Although Akira Kurosawa set the template for spaghetti westerns and modern action movies with his groundbreaking Yojimbo (1961), his 1962 sequel Sanjuro is arguably a wittier, more subtly subversive work. This time around the roving ronin who calls himself Sanjuro (Toshirô Mifune) comes to the aid of nine young samurai led by the idealistic Iori (Yuzo Kayama) whose lord chamberlain has been overthrown and kidnapped by duplicitious Superintendent Kikui (Masao Shimizu) and his co-conspirators. After helping to rescue the chamberlain’s wife (Takako Irie) and daughter (Reiko Dan), Sanjuro hatches a plan to outfox the outnumbering enemy, matching wits with the menacing Muroto (Tatsuya Nakadai).
Kurosawa’s jidai-geki or historical dramas routinely served as allegorical vehicles for his political and humanist concerns. Whilst such socio-political commentary seemed slightly muted in the robust, no-nonsense Yojimbo, its sequel puts these themes centre-stage. The well-meaning, but headstrong young samurai are the cinematic counterparts of a generation of idealistic but directionless Japanese students then rioting on the streets of early sixties Tokyo. Having lived through the trauma of the second world war as wrought by the imperial government, Kurosawa knew well the dangers of unwavering self-righteousness unless tempered with compassion. And so he throws Sanjuro, an iconoclast in a world of conformists, into this combustible situation.
Sanjuro, who might as well be the samurai with no name since he makes this moniker up on the spot after glimpsing “thirty camelias”, has two defining characteristics. He is unpredictable and outspoken, something frowned on in Japanese society. Surly, uncouth and seemingly amoral, his behaviour perplexes the young samurai but he gradually earns their respect, not only through his formidable sword skills but more crucially through his wisdom and insight into human nature. Like any great teacher, he challenges his students. Makes them think and question their own moral certainties. Not that Sanjuro is above learning a lesson or two himself. Humorous complications arise in the battle scenes after the chamberlain’s overly genteel wife and daughter insist our samurai heroes avoid lethal violence wherever possible. At first Kurosawa presents these women as comically naive, but gradually both Sanjuro and the viewer come to realise the wisdom in their words about the futility of violence. People continually throw their lives away through reckless action when a more measured approach could achieve the same aim. Rather than violence, Sanjuro outwits his episodes in a string of humourous episodes.
More broadly comic than its predecessor, the film includes several laugh-out-loud gags such as when the samurai are so overjoyed they spontaneously dance to the anachronistic jazz score (another riveting soundtrack by Masaru Sato) or the constant reappearance of their captive prisoner who happily sides with Sanjuro. Despite the anti-violence message, the swordfights are more plentiful this time around and twice as energetic. Toshirô Mifune commands the screen as no other chanbara film actor has done since, while fans of Godzilla movies can look out for kaiju eiga stalwarts Akira Kubo, Yoshio Tsuchiya and Kunie Tanaka among the young samurai. After playing things light and breezy over the preceding eighty minutes, Kurosawa concludes the film with a literal explosion of bloodshed that is both startlingly visceral yet laced with a profound undertone of humanity. Only he could pull that off. Mifune revived the role without Kurosawa’s input in Zatoichi meets Yojimbo (1969) and again with Ambush (1970).
Japanese director and writer, and one of the most important figures in 20th century cinema. Kurosawa was greatly influenced by Hollywood - John Ford being his idol - but more than any other film-maker was responsible for introducing Japanese films to West. He originally trained as an artist and worked as a studio scriptwriter, before directing his first film in 1943, the martial arts drama Judo Saga. Kurosawa's next few films were made during World War II and had to adhere to strict state guidelines; it was 1948's gangster movie Drunken Angel that first saw the director's emerging personal vision, and was his first film to star regular leading man Toshirô Mifune.
Rashomon was the film that brought Kurosawa acclaim in the West, winning top prize at the Venice Film Festival in 1951, and a string of classics followed - Throne of Blood, The Hidden Fortress, Yojimbo, Seven Samurai - all set in Feudal Japan and combining incredible cinematography and thrilling action with humour, sadness and deep insights into human behaviour. The director also turned in some superb non-period film around this time too, such as the thrillers The Bad Sleep Well and High and Low.
The following decade proved a frustrating one for Kurosawa, as he struggled to get projects off the ground, culminating with the box office failure of Dodesukaden and a suicide attempt in 1970. The director's fortunes turned when 1975's Russian epic Dersu Uzala won the Best Foreign Language Oscar, while his next two films were among his very best - the beautifully shot Kagemusha and 1985's spectacular, hugely successful King Lear adaptation, Ran. Kurosawa's final films were smaller and more personal - Dreams, Rhapsody in August and Not Yet. He died of a stroke in 1998, aged 88.