Sanjuro 1962 movie

Sanjuro – The Ronin’s path is always full of challenges

When it comes to Akira Kurosawa almost all fans are familiar with Yojimbo, the samurai story that inspired the famous cult film A Fistful of Dollars, but how many remember the 1962 sequel, Sanjuro?

At the end of Yojimbo, we would see our hero, Sanjûrô Tsubaki, leaving the town where he had restored balance, cheerfully slicing all the enemies he had pretended to serve with his katana.

Though scruffy-looking like an everyday aimless wanderer, this man was once one of the most valiant samurai of the Takeda family, but he had abandoned the comforts of the court, disgusted by the cheats and lies of politics.

So today, he is what everyone calls a Ronin, a masterless servant who serves only himself, taking short jobs as a mercenary to pay for his living and his beloved’s sake.

But when he finds himself in an old abandoned house, sleeping in the attic after another hangover, a group of young samurai enter downstairs and set up a secret meeting.

Indeed, some corrupt officials in the government have kidnapped their master and his family to threaten and force him to commit the Seppuku ritual, that is, to commit suicide by piercing himself with his own katana and get rid of the last obstacle between them and total control of the territory.

Sanjûrô must thus return to action, protecting these young samurai when they realize they have stepped into a trap and their enemies have already surrounded the place of their secret meeting.

After rescuing them, the old Ronin realizes that these boys, though loyal and brave, lack the experience to deal with the situation, so he sets out to lead them to find and rescue their master’s family before it is too late.

The lost honor of a forgotten warrior

For my personal liking, with 1962 Sanjuro, Akira Kurosawa surpasses even the great awesomeness of Yojimbo, definitively carving into myth an antihero with a movie full of action and irony, intelligence, adventure, and nostalgia for some aspects of that lost historical period.

Once again, we find the absolute star Toshirô Mifune, one of Akira Kurosawa‘s most treasured longtime collaborators, who repeats and doubles his performance by painting a lonely, sarcastic, and cunning protagonist in confronting opponents, even before the sword, with words and deception.

As clever as this man is, he is equally invincible in the spectacular duels with the Katana, directed and choreographed in the classic theatrical style of the Jidai Geki, ancient historical dramas featuring Samurai.

A style that was later homaged by many other directors, including, for example, George Lucas, who from the Jidai Geki later coined the word Jedi to describe his famous warriors in the Star Wars saga.

Despite the dramatic setting of the era depicted, where politics is just a den of snakes ready to maul each other, Kurosawa maintains a constant irony and romance even during the frantic katana fighting scenes.

On the surface, Sanjuro is a dirty, disrespectful, abrasive man. However, the charm lies not in his words but in the actions that bring out the hero he once was, a shining example of virtue with a deeply rooted code of honor.

From the drunken loner, he is at the beginning, he becomes the leader of this small group of boys in whom he sees himself again: a young samurai to whom disappointment and betrayal have not yet ruined the purity of his soul.

So besides katana duels, the real challenge for them will be to stay true to the code of honor their enemies seem to care about instead.

Lethal swords without scabbards

Not coincidentally, one of Sanjûrô‘s most often repeated phrases is not to be fooled by appearances because “people are never what they seem.”

Of course, this applies to government traitors but also to himself because, to some extent, he is constantly trying to deceive those in front of him and always appears cold and detached, while the deep sense of honor keeps simmering in his being.

Likewise, the style is in Kurosawa‘s direction, immortalized in the timeless black-and-white photography of Takao Saito and Fukuzo Koizumi.

Thus, the great elegance and geometric precision of each setting’s staging provide a striking visual clash to the protagonist’s uncouth appearance, always dirty and with a long beard, especially in the violent duels where katanas dart as fast as lightning in sudden sprays of blood.

The persona of Sanjûrô always stands with great physical power over the nine young samurai who follow him, almost a brood of cubs moving in amusing steps choreographed as a comical dance group, inexperienced yet eager to test the challenge.

To make the idea better, the climax of this exquisite and crude double soul comes when the group rescues the master’s family, where the elderly and wise wife immediately recognizes the old samurai hiding under the worn-out guise of the Ronin.

“You are a sword without a scabbard,” the woman says to Sanjûrô, enshrining the true moral of this resounding 1962 movie is that every man cannot be an island from the rest of the world, but needs a purpose.

In this vein, the leader of the enemy soldiers, played by Tatsuya Nakadai, is just as deadly and adamant in his purpose, going all the way to the inevitable duel, now pointless because his masters have been defeated.

Sanjuro is the perfect sum of all the ideas in Akira Kurosawa‘s cinema, a summary of what this master of cinema loved about his beloved Japan and what he had lost in the soul of progress from the samurai days to something completely different. Because, after all, maybe even today’s Japan could be described as a katana without a scabbard.

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