Thursday, November 19, 2015

CRITERION BLOGATHON: SANJURO (1962)



The epic Criterion Blogathon continues from November 16-21 courtesy of our hosts Aaron of Criterion Blues, Kristina of Speakeasy and Ruth of Silver Screenings.

The movies have given us many ideas and images of manly cool through the years. There's Robert Mitchum "Baby, I don't care." cool. There's John Wayne walking out of the desert with that dog by his side in Hondo cool. There's Fred Astaire whose simple stroll is a dreamy dance cool. And then there is Toshiro Mifune cool, particularly, his disreputable looking, wandering ronin. No one else could make the shrug of a shoulder and a cantankerous glare so downright cool. We first met this character in 1961s Yojimbo, in which the roaming samurai brings warring crime factions to heel, inspired by Dashiell Hammett's Red Harvest.


Adding to the character's cool is his status as a loner. This samurai's sword owes allegiance only to his own code. A natural leader of men, he seeks no followers. Seeking solitude and rest in what appears to be an abandoned building, circumstances find our hero saddled with a gang.

A group of nine very earnest and very naive fellows have met to discuss the corruption they can no longer bear. Their concerns have been brought to the chamberlain, Mutsuta, who sympathizes and cautions that things are not always as they appear. Disheartened by that response they consult the slick Superintendent Kikui who agrees to meet with the group to discuss their valid concerns.

The samurai correctly reads the situation in that the chamberlain is the man to trust and the superintendent is bent on wiping out the simple young men. To save his own skin, the samurai saves the would-be rebels thus creating a nine-headed puppy dog that, despite some hot-headed misgivings, are willing to follow him to the ends of the earth.

The head honcho of the superintendent's syndicate is Hanbei Muroto played by Tatsuya Nakadai and he is a formidable samurai the equal of our hero, though certainly more kempt in appearance.  Measuring the skill and character of each other, it is taken for granted that one day they will meet on the field of honour.


The first order of business is to rescue the chamberlain who is by now surely under the control of the wily superintendent. Too late to save the kidnapped politico, the ragtag group rescues instead Mutsuta's wife (Takako Irie) and daughter (Reiko Dan).

If our hero was perturbed by his unlikely and cumbersome crew, he is quietly fuming about the addition of women to watch over. The older lady is a lady, not used to exertion and given to overly polite behavior in inappropriate situations. She's rather like a Gracie Allen plopped in the middle of an action movie. Like Gracie, she may appear scattered upon first glance, but she is a woman of immense sense with an ability to put things, and people, in their proper place. Mrs. Mutsuta likens her rescuer to an unsheathed sword that glistens from too much use.  "I hesitate to say this after you so kindly rescued us, but killing people is a bad habit."

Our ronin cannot help but agree, but a man's gotta do what a man's gotta do. He curbs his natural inclinations and turns the joke on himself when asked his name. Referring to the profusion of camellias in a neighbouring house where the chamberlain is being held, he says his name should mean 30 year old camellia, but he is actually 40. If that is as straight an answer as he will give, that is what Mrs. Mutsuta accepts.




Retrieving the kidnapped chamberlain will put an end to Kikui's plan to use a false confession of corruption to obtain control of the clan. It will also put the kibosh on Chamberlain Muroto's plan to turn on his master. Mutsuto, however, is too shrewd to bow to his captor's wishes and this causes worry and discord among those who would unjustly usurp power.

The game is now one of trickery, false trails and the excessive violence which Mrs. Mutsuto has feared. Would the chamberlain's plan to handle the situation diplomatically have worked without the interference of his nephew and his friends?  Perhaps. Or do the actions of violent, desperate men demand a solution in the same mode?

The master storyteller Akira Kurosawa gives us this grandly entertaining action and character study in a tidy 96 minutes. The terribly beautiful killings and seriousness of the political plot is leavened by some truly enjoyable humour and heart.

The humour springs from character's actions, reactions and attitudes, ably assisted by the musical score. Each instance that reveals depths of character becomes a favourite scene among many. I have a special fondness for the fate of a kidnapped guard who desperately wants to be considered one of our gang and keeps insinuating himself into the group by coming out of his prison in the closet only to be told with affronted looks to return to his proper place.

There is a popular opinion that perfection is never achieved. I disagree with that. I have had a perfect lemon meringue pie, occasionally worn the perfect outfit and have seen more than one movie which I would easily describe as "perfect".  Sanjuro is such a movie where all the ingredients are blended with precision and care to create the lemon meringue pie of samuai stories.




The Criterion Blogathon
Day 1:  Monday, November 16
Day 2:  Tuesday, November 17
Day 3:  Wednesday, November 18
Day 4:  Thursday, November 19
Day 5:  Friday, November 20
Day 6:  Saturday, November 21








16 comments:

  1. I agree, Mifune is just the coolest, have seen many Kurosawa but not this one (yet) have it sitting here and this blogathon is the kick I need to get watching so many of these great films. Thanks so much for being a part of this event and linking back to the posts!

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    1. The number of great films and enthusiastic articles is almost overwhelming. I may need new glasses with all the reading.

      I'm sure you will come to love "Sanjuro". It is just that sort of movie.

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  2. Well now you gotta describe what was the perfect outfit you wore. :-D

    I watched a few Kurosawa flicks back in my video store days, but not many since, and I've definitely never seen this one. Does the movie as a whole reflect on the notion of the proper use of violence?

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    1. I probably should say that my wedding dress was my perfect outfit, but actually, it is a tan trench coat with a red flowered scarf that made me look so "not from my neighbourhood". Also, a couple of caftans from Senegal are nifty.

      Regarding the violence, we see more of how it preys on the ronin's conscience and determines his character. It is not heavy-handed, but quite simply touching.

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  3. I think your phrase "Toshiro Mifune cool" needs to become a new catchphrase. However, before I start throwing it around, I need to watch this film. You've made it sound tantalizing. Where's my credit card?!

    Thanks for joining the blogathon, and thanks for including links to our daily recaps. :)

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    1. You guys are doing a fantastic job with this amazing undertaking. And imagine being in on the ground floor of a new catchphrase. We're cutting edge.

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  4. This is a perfect movie, and I love your insights, especially the "nine-headed puppy dog" line -- so true! Great work!

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    1. Yes! We know perfection when we see it.

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  5. I love this "perfect" film, too. In fact, it's my favorite Kurosawa fan and the first one I show to folks who have never seen his work. At times, it's almost poetic--such as when camelia blossoms float down the creek.

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    1. Truly, the story touches us on so many levels. It wears its heart on its sleeve.

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    2. "Perfect" fits this one to a "T" (which stands for Toshiro, of course!). It's worth a note that Criterion wisely packed both Yojimbo and Sanjuro together for a great double feature that's a must for anyone who wants to dive into two slices of perfection feet first. That and Sergio Leone certainly got a lot of mileage mining Kurosawa's work for material while coming up with his own still stellar western films.

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    3. Mileage indeed! There was a story with legs.

      Criterion truly lives up to the axiom of "giving the people what they want".

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  6. Love your "lemon meringue pie" review of this marvelous film! You use such a great and accurate phrase, of "terribly beautiful killings," to describe Kurosawa's technique with violence. Yet he does manage to leaven the mayhem with some off-the-wall humor taking off on concepts of honor and courtesy (the two exquisitely polite ladies are wonderful). I love Kurosawa's movies but those with Mifune stand out--a "perfect" match of director and actor. Thanks for your great post!

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    1. Thanks.

      Here I will sheepishly admit that for years I would roll my eyes and let my sister's Kurosawa praise go in one ear and out the other (more fool, me). When I finally gave in to the selling job it turned me into a new woman.

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    2. I'm like you, CW -- I never really gave samurai movies a chance, figuring they were all like Bruce Lee martial arts stuff. Guess I'm not very educated about the difference. Well, I am now, and I would like to see this one. A movie called "Samurai Rebellion" got me into the genre, and I saw how important they are to film. Again, you've done a wonderful review.

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    3. Thanks, Becky.

      I used to think these would be "spinach" movies, but they are really "dessert" flicks. I'm always ready for a second helping.

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