Tsubaki Sanjûrô

Tsubaki SanjûrôSynopsis: Toshiro Mifune swaggers and snarls to brilliant comic effect in Akira Kurosawa’s tightly paced, beautifully composed Sanjuro. In this sly companion piece to Yojimbo, the jaded samurai Sanjuro helps an idealistic group of young warriors weed out their clan’s evil influences, and in the process turns their image of a “proper” samurai on its ear. Less brazen in tone than its predecessor but equally entertaining, this classic character’s return is a masterpiece in its own right.

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Tsubaki Sanjûrô 7.5

eyelights: the plot.
eyesores: the script.

‘Tsubaki Sanjûrô’ is the official sequel to Yôjinbô‘. It wasn’t originally meant to be, being an adaptation of a short story by Shūgorō Yamamoto, but, following the former’s massive success, the studio requested a follow-up and Akira Kurosawa modified the script accordingly.

Our story introduces us to nine young samurai who find themselves caught in a web of corruption. They are torn: the official that they serve has refused to support a petition against corruption, so they now think that he is a dishonourable man. Enter Toshiro Mifune, as Sanjuro, to shed light on the matter, which is when they discover a ploy to taint the Lord Chamberlain, in a bid for power. Sanjuro will help the samurai flush out the conspirators.

‘Tsubaki Sanjûrô’ doesn’t feel like a sequel to me: 1) it has a very different flavour, being as far removed from the original’s Western influences as can be, 2) our hero is played rather differently here, being less manipulative and more consultative, offering his advice to a group of samurai who are in dire need of help.

In this version, Sanjuro is much more blaséd, lacking the spirit he had in his previous adventure. He often just sits around listening to the samurai commiserate, groaning and mocking them. And when he does move around, he seems lethargic. From time to time he springs into action, of course, but he doesn’t give an overall impression of competence.

Honestly, I don’t know Akira Kurosawa’s style very well, not being a film connoisseur in the proper sense, but ‘Tsubaki Sanjûrô’ wouldn’t have felt like a Kurosawa film to me if I had seen it out of context, without any foreknowledge of its connections; there’s a more commercial vibe to it that seems out of place in his works.

For starters, it seems to have been geared towards a more general audience:

– it features what would have been a major star-studded cast at the time.

– it blatantly injects humour into its scenes, sometimes going for “ba-dump-thump” moments that seem totally out of place for a Kurosawa picture.

– the violence has been cleaned up. I don’t recall how violent it got in the previous picture, but there’s not one drop of blood being spilled until the very end. Sure, there are plenty of sword fights to go around, but I was amazed to see that the hits didn’t do any damage – no torn clothing, no blood, nothing. samurai fall left and right, but they could be playing dead (which, let’s face it, is exactly what they are doing). The last kill of the picture though, overcompensates by gushing blood everywhere, leaving a puddle of blood under its victim. Kurosawa had been holding back until then, but for what reason, exactly?

– it is more inclusive of women, something that is out of character for a genre that mostly involves men, given that there were no female samurai. Here, the two women are wiser than most of the men; the older one frequently takes Sanjuro’s side, but also corrects him when he’s wrong. It’s probably a more progressive picture, but it’s also unusual contextually. It may have been done to broaden audience appeal. Of course, it could also be in the original short story. I don’t know.

– the film has a unabashedly moralistic side to it, with the pair of women influencing Sanjuro and the samurai to prevent them killing their opponents. I found it interesting that a samurai movie would have an anti-violence message – one that recurred a few times in the picture. In light of the brutal ending, what was Kurosawa’s intention exactly?

The film’s construction also suggests a laissez-faire attitude that I don’t recall seeing anywhere else in Kurosawa’s oeuvre. Did this happen due to commercial expectations? I wish I knew.

For instance, the introduction of our hero is extremely abrupt and, consequently, awkward. After we are introduced to the nine samurai who are a central part of the picture, briefing each other on the political goings on and trying to decide what their reaction to it will be, we discover that Sanjuro has been in the other room all along, eavesdropping. He just comes in, telling them that they are stupid and explaining to them what is going on beneath the surface.

Seems to me that another gradual entrance like in the previous film would have been preferrable here. Perhaps Sanjuro could have wandered in from a long trek and picked that temple to rest in. Then the samurai would have met there and been found out by him inadvertently. Plus which the audience would have known all along that they weren’t alone. This would have been more appropriate to me; at least it would have explained the context more.

Speaking of construction, there are errors in logic in the script:

– Sanjuro kills Hanbei’s henchmen and tells him that he found them there. Hanbei doesn’t even question Sanjuro, a new recruit in his midst, and decides to go off to warn his master in Sanjuro’s stead, given that his master wouldn’t recognize Sanjuro.

Seems to me that, if there actually were assassins killing off his men, Hanbei would avoid walking off by himself; if they can kill three of his men, they can surely kill him. Secondly, he doesn’t try to find the assassins, even though his henchmen were murdered but a minute ago. Instead, he leaves Sanjuro (again, a newbie), in charge of his men. Um, no.

– Sanjuro gets captured and is left behind with a few officials and tricks them into sending his samurai friends a signal to attack. It may have been contrived for comedic purposes, but I simply couldn’t buy into it; there was absolutely no way that it made sense to say that the samurai would attack unless he sends a signal and then tells the officials that there are two signals, one for attacking and one to cancel the attack, but that they would attack if there’s no signal. Say what?!!! It’s totally ridiculous, and those officials would have to be idiots to fall for it. Um… which they did.

So all this puts me in the position of not recognizing Kurosawa. The films that I’ve seen simply are not commercial, and are constructed properly from start to finish. He may have been having a little fun with this particular effort but it feels sloppy and out of character to me. I’m sure someone who knows Kurosawa’s oeuvre more would say otherwise, but this is my impression.

All this to say that ‘Tsubaki Sanjûrô’ doesn’t feel like a proper sequel to ‘Yôjinbô’; it doesn’t even follow-up the action of the previous film in any way, for goodness’ sake! Thankfully, Sergio Leone went a different route with his sequel to his version of ‘Yôjinbô’, putting out what I think is the greatest of his own series.

Having said this, this is a decent samurai film. I enjoyed it. But it’s a fluff piece. Anyone expecting the style and cleverness of ‘Yôjinbô’, and anyone expecting something of the caliber of ‘Rashōmon’ and ‘Shichinin no Samurai’, would be seriously disappointed. It’s a fun samurai picture, but Kurosawa’s done far better.

Date of viewing: May 6, 2013

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