A cynical warrior helps an idealistic group of young nobles vanquish evil in a light hearted samurai romp. Mifune revisits Yojimbo’s hero, Sanjuro, whose scruffiness contrasts satirically with the elegant manners of the elite who desperately need his protection.
Japan, like the US, is a great consumer of genre films. Similarly, popular art is considered to be low class, in comparison to more serious works, and the samurai film, and the yakuza (gangster) film are in the bottom cultural rung of popular films in Japan. Kurosawa, who began his career as a journeyman maker of genre films, “is, like (John) Ford or (Howard) Hawks, a great filmmaker not because he can turn a classic literature into a great film, but becase he can take a routine and highly codified formula story and turn that into a work of art” (Desser 7)
The Samurai film is often compared to the Western, and not just because of the cross fertilization of ideas. “The obvious similarities of being set in the past, having armed heroes who protect the weak or who seek bloody revenge and the subscription to a codified set of behavioral norms like “the code of the West” of the code of “Bushido” give the two forms an obvious affinity” (Dessen 14). The landscape is also an important touchstone, but is used in different ways. In Kurosawa’s samurai films, the landscape is often viewed with nostalgia, as changing culture forced the warrior class into mainstream culture, symbolizing the industrialization of Japan. In the classic American Western, the frontier was presented as boundless opportunity, although the revisionist Western observes the conclusion of the endless opportunity for colonization (and extermination) as the end of an era.
Yojimbo outgrossed the Seven Samurai. The character of Sanjuro, the Yojimbo (bodyguard) was so popular, Mifune would revive him, or his variants, in many non-Kurosawa films. Just as the earlier film was remade in Hollywood as The Magnificent Seven, and then went on to be imitated around the globe, so Yojimbo was reborn as Sergio Leone's A Fistful of Dollars, the film that made Clint Eastwood a star. It was also greatly influential in Japan, where its cheeky reworking of the traditional chambara or sword film begat many successors. The character Toshiro Mifune created took on mythic proportions; disreputable, but still moral. “Shrugging and scratching myself were my own ideas,” Mifune said. “I used these mannerisms to express the unemployed samurai, penniless, wearing dirty (kimono). Sometimes, this kind of man felt lonely, and these mannerisms characterize the loneliness” (Galbraith 304).
Mifune was fêted for his performance in Yojimbo, but resented his career always being linked with Kurosawa. The same year as that film, he made a film in Mexico, An Important Man, which won many international prizes, including being nominated for a Best Foreign Film Oscar. While accepting an acting award in Berlin for Yojimbo, he couldn’t resist pointing out that not every great performance of his was in a film directed by Akira Kurosawa.
In fact, the next year he starred in an Arabian Nights mash-up called Samurai Pirate. Picked up and dubbed by drive-in kings American International Pictures, and retitled The Lost World of Sinbad many Americans who never saw Mifune in his classic Japanese films would cheer for him as a shipwrecked swashbuckler from the comfort of their cars.
Sanjuro was not supposed to be a Kurosawa film, although he had been developing the script for use by one of his assistant directors. In Japan, unlike Hollywood, being an assistant director is a pathway to being a director, oneself. The studio, Toho, preferred that Kurosawa direct the film, himself, based on a story called “A Break in the Tranquility” by Shugoro Yamamoto. Although written before Yojimbo, and featuring a hero who used his brain more than his brawn, it was rewritten to suit the popular and profitable character from Kurosawa’s previous film. It was specifically designed as a satire of the traditional samurai films that Japanese studios turned out by the truckload. The heroic, handsome young samurai are not the heroes of the film, as they would be in standard jidai-geki, instead, they must defer to their, at first, unprepossessing rival.
“All the clichés are here: the notes, the signals, the good side, the bad side, the needless sword fights, the fortuitous stream. They are used because the boy scout samurai are stupid enough to use them. When the boys, bustle about making plans, they are really making up jidai-geki plots. Nothing is too unlikely for them to believe, no idea to lavish for them to entertain. Since they obviously believe in jidai-geki, they hoist their skirts, pull their sleeves, ready their swords, and are then dumbfounded when nothing turns out the way they had expected” (Richie 160). It was Kurosawa’s way of disdaining the empty gestures taken for bushido (the way of the warrior) in contemporary Japanese culture.
As far as Japanese audiences were concerned, the big star of the film was not necessarily Mifune, already considered part of an older generation, but hot young leading man Yuzo Kayama, who plays the leader of the inept young samurai. The same year he not only starred in an epic version of the 47 Ronin legend, Chushingura, but made the first of a long series of “Young Guy” movies, in which he starred as a wholesome college student/pop singer/sportsman and teenage girl catnip. These escapist films were romances and travelogues, and young Japanese men sought to emulate him much they way they admired James Bond, whose greatest success, outside of the US, was in Japan. His pop star success was comfortingly middle of the road, on You Tube he plays what we would call surf guitar (he wears a coat and tie) more Frankie Avalon than Mick Jagger, but clearly of a youthful generation.
The film was shot mostly in sequence, with sets built at the studio, which made the production run smoothly, and shooting was completed in three months. Kurosawa had fun making it, and perhaps that shows on screen. It was both a box office and critical success in Japan, and was reviewed more positively than many of Kurosawa’s films in America. The Variety critic praised Mifune’s interpretation, “The character is also very human—especially in his appreciation of little things such as sake, sleep and money. In short, a well rounded figure, physically epic, mentally agile, emotionally normal—a kind of cross between Robin Hood and a typical Humphrey Bogart character” (Galbraith 329-30).
Mifune, in his early 40s, was somewhat taxed by the strenuous action scenes, all shot under burningly hot lights to facilitate the deep focus photography. “I did a scene where I had to kill 30 people at once. I was young then, but I thought my heart would explode” Mifune said later (Galbraith 306).
After Red Beard (1965) Kurosawa would never work again with the actor he was most identified with. There were many reasons for the break up, not the least of which was Mifune need to make money to support his own studio. The time Kurosawa spent in preparation and shooting was not conducive to becoming wealthy. The split between them had consequences; after his work with Kurosawa, Mifune was simply considered passé, not Japan’s greatest actor, as he was in the west. Kurosawa’s films were popular in Japan, but not so much the films without Mifune. Mifune was celebrated in Europe and America, but not in Japan. In fact, he became even more famous in the US for parts like Lord Toranaga the tv mini-series Shogun with Richard Chamberlain. Mifune spoke no English in the mini series, which is mostly in Japanese, simulating the confusion in which the lead character, John Blackthorne finds himself. Many more people saw him in one night of Shogun than had ever seen his Kurosawa classics.
Sanjuro is a summation of his great samurai films, The Seven Samurai, The Hidden Fortress and Yojimbo. “If Sanjuro is a more gentle comedy than its predessessors, it also has its moments of raucous satire and darkly comic gloom. Like the best of Kurosawa’s films, it is filled with ambivalences, but its formal perfection is unmatched (Desser 106)
Yojimbo places the character Sanjuro in opposition to brutal yazuka thugs and greedy small town functionaries. Sanjuro places the character in the opposite environment, amongst the highly cultured and carefully polite samurai class. “Sanjuro is himself a samurai, of course, but amide the refined ladies, shimmering kimono and formal etiquette, Sanjuro is as out of place as a stray mutt at a blue ribbon dog show” (Galbraith 321).
(Sources include The Emperor and the Wolf by Stuart Galbraith III, Films of Akira Kurosawa by Donald Ritchie, The Samurai Films of Akira Kurosawa by David Desser).