instead, the protagonists of The Hidden Fortress are two idiot farmers who arrived late to a war and end up stumbling blindly through its horrific aftermath. Much like the title character in Sanjuro, they stumble blindly into a romantic samurai plot. However, unlike the title character in Sanjuro, they lack the power to actually change the course of the narrative around them.

This structural quirk – the fact that The Hidden Fortress cannot even look at its heroic characters head-on – is arguably the film’s defining feature. Certainly, it’s the part of the film that George Lucas borrowed for Star Wars. He explained, “The one thing that really struck me about The Hidden Fortress, was the fact that the story was told from the [perspective of] the two lowest characters.” That is a central point. Even though these characters are comic relief, Kurosawa preferences their experience of this epic heroic narrative over that of the expected protagonists.

Of course, all of this exists in a very particular cultural milieu. In discussing Throne of Blood, Kurosawa himself placed such carnage in the context of eternal recurrence – the idea that “man repeats himself over and over again.” It is hard not to read Kurosawa’s engagement with the samurai genre as tied to the legacy of the Second World War. The mountains of skeletons heaped in Cobweb Forest in Throne of Blood are certainly evocative, as is the idea of a massive technological innovation from the west violently radically restructuring Japanese life in Yojimbo.

In the context of the samurai, it’s notable that bushido was associated with the Japanese military strategy during the Second World War, particularly the refusal to surrender that had led to the dropping of both atomic bombs by the United States. Kurosawa himself had grown up in a family that traced its own lineage back to the samurai, and his father had even worn a top knot when Kurosawa was a boy. However, it seems reasonable read the cynicism of Kurosawa’s samurai films in that context.

Sanjuro encapsulates a lot of this, in a package that is accessible and enjoyable. It is light and fun, but also very clear in what it is doing. It makes sense that Kurosawa took a sizable break from the samurai genre between Sanjuro and Kagemusha. It is too much to argue that Sanjuro articulates everything that Kurosawa wanted to say about the form. Instead, it serves as a fitting endnote and coda. It is a clever postscript, a Kurosawa samurai protagonist unleashed across a much more traditional samurai story, like The Dark Knight unleashes Batman and the Joker on Heat.

Sanjuro is a cut above.

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