Monday, April 10, 2006

#53: Sanjuro

Sanjuro, 1962, directed by Akira Kurosawa, screenplay by Ryuzo Kikushima, Akira Kurosawa, and Hideo Oguni, from the novel Peaceful Days, by Shugoro Yamamoto.

I don't envy anyone who works in film marketing. Most companies have years to build up a customer base and a brand. But a studio might sell fifteen different movies in a year, and the marketing department has to build an audience out of nothing for all of them. It's no wonder that sequels are popular with studios; most of the marketing work is already done for them. Since an audience that has some familiarity with the original film knows pretty much what they can expect from the sequel, advertising campaigns have less work to do. So it's rare that a sequel varies much in tone from the original movie; it's counterproductive. (For a recent example of why this is a bad idea, take a look at Son of the Mask). Sanjuro, the sequel to Yojimbo, is an exception to this rule. Yojimbo is a dark comedy; it has its moments of levity but you can still see its roots in hard-boiled fiction. Sanjuro, on the other hand, is nearly a straight comedy. The difference in tone comes from the fact that the sequel is an adaptation of a novel that had nothing to do with the original. Kurosawa had been working on an adaptation of Peaceful Days when Yojimbo succeeded—at the studio's request, he rewrote it with the Sanjuro character from Yojimbo at its center. It was released only eight months after the original; I don't know when the decision to make a sequel was made, but this must have been a very fast production. So it's not too surprising that some of the seams show.

The marketing department aren't the only people who can take shortcuts in the sequel. Because the audience already knows the characters (or in this case, the character), the filmmakers can spend less time on exposition. I wrote earlier about how the opening credits of Yojimbo go out of their way to impress viewers with Sanjuro's heroic stature. Kurosawa needed to do this work because for most of the rest of the movie, Sanjuro doesn't seem particularly heroic. In Sanjuro, however, the audience already knows Mifune's character, and is waiting for him to show up. So the movie opens in a way that would have been suicide if this were the first in the series: with a lengthy conversation, without context, between nine samurai about their local government's corruption. Four dull minutes later, Mifune swaggers out of the shadows behind them. The effect is something like a recurring character on a sitcom entering to canned audience applause.

In Yojimbo, a large part of the suspense was waiting for Sanjuro to start acting like a hero. In the sequel, Kurosawa doesn't spend any time on this; the movie opens with Sanjuro saving the life of the nine hapless samurais he's overheard. And when I say "hapless," I mean it:

They don't exactly project an air of competence. For the rest of the movie, Sanjuro does his best to keep these guys alive, despite their almost limitless ability to screw up. Where the comedy in Yojimbo came from Sanjuro's ruthlessness, Sanjuro depends on the physical humor that comes from these nine stooges. They move and react as a group, and a great deal of the movie's appeal rests on Sanjuro's reaction to their incompetence. That reaction is pretty well encapsulated in the following still, from their first surveillance mission:

Yes: they seem to cause him physical pain. Depending on whether you believe the subtitles in the film itself or in the trailer, he's either telling them that they can't walk around like a centipede, or criticizing them for following him like dung follows a goldfish. Either way, he's not happy. Another highlight is a mini-montage of Sanjuro trying to sleep while the samurai keep giving each other updates on the movements of their enemies. There are a lot of great reaction shots of ToshirĂ´ Mifune looking unhappy to have been awakened, but here's one of the best:

There's something about a hero that's not a morning person that's immediately appealing to me. At the end of that sequence, the samurai come up with a half-baked plan to capture their enemies; Sanjuro's response ("Not a good idea. But it may keep me awake.") is for the ages.

Sanjuro isn't just different in tone and structure from Yojimbo. In Yojimbo, Sanjuro is a little morally better than the men he is killing, but they all seem to operate from more or less the same position of ruthlessness. In Sanjuro, in contrast, the nine hapless samurai are very good at observing the formalities of honor, which is continually compared unfavorably to Sanjuro's slovenly appearance and rude behavior. Also, Sanjuro looks at least a little bit at the psychological cost the main character pays for his status as outcast. Here's Sanjuro's reaction to a group of prostitutes dancing from Yojimbo:

A still doesn't capture it, but alarm and distaste both come to mind. Compare that to the longing and curiosity he displays in Sanjuro, observing two women laughing with each other:

There's real pain there. What's more, in Sanjuro, Mifune's character genuinely regrets killing when he doesn't have to; he's furious when the incompetence of the samurai he's protecting means he has to slaughter a room full of guards (and the killing itself is treated differently—he's shown chasing down men hiding behind doors and whimpering). Compare that to the man who kills three gamblers without provocation as sort of a job interview in the first movie.

Strangely, most people seem to write about Sanjuro as though it were psychologically less interesting than Yojimbo. As best as I can tell, this stems from two things. First, the minor characters in Yojimbo are all morally compromised, whereas in Sanjuro there are several characters who are trying to do the right thing. But to this I would argue that all the characters except for Sanjuro himself are cartoons, in both films. So the movie where he has some doubts and regrets about the path he's chosen seems realer to me.

The second reason is something that has always driven me slightly mad about film criticism: the closer a movie is to a comedy, the less likely it is that critics will allow that it has anything of value to say about the human condition. Sanjuro is more lighthearted than Yojimbo; ergo Yojimbo is the better movie. To paraphrase Martin Amis, if a movie isn't funny, it must be serious. This has always struck me as ludicrous, but I can find no other explanation for people who believe that Crash is a more insightful movie than The 40-Year-Old Virgin. The difference between Sanjuro and Yojimbo isn't that great, of course. And Sanjuro has its own problems—the structure is just kind of one-thing-after-another, the nine samurai are completely indistinguishable, it's hard to keep track of the plots and counterplots. But Mifune's character seems more complicated and interesting to me in this film than in Yojimbo. And you can't ask much more from a quickie sequel.

Randoms:

  • As you can imagine, having nine samurai (ten, counting Sanjuro) on screen simultaneously poses unique problems of composition. Kurosawa always sets Sanjuro apart from the others; look how immediately your eye is drawn to Mifune in this shot, for example, just by making him face the other direction:

    You can also get a since from this shot of just how indistinguishable the nine samurai are; it's interesting to compare this to Seven Samurai, where Kurosawa makes a large group of characters unique and distinguishable. Of course, he takes two hours longer to do this, and the Sanjuro movies are really unconcerned with characters other than Sanjuro himself. In any event, if you're a cinematographer looking for unique ways to draw the eye to one person in a large group, this movie is worth studying carefully.

  • Given how important composition is in this film, it's incomprehensible to me why Criterion would crop the image. But they did. If you look at the still above where Mifune is followed by the other nine samurai in a line, you can see that part of his face is missing, and only eight of the other samurai are visible. I'm not certain that the ninth samurai is actually in the shot, but I am quite sure that they've botched the transfer. For one thing, the aspect ratio comes out to about 2.08:1, not 2.35:1. For another, take a look at these opening titles:

    I'm no expert in Kanji but it looks to me like parts of the image on the left and right are missing (the missing image on top and bottom is my own cropping error; black titles + black letterboxing = mistakes!). Of course, at the time they did the transfer, apparently the only available version was fullscreen, so it's definitely an improvement. But here's hoping Criterion redoes this transfer at some point in the future. (Update: They did).

  • And while I'm complaining about the quality of the DVD, its technical specs list it as Dolby Digital Mono, while the trailer promises "Perspecta Stereophonic Sound."

    Which is it, mono or stereo? (Update: It turns out it was a little of both. Perspecta was a mono-to-simulated-stereo system that went out of use in the states by 1957. You can read more about it here).

  • The trailer bears one earmark of a quickly thrown-together sequel: production footage instead of actual footage from the film. This would probably have been done when scenes had not yet been edited. I believe Kurosawa is the man in sunglasses in this shot.

    The crew's clothing is a little jarring behind the samurai garb in the foreground.

  • I won't spoil the surprise with a still, but watch for a shot of spurting blood that makes Tokyo Drifter look understated. Actually, it makes Dead Alive look understated.

  • Adapting a previously-written script to become a sequel is not as rare as you might imagine. The most recent example (which I have not seen) is Saw II, which was a script that had been turned down all over town for being too much like Saw, until the Monday after Saw opened. A few drafts later they were ready to shoot... and cinematic history was made!

7 comments:

Jeff said...

The bastard who got hired to direct Saw II based on his Saw-ripoff script has since been hired to direct Saw III.
Chew on that.

The Dave said...

Criterion is working on a new edition of Sanjuro scheduled to be released later this year (along with Yojimbo and Seven Samurai). They've been pretty adamant about not admitting they crop edges occasionally which you'll only see more of as you go through the collection. They will hopefully fix the "non-existant" edge cropping on this one with the rerelease.

Anonymous said...

You might want to move Kill! up in your queue, as it's an adaptation of the same novel as Sanjuro, with Tatsuya Nakadai in the Mifune role. It was quite instructive to see them within a few days of each other at the Balboa (SF)'s chambara series last winter.

Matthew Dessem said...

Jeff,

I was counting on selling my Slither rip-off script, but after this weekend I guess it won't happen.

The Dave,

That's something to look forward to--their versions of Yojimbo and Sanjuro have no extras at all, and all three would benefit from a correct transfer, presumably anamorphic. I don't know how they could deny they've cropped the film, though, given the cut off credits.

Anonymous,

Odds are I'll just rewatch Sanjuro when I get to Kill!. Is the tone similar to Kurosawa's version?

Anonymous said...

It's comic, but the humor's got both a blacker and a more genre-deconstructive edge to it ... one of the interesting things is the approach to the adaptation; it's a much different edit of the novel's plot, and Kurosawa's Sanjuro is actually a blending of two characters in the novel (and Kill!).

The Dave said...

I don't know if they've specifically denied edge cropping with Sajuro. When edge cropping comes up, they have a pretty standard response that is something along the lines of "I don't know what you're talking about." You'll notice some more edge cropping as you go through the collection. Sanjuro is one of the most notable.

I'd also recommend Kill! But, I'd recommend all of Criterion's samurai films.

Matthew Dessem said...

Anonymous,

Looking forward to Kill!

The Dave,

Apparently the rerelease of Yojimbo and Sanjuro have complete transfers. As well as a soundtrack that preserves "the original Perspecta simulated-stereo effects." So I'll have to go back and watch the new version, probably about the time I see Kill!.