In a nutshell, Bored & Dangerous says: “This is a story that could have been so easily tossed off and dismissed for some quickie, genre fun. But Kurosawa turns it into a living, breathing story with very real consequences for its very real people.”
The main reason I started this blog was to make me watch more movies, and to vary the kinds of movies I watched. The first part of that has been well and truly accomplished with me watching hundreds of movies for the first time, instead of falling back on old favourites over and over again. But l’m not sure if I’ve varied my selections enough. I still watch mainly American movies, with directors, writers and actors that make them a pretty safe bet. So this year, I’m forcing myself to seek out more international movies. With Foreign Language Weekends, every weekend(ish) during 2016, I’ll review two(ish) non-English language movies.
“You’re too sharp. That’s your trouble. You’re like a drawn sword. Sharp, naked without a sheath. You cut well. But good swords are kept in their sheaths.”
Martin Scorsese is probably my favourite film maker of all time. I write about him here whenever I get the chance, and my last year of uni was basically just an excuse to write 25,000 words about a handful of his movies. So when Scorsese praises someone, I listen. Of Akira Kurosawa, Marty said, “The term ‘giant’ is used too often to describe artists. But in the case of Akira Kurosawa, we have one of the rare instances where the term fits.” I knew Kurosawa was a serious cinematic heavyweight long before I read this, but Scorsese’s comment was a much delayed boot in the ass to make me watch more of the Japanese master. Which I did, with Sanjuro.
Believing that their Lord Chamberlain (Yunosuke Ito) has indulged in a bit of the ol’ corruption, nine young samurai meet in secret in a shrine after sharing their suspicions with the clan’s Superintendent. Resting in an adjacent room, the masterless Ronin samurai Sanjuro (Toshiro Mifune) overhears their dilemma emerges to let them know what he sees as plainly obvious. It’s not the Chamberlain who’s corrupt, but the Superintendent. A theory proven correct when the Superintendent’s men surround the shrine. Sanjuro hides the samurai and the attackers leave.
Realising that their Lord Chamberlain’s innocence means that he and his family are no doubt next on the Superintendent’s hit list, the samurai enlist Sanjuro to help in their rescue efforts. Finding a local girl who helps plie the bad guys with sake, the samurai quickly rescue the Chancellor’s wife (Takako Irie) and daughter (Reiko Dan), before hiding out in the last place where they will be looking for. Right under the Superintendent’s nose, in the home next door to where his men are based. Now, Sanjuro must help the samurai stay undetected while they figure out the whereabouts of their imprisoned Chamberlain.
With a story so straight forward and well worn, even by 1962 standards, a movie like Sanjuro is going to live or die by its direction and performances. And with Kurasawa guiding this cast, it more than delivers. A lot of the movie is set at night, and Kurasawa knows how to use the contrast of his black and white photography to make the darkness come alive. Shadows aren’t just an incidental, unavoidable nuisance. They’re an important part of the cast and sets.
But none of this technical and visual flare would matter if you didn’t care about the man at the centre of it. And Toshiro Mifune makes sure that Sanjuro is impossible to ignore. His gruff exterior, his dry asides, his justified frustration with the younger samurai that so organically turns into paternal concern. His gradually growing awareness about what it means to be the kind of man that he has become and his changing place in a changing world. In just 90 action filled minutes, there’s so much going on with this character that thinking back, I really can’t believe it is such a short movie.
I’m not sure if it’s just a testament to the universal nature of a great story, or proof of Kurosawa’s long reaching and long lasting influence, but watching Sanjuro made me think about the seamless adaptation of his The Seven Samurai to the American West with The Magnificent Seven. Sanjuro too could so easily make the jump to the wild west. The titular swordsman is the perfect strong, silent type who’s seen it all and can read any bad guy’s thoughts three moves ahead, that with a six shooter and desert background, he could be played perfectly by John Wayne in the 50s, or Clint Eastwood in the 60s.
I know Kurosawa has more famous, more ambitious, more prestigious movies (I didn’t even know this was a Kurosawa joint until his name popped up in the credits), but Sanjuro is no less a reminder of why Scorsese sees him as such a cinematic giant. This is a story that could have been so easily tossed off and dismissed for some quickie, genre fun. But Kurosawa turns it into a living, breathing story with very real consequences for its very real people.