At the Brattle through Saturday
Akira Kurosawa's Sanjuro might disappoint you if you are expecting a movie on the order of his Rashomon, The Seven Samurai, or even perhaps Yojimbo.
It is violent and funny: Toshiro Mifune massacres scores of villains, while having to outthink not only bad men but also the clan of bungling innocents whom he is trying to protect, and who keep spoiling his stratagems in their eagerness. It has most of Kurosawa's stylistic tricks: tangles of shrubbery set between you and the action; shots of different people running, connected by fast cutting; omission or understatement of the climax of a comic episode, leaving you to assume that what was going to happen, happened.
Characteristically, Kurosawa employs, at one point, a series of close-ups of increasing detail to take you some-where--in this case to lead you upstream to the villains' headquarters. He used this trick in Seven Samurai. Three such close-ups introduced the scene of the villagers' conference at the beginning of the movie, till at last you could tell that those really were people squatting in a circle and not a brood of chickens.
Yet Sanjuro lacks the organic character of Kurosawa's best movies. The violence and the comedy are disproportionate to the story, and are never quite integrated in it. This is not to say that Sanjuro is a bad movie. It isn't. But it belongs to a lighter level of entertainment than Rashomon or Seven Samurai. The story-line itself has no less potential that that of Seven Samurai; but here Kurosawa has chosen to keep it exaggerated and farcical rather than to develop it in depth.
Sheer exaggeration provides both the humor and the violence of Sanjuro. You see nine-men-plus-Mifune against a body of God-knows-how-many evil men. Mifune's swordplay in the slaughter scenes is so fake it's scarcely worth suspending your disbelief. Yet you don't think about that when he's slicing through whole screensful of villains. Unfortunately exaggeration is lacking where it most belongs, in the character of "Sanjuro," played by Mifune. He is good chiefly at two things: swaggering around scratching his neck, and jumping up and down hurling insults at his antagonists. Kurosawa doesn't really give him a chance to do enough of the latter, so that his wholesale slaughters of the guilty seem unmotivated, and ultimately gratuitous. At the end of one such massacre, Mifune, apparently horrified or at least angered, blames his proteges for having "forced" him to kill a roomful of men.
It is true that a defense of this gratuitousness could be made; after all, Mifune is cast as another Paladin, a wandering outsider who lends his strength more or less arbitrarily to those who need it. My objection is to the handling of Mifune's relationship with his proteges.
In Seven Samurai and Rashomon, the relationship begins as an equally gratuitous intrusion. Mifune the bandit is a whirlwind of more-than-human vital force, neither good nor evil, which attaches itself to one side of the protagonists' drama.
But in the course of these films, the relationship becomes a personal one. Mifune's amoral force is made either evil or good by the intentions of those whom he joins. In Rashomon, the intrusion of the bandit's passion challenges a stable marriage, casts doubt on each witness's version of the rape scene, and brings about death and disgrace. In Seven Samurai, the outsider joins the mission of the samurai in spite of their rejection of him, and becomes their sustaining force as they fight on behalf of the farmers.
In Sanjuro, no such rapport develops. As a result of Kurosawa's more superficial treatment of his story, Mifune's exertions remain extraneous, and no real moral conflict is ever engaged.
But these objections will not keep you away from Sanjuro, if you are a Kurosawa fan. (If you aren't a Kurosawa fan, it's probably because you haven't seen any of his movies yet. If Sanjuro is your first, these objections can remind you that even better Kurosawa films exist.) Like all of Kurosawa's movies, Sanjuro is worth seeing and re-seeing.