“It’s hard to explain. A strange series of events made him our ally.”
Akira Kurosawa probly had no idea when he made SANJURO that he was doing a sequel to one of the greatest movies in all of Badass Cinema. He just wanted to have some fun doing another small, funny samurai story with Toshiro Mifune’s character from YOJIMBO. This time the itchy wandering ronin (calling himself Sanjuro, another name made up on the fly) falls in with nine young, idealistic samurai who have discovered corruption in their clan. They want to do the right thing but they’re kinda dumb and inexperienced and he’s an incomparable swordsman and strategist, so he finds himself advising them, assigns himself to their most dangerous tasks and takes on the army and government mostly on his own.
What makes this a classic is not just how capable he is in his mission, but the hilarious casualness he achieves it with. First there’s the way he gets involved in this plot: the nine samurai are having a secret meeting in a barn but have not bothered to look and find out that there’s a flea-ridden vagabond ronin sleeping in the back room. He wakes up, interrupts their conversation and tells them that from what he overheard he thinks they have it backwards about which official is corrupt. It’s not the one guy’s uncle, the chamberlain, it’s the superintendent who they trusted. And what’s more he says the superintendent must’ve told them to get all their men together for this meeting so he could get them all in one place and squash the whole rebellion at once. They’re stilling going “Who the fuck is this guy?” when he goes outside and in fact is surrounded by the army who are there to squash them. He yells at the army for waking him up and fights off enough of them that they back off (and offer him a job).
He doesn’t have a dog in this fight, he’s just looking for sake and food, but he seems to enjoy getting mixed up in it. He’s always calling the young guys idiots, telling them when their assumptions are wrong (always) and making plans for them. When they don’t listen to him he doesn’t really give a shit and goes along with them to watch them fall on their asses and then stand there looking stupid while he takes over again and fixes things.
You guys know how much I love badass snacking like Bruce Lee eating chips while fighting the guards in THE BIG BOSS or Callahan eating a hot dog while foiling a bank robbery in DIRTY HARRY. But Sanjuro did it first, rudely stuffing his face during important discussions with the samurai. At other times he lays around lazily while they panic. There’s also a montage where they keep running in to update him on enemy movements. Every time he’s napping and looks annoyed or confused why they woke him up. He goes along with what they want to do because “It’s a stupid plan, but some excitement might keep me awake.” It’s also notable that he intentionally chose to use the hideout located next door to one of the bad guys because “that sounds fun.”
Nobody’s sure what to make of him. When they tell him it’s offensive to call the chamberlain’s wife an “old lady” he starts using the phrase more. Some of them question him, think he’ll betray them. When he goes to the superintendent’s security guy Hanbei and pretends to work for him some of them think he switched sides. Maybe they saw the first movie and know he practically invented playing one side against the other. But most of them are smart enough to observe his actions and believe in his sense of honor. Even the chamberlain and his family, who are being kept like prisoners, are in the fan club. They overhear enough to defend him as merely “outspoken and eccentric.”
This is a great sequel that honors the original’s legacy as one of cinema’s all time most badass. The tone is arguably a bit lighter than the first one, but it starts to get more tense as the hole he digs for himself gets deeper. I mean, he seems like he can climb out of any hole, but at a certain point you have to wonder. In this case the certain point is when the young dumbasses follow him and get captured and in order to free them without blowing his cover he has to kill all of the guards, have them tie him up and stay there pretending they got attacked by an army.
Though this is a really funny movie and has some great action, and even a LONE WOLF AND CUB style blood geyser, it ends with a surprisingly effective anti-violence message. (SPOILER) They learn that the uncle truly was trying to solve the corruption problem just like he said he was, and needed to be kind of low key about it for it to work. If they hadn’t gotten involved then Sanjuro wouldn’t have had to slay all those soldiers, the superintendent wouldn’t have committed suicide and Hanbei wouldn’t have had his reputation soiled for the crime of staying loyal, causing him to insist on a duel with Sanjuro (i.e. suicide). For what it’s worth, he told Sanjuro he was well aware of the boss being “rotten” and that it was okay, because he was too. So he wasn’t exactly Jesus. Still, Sanjuro regrets what has happened because “the best sword stays in its sheath.”
VERN has been reviewing movies since 1999 and is the author of the books SEAGALOGY: A STUDY OF THE ASS-KICKING FILMS OF STEVEN SEAGAL, YIPPEE KI-YAY MOVIEGOER!: WRITINGS ON BRUCE WILLIS, BADASS CINEMA AND OTHER IMPORTANT TOPICS and NIKETOWN: A NOVEL. His horror-action novel WORM ON A HOOK will arrive later this year.