Saturday, June 26, 2010

Homemade summer movie marathon: Sanjuro

Sanjuro (1962, Akira Kurosawa)

With the feverish success of Yojimbo , writer director Akira Kurosawa was convinced into quickly making a followup to the 1961 hit which continues the adventures of the brash, bold and master-less samurai Sanjuro (Toshiro Mifune) as he is compelled to aid a small band of young, hot-headed but well meaning samurai who want to purge the corruption which has begun to infect their clan, but find themselves outnumbered and out-armed by those within the clan who driven by the vile intentions in question. This dastardly band is lead by superintendent and his top enforcer, Muroto (Tatsuya Nakadai). The race against the clock is tight, has the villains are hoping to force the chamberlain Mutsutu ( Yûnosuke Itô) to force a bogus letter of confession. Either that or they kill him. Lest it be omitted that the chamberlain is uncle to one of the nine bucks who strive to restore order to their clan. The stakes have been set, now let Sanjuro create havoc!

So, Akira Kurosawa the great art house dramatist, the genius behind poignant character studies and the progenitor to countless exquisitely made action adventure films has chosen to make a sequel. It just sounds so strange to me, but when business is booming, you continue pumping that oil to see just how much mileage you can extract, brother. The ronin Sanjuro was so well received that I imagine there is a given logic behind the creation of a second adventure. How often do we say that the sequel to a given film just wasn’t up to the par set by its predecessor? Other than with The Empire Strikes Back, The Godfather part II and For a Few Dollars More, not many examples jump out off the top of my head. It is even feasible for the maestro Kurosawa to fall into the familiar trap of sequel blues? Heresy! Blasphemy! Oh, I can hear some of you crying in apoplectic rage already.

Let us set some things straight before I risk my skin. Sanjuro is competently made. I’ll do you one better: Sanjuro is a fun, rather well paced and generally satisfying movie experience, but very generally. Mifune reprises his famous role and produces yet another entertaining performance that held my attention from start to finish. There is an indelible charm to his scruffy but oh so intelligent samurai for hire. He fine tunes a delicate balance between a character that, upon first glance, could not possibly demand any sort of respect from a passerby, but who rapidly demonstrates bravery, intelligence and a killer instinct, no pun intended. There is even a slight attempt at awkward humour in the scenes when the chamberlain’s wife (who has escaped captivity thanks to an intervention by Sanjuro and the young samurai he is helping) begins questioning his bushido ways. She does so in the most innocent and sweetest manner, and this seems to annoy Sanjuro, but he never retorts back at her in any direct and confrontational manner. Rather, his face shows a painful mixture of provocation but of understanding. These moments don’t happen often and don’t last particularly long, but they were intriguing even though don’t produce any great impact on the course of the story.

The character of Sanjuro once again displays his talents as a fantastic tactician, although one may be forgiven for starting to think most of the foes he toys around with and dispatches are more buffoons than anything else. He comes across as a little more brash and impolite than before and I suspect this has something to do with the writers trying, as is the case in so many sequels, to give audiences what they enjoyed the first time, only in double doses. Does it always work? Not necessarily. I did begin to wonder why exactly Sanjuro had to be a prick so consistently (it’s like the guy can’t lighten up in the slightest), but it does lead to some funny lines, I’ll give the film that much credit.

One other thing I want to applaud the film for is its brilliant cinematography and editing. The film looks incredible and the camera pans provide the film with a visual dynamism that I personally think surpasses the cinematography on display in Yojimbo, and if you’ve read my previous review, you know that I didn’t think that film was a slouch in the cinematography department either. The camera often dances around with precise and adventurous pans that I couldn’t get enough of. For Kurosawa fans, this is something we’ve known for some time now, but I really think the visual style of Sanjuro is some of the best work Kurosawa and his crew have delivered.

But, I am honestly sad to report, Sanjuro is not without some issues which prevent it from reaching the same heights as the first film. The first being the large band of samurai he has chosen to assist. 9 is a lot and I can’t say I ever really cared for any of them, even the one whom the film makes out to be the leader’s position and whose uncle is the chamberlain. I think the film would have been better off with just 1 or 2 dissenting warriors, which probably would have allowed for the viewer to latch onto to them better. As it stands, they’re just a ‘bunch’ of idealistic and unproven kids whom Sanjuro taunts and insults continuously. Another issue I had with the film, and this one bothered me a little bit more, was the lack of danger to Tatsuya Nakadai’s Muroto. Anyone who has seen Yojimbo or Sword of Doom knows all too well how powerful an actor Nakadai can be, especially when living and breathing the role of the villain. Here however, I simply didn’t feel that gravitas. The film makes him out to be the superintendent's enforcer, but by the end of the movie I wasn’t sure how he went about this task. We seen him peering through doors to update the superintendent and his allies more than anything else. I shan’t put any blame on Kakadai’s shoulders for this, for I think he gives a fine performance, but even an actor of his caliber can only do so much with the material awarded to him. A big, big misstep in my opinion.

There are also times when the script and dialogue become prone to a dangerous symptom which plague many sequels, be them from Hollywood, Toho studios or anywhere else in the world: self-reference. Now, when done well, self-referential humour can be funny and entertaining, but in those instances when it is handled adequately, which it mostly is here, I can never help but feel as though the script is running thin on ideas. There is a moment in the movie when the young samurai are entrenched in an argument Sanjuro’s fidelity (minutes ago he walked out of the room saying he was going for a job application with Muroto’s crew). We in the audience know perfectly well that the hero is infiltrating the enemy’s midst in the hopes of giving his side the advantage, but the band members back home bicker to no end about Sanjuro’s nature, attitude, and the potential for him to actually abandon them or help them in the end. At this point, even though some of what is said is funny and had me chuckling, it still felt as if the script was copping out, if only the tiniest bit. There are a few other instances of this type of humour and dialogue where characters will discuss and comment on the man that is Sanjuro, and while I love the guy to death, I liked the quieter, more mysterious aura about him in the previous movie that nobody dared question.

And there we have it. A Kurosawa movie that did not entirely satisfy me. That being said, I want to reiterate the point that, overall, Sanjuro is well made and ultimately an enjoyable entry into the samurai genre. Think of it this way: a B- Kurosawa film is superior to 80% of action films I’d award with a B- or even a B. Nonetheless, it’s still a B- Kurosawa film.

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