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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.

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New Escapist Column! On the Lasting Appeal of Akira Kurosawa’s Samurai Films…

I published a new In the Frame piece at The Escapist this evening. Since The Escapist is a video game website, and since Ghost of Tsushima was released this weekend, I thought I’d take a look at one of the big influences on that smash hit video game.

Akira Kurosawa directed far more than samurai films, but his samurai films made an indelible mark on popular culture. Even more than half-a-century removed from most of them, Kurosawa’s samurai films remain vibrant and vital. Part of this is down to their complexity; they are at once Japanese and universal, they draw from Old Hollywood while also inspiring New Hollywood, they codify the samurai archetype while also deconstructing it. Kurosawa’s films bristle with compelling contradictions and perfect paradoxes, demonstrating a richness that endures to this day.

You can read the piece here, or click the picture below.

185. Kumonosu-jō (Throne of Blood) – This Just In/World Tour 2020 (#245)

Hosted by Andrew Quinn and Darren Mooney, and this week with special guest Chris Lavery, The 250 is a (mostly) weekly trip through some of the best (and worst) movies ever made, as voted for by Internet Movie Database Users.

This time, Akira Kurosawa’s Kumonosu-jō.

War rages across feudal Japan. Tsuzuki has finally managed to subdue the latest insurrection against his rule. Journeying through Cobweb Forest, victorious generals Washizu and Miki stumble across a strange woman, who offers a prophecy that augers great and terrible things for the two men. Promised the throne, can Washizu resist the lure and temptation of power? More to the point, what terrible things will he do to procure such power?

At time of recording, it was ranked 245th on the list of the best movies of all time on the Internet Movie Database.

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82. Yojimbo (#113)

Hosted by Andrew Quinn and Darren Mooney and this week with special guest Chris Lavery, The 250 is a (mostly) weekly trip through some of the best (and worst) movies ever made, as voted for by Internet Movie Database Users. New episodes are released every Saturday at 6pm GMT, with the occasional bonus episode thrown in.

This time, Akira Kurosawa’s Yojimbo.

A wandering masterless samurai arrives in a small town divided between two rival gangs. Cannily and skillfully manipulating these opposing forces, the samurai sets about ensuring that he might be the only winner in this bitter turf war.

At time of recording, it was ranked the 113th best movie of all time on the Internet Movie Database.

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70. Shichinin no Samurai (Seven Samurai) (#19)

Hosted by Andrew Quinn and Darren Mooney and this week with special guest Chris Lavery, The 250 is a (mostly) weekly trip through some of the best (and worst) movies ever made, as voted for by Internet Movie Database Users. New episodes are released every Saturday at 6pm GMT, with the occasional bonus episode thrown in.

This time, Akira Kurosawa’s Shichinin no Samurai.

In feudal Japan, a small village finds itself threatened by an army of bandits. In a desperate attempt to protect their barley crop from the marauding menace, the villages decide to hire a samurai to the protect the village. Inevitably, they end up with more than they bargained for.

At time of recording, it was ranked the 19th best movie of all time on the Internet Movie Database.

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