Directed by Akira Kurosawa
Starring Toshiro Mifune (Sanjuro), Tatsuya Nakadai (Muroto), Keiju Kobayashi (The prisoner), Yuzo Kayama (Iori), Reiko Dan (Chidori), Takako Irie (Mutsuta's wife), Takashi Shimura (Kurofuji), Kamatari Fujiwara (Takebayashi), Masao Shimizu (Kikui), Yunosuke Ito (Chamberlain Mutsuta)
Screenplay by Akira Kurosawa, Ryuzo Kikushima and Hideo Oguni
Music by Masaru Sato
Toho Company, 96 minutes
B&W, 2.35:1 scope ratio
English-subtitled DVD and Blu-ray: Criterion
Yojimbo was such a smash hit that Kurosawa took the unusual step of making a sequel the following year. This wasn't an unprecedented event in his career, since he'd previously filmed a sequel to his directoral debut, Sanshiro Sugata, though that production was reported forced on him by the studio against his wishes. So you could say that Sanjuro was the only sequel ever willingly Kurosawa made. While I recognize that Yojimbo is far more influential and historically significant, I personally think Sanjuro is a better and more entertaining movie. No disrespect.
One notable aspect about Yojimbo is that the Sanjuro character is the only samurai figure in the story – the rest of the cast is made up of gangsters and commoners. The sequel reverses the environment to place Sanjuro in the thick of samurai culture. He remains in the role of the outsider, though, being the lone ronin surrounded by clan retainers and officials. Whereas Yojimbo was an original screenplay, Kurosawa chose to adapt the story for Sanjuro from the Shugoro Yamamoto novel Peaceful Days. Considering how many trademark elements from Yojimbo recur in the sequel, and how Kihachi Okamoto derived the vastly different Kill! from the same source, it's safe to conclude Kurosawa and his screenwriters vastly deviated from the novel.
In this adventure, Sanjuro finds himself in the middle of a clan conspiracy to cover up some unspecified corruption. A group of nine young samurai is plotting to take action against Chamberlain Mutsuta, the uncle of one of the young men, in support of Superintendent Kikui. Sanjuro quickly surmises that Mutsuta is actually the honest man in the scenario and warns the group in time to save them from Kikui's plan to kill them. After Kikui captures Mutsuta and his wife and daughter under false charges, Sanjuro joins forces with the nine samurai to rescue them and lay the blame for crimes against the clan where it belongs.
Sanjuro is thus fundamentally different from its predecessor in that the conflict is not between two evils that Sanjuro plays against each other. This time there's clearly a good side and a bad side, and Sanjuro chooses which to support based on moral judgment rather than mercenary self-interest. But Sanjuro seemed to have a easier time of it when he just hated everybody and handed out equal-opportunity whoop-ass to all. Now we find him in the new position of having to grin and bear it when his allies irritate him, resisting his natural urge to kill them, which results in loads of comedy and drama. The nine naive samurai keep screwing up Sanjuro's plans when they disobey his orders, and they argue amongst themselves about whether this strange ronin should be bossing them around. A running gag has Sanjuro's meals and naptimes interrupted by the nine samurai fretting and running about, when everything would be calm and cool if they'd just listen to him.
In addition to his newfound "disciples," Sanjuro also faces the challenge of to dealing with the wife and daughter of the chamberlain. Freeing the aristocratic ladies from captivity is a tricky feat, with Sanjuro having to offer his back and a footstool for the women to climb over a wall. The wife and daughter are good-hearted rather than being spoiled princesses, which makes it all the funnier to watch Sanjuro cringe under their gentle demands for proper etiquette. The women's input actually turns out to have its advantages at times.
After the chamberlain's wife scolds Sanjuro that "killing is a bad habit," he agrees to hold one of Kikui's men captive instead of whacking him. Played by comic actor Keiju Kobayashi, the prisoner turns out to be a decent, ordinary guy with the misfortune of being on the wrong side, and he becomes a friendly source of information. Like Otis the drunk on The Andy Griffith Show, he freely lets himself in and out of the closet that serves as his holding cell. Kurosawa gave Kobayashi the rare privilege of improvising his lines, and he's absolutely hilarious.
The chamberlain's wife and daughter prove their worth again when they come up with the idea for the memorable signal Sanjuro uses to notify the nine samurai when it's time to attack. Sanjuro first suggests he'll let them know by setting the house on fire, but the women protest such brutality. Instead, they propose throwing camellia flowers in the stream that flows past their hideout. "How beautiful!"
One notable element about Sanjuro is that it's a sequel with several of the same actors returning from the original, but Mifune is the only one playing the same role again. The others were mostly killed in Yojimbo, but Kurosawa enjoyed working with the same troupe of actors from one project to another and had no reluctance to recast them in new roles. Tatsuya Nakadai plays a key rival for Sanjuro once again, though his Muroto isn't nearly as interesting or clever as the memorable Unosuke, and he doesn't have a memorable attribute like Unosuke's gun fetish. We also get the return of Takashi Shimura and Kamatari Fujiwara who played the warring merchants in Yojimbo, this time cast on the same side as the paranoid co-conspirators plotting against the chamberlain.
Though Sanjuro is a very different film from Yojimbo, Kurosawa includes enough callbacks to draw cheers of recognition from audiences hoping for Yojimbo II. Sanjuro reprises his go-to scheme of pretending to side with an enemy when he seeks a job working for Muroto in order to gain inside information. More spectacularly, Sanjuro pulls his old trick of single-handedly slaughtering a group of samurai guards whose side he's pretending to be on, then lying that his "friends" were killed in an outside ambush. In Yojimbo he dispatched six sentries that way – to up the ante in Sanjuro, he wipes out about twenty, at a rate of about one kill per second!
I try not to give away endings and surprises in these commentaries, but you can't talk about Sanjuro without mentioning its most ballyhooed scene: the shocking final duel that gives birth to the burst-fire-hydrant arterial spurts that came to be a cherished chambara tradition. I really think it's unfortunate how that one moment overshadows all the other virtues of this movie in critical analysis, but there's no denying its pure awesomeness. All the crazy, cariologically unfeasible blood geysers overrunning Asian action flicks from the 1970s and beyond can be traced back to this glorious stroke of violent excess by one of cinema's grand auteurs.
As I mentioned, I take the unpopular position of preferring Sanjuro over Yojimbo. For one thing, Sanjuro is a lot easier to understand, and I loved it from the first time I saw it, whereas Yojimbo took me several viewings to crack. Mainly I just think Sanjuro is a hell of a fun movie. It's hilarious and engaging top to bottom, and anytime I want to watch some Kurosawa for pleasure without getting bogged down in deep contemplation, this is the one I reach for.