SANJURO (The Criterion Collection) (Blu-ray)
Based on Shugoro Yamamoto's Peaceful Days, Sanjuro was originally intended to be a straightforward adaptation from a screenplay Akira Kurosawa wrote before he made Yojimbo. However, the success of the latter film, which used Days' idea of two gangs tricked into disposing of each other, caused the studio to want another film in the same vein. Kurosawa rewrote his script, inserted Sanjuro (Toshiro Mifune) into the story, and signed on as the director.
Sanjuro opens with nine young samurai at a temple discussing local, corrupt officials. One of them is the chamberlain's nephew Iori (Yuzo Kayama). He sought his uncle's help but was turned away. He recites their conversation, which provides key information ("people aren't what they seem to be.") yet none in attendance notice. Iori turned to Superintendent Kikui (Masao Shimizu) who suggested they all gather for a meeting. Sanjuro comes out of the temple's shadows and points out Kikui is the real villain and the meeting is a way to gather and get rid of them.
After saving them from the superintendent's men, Sanjuro joins up with the young men and helps them rescue the chamberlain and his family. First, they rescue the chamberlain's wife and daughter. During their escape to safety, the wife appears to not grasp the danger of the situation, and though she appreciates Sanjuro's help, she's doesn't appreciate the actions he took. She refers to him as "a sword without a scabbard". He politely dismisses her but comes around to her way of thinking by the end of the movie, which concludes with a brief yet stunning sword fight.
What is intriguing about this sequel is the differences from the first film. Sanjuro is the same character, although when asked his name he again uses the landscape for his surname. Kuwabatake, meaning "mulberry yield," in Yojimbo; Tsubaki, meaning "camellia tree," here. In Yojimbo, the film opens with Sanjuro walking into town after a random decision made by the flip of a branch. He appears majestic against the mountains. Here, fate finds him and he enters the story by coming in out of the shadows after the young samurai have set up the situation. In Yojimbo he worked alone with some assistance from the tavern owner. In Sanjuro he has to deal with a group of nine younger samurai to complete his mission, which brought to mind John Wayne's The Cowboys (1972). Sanjuro contains more comedy and less violence, reflecting a change in Sanjuro's perspective. The growth in the character and placing him within a different type of story contributes to the creation of a complimentary sequel.
The video is has been given a 1080p/AVC MPEG-4 encode and is presented at a 2.35:1 ratio. The black and white photography looks sharp with strong contrast and clear details. A healthy amount of grain is evident and the image appears artifact free. On occasion some frames exhibit a soft focus and a flickering of light levels occurs, for instance when the palanquins leave the superintendent's. These may be issues with the source. The audio comes in DTS-HD Master Audio Perspecta 3.0 and Linear PCM Mono (uncompressed) arte in Japanese. Dialogue is clear, and combined with Masaru Sato's score, the audio is well balanced and dynamic.
Film historian and Kurosawa scholar Stephen Prince delivers another engaging audio commentary as he speaks about the film. From the Toho Masterworks series Akira Kurosawa: It Is Wonderful to Create, there is a 35-minute feature about the making of Sanjuro. There is also a theatrical trailer, and teaser trailer, a stills gallery of set photos, and liner notes with an essay by Michael Sragow as well as notes by Kurosawa and his collaborators.
Although overshadow by its predecessor, Sanjuro deserves to be explored to see the growth of the main character. It's unfortunate Kurosawa and Mifune didn't find more adventures for the character. Criterion has made Sanjuro available separately and in a set paired with Yojimbo. I suggest picking up the combo pack.