It didn't take long for Tohshiro Mifune to shamble back onto the screen to repeat his success in the role of Sanjuro. Introduced in 1961's Yojimbo, the cunning ronin returned a year later in Sanjuro, likewise directed and co-written by the unparalleled master of Japanese cinema, Akira Kurosawa. The character's name only becomes more ironic in the sequel, when he again improvises a vegetative moniker in a clumsy attempt to formulate a suitable identity: he's still Sanjuro ("thirty years old"..."going on forty"), but his other namesake is nearby camellia rather than the mulberry bush he spots in Yojimbo.
Rather than simply repeating the successful formula of Yojimbo, which incorporated humor but largely played it straight, Sanjuro flips the script for a largely comic action picture punctuated by a dark, rug-yanking conclusion. This time, the titular masterless samurai cleans up the mess created by the younger generation of a ruling clan, whose misplaced trust leaves them vulnerable to the clan's true enemy. Consistently decrying the young samurai as "idiots," expert strategist Sanjuro seemingly can't help himself from getting involved with the fallout of their political meddling, as the hapless bunch is desperately in need of saving. Upon his chivalrous rescue of a kidnapped mother and daughter from the bad guys, Sanjuro unwittingly wins himself a pesky conscience who advises him, "Please refrain from excessive violence."
Such cheerily counter-intuitive touches make Sanjuro a delight from beginning to almost-end, when Kurosawa takes the story's overt moral—"People aren't what they seem"—and applies it to his own picture. By the end, Mifune's twitchy, itchy ronin has lost his taste for meddling and for murder, but circumstances conspire to put him into an unavoidable standoff. Even at the fast pace by which Sanjuro was made, Kurosawa applies the full force of his cinematic genius, with brilliant widescreen composition that tells the story in visual terms as clear as the verbal ones: at every turn, even when surrounded by dozens of fellow blades, Sanjuro stands alone, damnably conscious of the ironic meeting within him of deadly skill and stealth idealism.
Aside from a touch of telecine wobble and flickering, Sanjuro looks outstanding in its Blu-ray hi-def debut, certainly the best the film has appeared on home video. Contrast and detail are strong, and the picture's film-like appearance isn't affected by its digital transfer, which is blessedly free of the artifacting that plagued earlier releases. As with Yojimbo, we get the choice of Japanese DTS-HD Master Audio 3.0 or Japanese LPCM 1.0; the former is a bit more dynamic by nature, but the original mono track is essential—it's great to have the option.
The bonus features are outstanding, and in keeping with other Kurosawa releases from Criterion. There's a crack scholarly commentary with film historian Stephen Price, author of The Warrior's Camera: The Cinema of Akira Kurosawa, recorded exclusively for the Criterion Collection in 2006. Price gives wall-to-wall critical guidance about the making of the film and Kurosawa's stylistic and thematic approaches to the material.
On most releases, a commentary like that would be the jewel in the bonus-feature crown, but nothing tops the Toho Masterworks series Akira Kurosawa: It is Wonderful to Create (34:48, HD). The Sanjuro entry, like others, gathers clips of Kurosawa and his collaborators, who breathlessly recount the master's brilliance. Along with generous clips and archival photographs, we get fascinating interviews with Kurosawa, actor Tatsuya Nakadai, production designer Yoshiro Muraki, cinematographer Takao Saito, actor Keiju Kobayashi, actor Yoshio Tsuchiya, actor Kunie Tanaka, set decorator Shoji Jinbo, cinematographer Daisaku Kimura, sound effects man Ichiro Minawa, fencing coach Hiroshi Kuze, , and longtime Kurosawa collaborator Teruyo Nogami.
Also here are the film's "Theatrical Trailer" (2:33, HD), the "Teaser" (:26, HD), and a Stills Gallery. Also included is a twenty-page booklet with an essay by film critic Michael Sragow, and transcriptions of interviews with Kurosawa collaborators.
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