I’ve long admired Akira Kurosawa for his skill at combining so many of the elements of filmmaking into a cohesive and compelling whole. His photography is top-notch, as each scene is painstakingly situated. I am often struck by how he frames his shots, placing characters in relation to one another, using the foreground and background to reveal things even as the scene progresses, and returning to certain shots throughout a film for one reason or another. Also, I admire his use of music, his dramatic sense, the suspense in many of his films, the detailed characterizations, and even some laughter in certain films.
None have made me laugh though, as long and loudly as Sanjuro, which I finally caught up with recently. Toshiro Mifune is a known commodity, of course, and I figured that in the spirit of the earlier, Yojimbo, that the film would elicit some chuckles. How surprised I was then, with the portrayal in this film of the unnamed samurai played by Mifune. The most obvious is the sarcasm, which comes out from Mifune’s “Sanjuro” with regularity. But comic moments arise with the hostage, with the nine inept swordsmen, with the city officials, and even with the key villain, Muroto, whose forehead appears larger and more pronounced than anyone in the film. Of course, why wouldn’t it be, since he is known as “the brain” of the operation? The level of irony here is almost stifling, as Kurosawa pushes the conventions of the genre. It seems as if he’s poking fun at what his partnership with Mifune is based on. No doubt, the public had expectations, when such a popular team worked together and Kurosawa seems to be intentionally subverting those expectations. Yet he does so in such a brilliant manner, than one cannot help but appreciate the craft on display.
This irony climaxes in the final exchange, as the two swordsmen face off. The audience has no doubt had their fun, yet now, our hero is met with a master, and we fear for him. As they face off, many seconds pass without action, and then it is over quickly, but not without a last jab at convention – the dying man spews blood at an inhuman rate. It is clearly overdone, and yet, even through the irony, a moral weightiness lingers in that final scene. As the samurai walks away from the battle, he is clearly tired of the killing and recognizes the deep flaw in himself to constantly finish disputes with his sword. Yet he is a samurai, a man who lives by the sword, and it’s almost as if he is doomed to that fate, a wandering, sword-fighting existence. So in the midst of the comedy, we are left with the sobering reality of this character. What a great tension that is.