Toho was understandably happy with Akira Kurosawa's Yojimbo as it did quite well for them when it was released in 1961 so it's really not such a surprise that they wanted to go back to that well a second time and create a sequel. Kurosawa agreed and after some back and forth as to how to approach the second film, Sanjuro was born a year later in 1962. Cast again in the lead role was the immortal Toshiro Mifune, here playing Sanjuro Tsubaki rather than Sanjuro Kuwabatake (his characters name in the first movie). Tatsuya Nakadai was also back for this second film in a supporting role, and as great as Mifune is, Nakadai's presence always helps a film.
Sanjuro is set in Eighteenth Century where a small group of nine men plan to report the corrupt officials in their clan to a local political officer, Kikui (Masao Shimizu). They soon learn that this was a mistake when it becomes obvious that they man they went to for help has turned against them and sent some of his men out to take care of them. Thankfully a disheveled and quirky ronin named Sanjuro Tsubaki (Toshiro Mifune) shows up just in time to help them out and save their lives.
The plot thickens when their leader's aging uncle, Mutsuta (Yunosuke Ito), is kidnapped and his wife and his daughter are put in jail. The intent behind this is to coerce Mutsuta to write a confession wherein he admits to the being the one responsible for the corruption within the clan. Sanjuro and the nine men set about planning to rescue Mutsuta and his family before things can get any worse, but it can't be that simple...
Sanjuro is a pretty interesting diversion from Yojimbo, which was fairly dark and brooding in tone, style and story. Kurosawa here has eschewed that more serious tone in favor of faster pacing, more action and some really effective comedic bits. As such, the tone is much lighter and if it isn't necessarily 'better' per se, it is more fun. Front and center in all of this is Mifune, who turns in an excellent performance that really manages to stand out in a career that is literally packed with equally excellent performances. Mifuno excels in the role, turning this gruff looking and unlikely hero into a truly noble champion of the people, fighting a corrupt government and seemingly insurmountable odds with very subtle comedic flourishes and that intensity that was his trademark. He proves his merit and importance not through his looks or his posing but by his actions and his deeds and Mifune is truly spectacular in the part and it's a blast to watch the nine young upstarts follow his lead as the film progresses, wrapped up in his character's charisma and inspired by his confidence.
There are more serious aspects to the film that might not be obvious upon first viewing, first and foremost being the central character's inability to get away from war and to live a pedestrian life. There are subtle comments made in this regard throughout the film, but we're never sure that the samurai's life has made him a better or more content person (a prime example being his interactions with women). The emphasis here, however, is on action and entertainment and the film delivers it in very healthy doses indeed. The film spends less time on the set up than its predecessor (the fact that the audience would have already been familiar with the character from the earlier film allows Kurosawa to do this without hurting the picture), because Sanjuro is already established as the heroic type. This lets the film launch head first into the plot and it does just that. At just over an hour and a half it's one of the director's shortest films, and in a lot of ways it's also one of his leanest.
As you'd expect from a Kurosawa picture, the photography is excellent. There aren't any mistakes up there on the screen in terms of composition or style, and the sets and locations used for the film all look fantastic and provide plenty of period detail. Kurosawa's set ups are fascinating in that, with nine samurai and Sanjuro often on the screen at the same time, it can be tricky to tell everyone apart. Wanting to make Mifune's character the central point of the film, there are interesting little tricks used to make his character stand out visually. You'll often see him facing the rest of the group rather than looking with them at something, or he'll be in an entirely different position than the rest. It might sound like a small detail, and it is, but the small details always add up in Kurosawa's movies
Sanjuro arrives on Blu-ray in an excellent 2.35.1 AVC encoded 1080p anamorphic widescreen transfer. The black and white image is incredibly crisp and shows far more detail than was present on the previous standard definition releases that Criterion has released over the years. Clarity is striking while contrast looks to be set properly. Fine detail and texture is always strong, you'll really notice it in the facial close ups where you can make out every little hair and all of the grit on the cast members faces. There aren't any problems with mpeg compression artifacts or edge enhancement and while a welcome and natural coat of grain is evident throughout, there are only the mildest instances of print damage to note. There are a few scenes that look softer than others and there are some instances where you might notice a bit of flickering but Kurosawa fans can rest assured that this is a big step up from the standard definition releases and a completely worthwhile upgrade in the visuals department.
Audio options are supplied in Japanese language DTS-HD 3.0 Master Audio and LPCM Mono with optional subtitles provided in English. Both tracks sound quite good. There's a really tiny bit of background hiss present in some scenes that might notice if you strain to listen for it but aside from that, there isn't much to complain about here. Dialogue is clean and clear and the levels are well balanced. Criterion's subtitles are clean and easy to read and the levels are properly balanced ensuring that as dramatic as the score can get in spots that it never buries the performers. The 3.0 track offers a bit more range and some more dynamics in the mix, spreading things around in the front of your surround system quite nicely. Regardless of which option you prefer, Criterion have done a fine job here, the movie sounds very good.
The strong collection of supplements on this disc start off with a commentary track from film historian and author Stephen Price who penned The Warrior's Camera: The Cinema Of Akira Kurosawa. This track first appeared on the 2006 standard definition DVD release of Sanjuro, but it's a good one and well worth carrying over to this high definition debut. Price, not surprisingly, takes a pretty scholarly approach to the film as he details the production history and provides welcome biographical information on cast and crew alike. He also does a fine job pointing out the key differences between Sanjuro and the earlier Yojimbo and putting the film into context alongside Kurosawa's other pictures. Price also delves into how the film was made, pointing out interesting examples of Kurosawa's technique and commenting on the cinematography and style of the picture as it plays out.
The other impressive extra on this disc (also carried over from the last SD release) is Akira Kurosawa: It's Wonderful To Create, which is a solid half hour featurette that covers the making of Sanjuro in quite a bit of detail. Taken from the Toho documentary on Kurosawa, it contains some excellent interviews not only with the director himself but with Tatsuya Nakadai, Takaso Saito, and a few others who were involved in making the film. Price's commentary covers much of what we learn here in more detail, but this is still quite interesting particularly for the interview bits.
Rounding out the extras on the disc are the film's original theatrical trailer, a short teaser trailer, a still gallery, menus and chapter selection. All of the extras on the disc are presented in high definition. As is the norm with Criterion releases, there is a booklet inside the keepcase containing portions of a piece that Kurosawa wrote in 1999 about the film alongside a few essays on the film, restoration details, film credits and disc production credits.
Some new extras would have been nice but outside of that complaint, this is otherwise a really impressive package. The transfer is excellent as is the audio quality and the movie itself should be considered required viewing. Sanjuro is just great cinema in every way - the film is funny, tense, exciting, gritty, violent and just incredibly well made and acted. Whether you pick this up on its own or as part of the two-pack that Criterion is offering (which also includes Yojimbo), this is one that Kurosawa fans should consider a must own. Highly recommended.
Ian lives in NYC with his wife where he writes for DVD Talk, runs Rock! Shock! Pop!. He likes NYC a lot, even if it is expensive and loud.