A group of young samurai are gathered at a remote temple in a forest, listening earnestly as their leader bears the news. They have discovered corruption in the clan and sought the aid of an influential official to expose it. The leader informs the band that his uncle, the chamberlain to whom they first appealed, has turned them down but, fortunately, the clan superintendent was more agreeable, enthusiastic in fact, asking them to assemble at once. Hence why they are so fortuitously gathered. Then in strolls our hero, Mifune, from an adjacent room, stretching, scratching his neck, roused from slumber. It’s as if he wandered in there directly out of Yojimbo, having grown weary of that film’s adventures (and he’s still carrying the dead man’s sword that replaced his own).
The boys are defensive, placing hand upon scabbard while Mifune seems blithely unaware. They awakened him and he eavesdropped and now he’s very interested in the tale he has just heard. He offers catechism and counsel, warning the savvy youths of the consequences of their undertaking. The sage swordsman is proved correct; concluding the lesson he proceeds to demonstrate it for just then the superintendent’s coterie of armed men arrive to arrest the conspiring gang. The boys draw their swords but Mifune, quick to reason, has them sheathed knowing a fight would be hopeless. So he hides them beneath the floor boards and prepares his spectacle. Once again Tatsuya Nakadai is on hand to offer the ronin a job.
Sanjûrô is the second and last “sequel” Kurosawa would film, and the only recurring character for Mifune. Of course his persona here would come to define his career—you may recall John Belushi’s parody of the character on Saturday Night Live—with his chin and head scratching swagger. Kurosawa initially wrote the script to be filmed by another director but ultimately decided it best to undertake the filming himself. It turned out to be a wise choice indeed for Sanjûrô must be counted as one of his most immediately gratifying and entertaining films.
A contribution from Kazuo Miyagawa, the cinematographic artist responsible for the gorgeously framed Yojimbo, is absent here, but the team of Fukuzo Koizumi and Takao Saitô proved to be a suitable replacement. Their frame construction is nothing short of immaculate, effortlessly complimenting Kurosawa’s penchant for crowded full-shots (such as Sanjûrô and the several young samurai slithering like a snake through the brush) and creating a sense of space and grandeur from otherwise small and limiting sets. In this film the setting turns in to the city from the despairing, feral desert of Yojimbo, and Kurosawa likewise turns his focus on Mifune’s character inward and beyond the cunning and gruff exterior that dominated the former film.
Sanjûrô is perhaps Kurosawa at his most didactic, though like his other preachy works it isn’t heavy-handed. Indeed it is hardly apparent at all. The ostensible major theme is most succinctly expressed by the lady. The character of the lady (and daughter) seems to offer a counterbalance between Sanjûrô and the young samurai. She is just as naïve as the boys in her own way and is apparently disinterested in the affairs of men. Her existence is an aesthetic and peaceful one. She speaks in bromides: the evident pleasures of sleeping in hay, the beauty of camellias floating downstream. The greatest of these is the advice proffered to the swordsman: “Good swords stay in their sheaths.”
This phrase is completely trite yet, to the ronin, eminently profound. In her naivete she has inadvertently given the swordsman a higher wisdom. He is clearly affected by it, even repeating the phrase in his parting remarks to the samurai at the end of the picture. This piece of wisdom is so vague it is banal; and seemingly not intended for the viewer if one even considers it amidst everything else happening in this film. More importantly, however, is the way this aspect enhances Kurosawa’s grand chambara parody. Her message of peace, of keeping one’s sword as one would keep oneself, is entirely anathema to the genre itself with its typical role being ‘just a good sword fight’.
So it may seem that the nameless sage who’s every word has been instructive has still something to learn, and from a most unlikely source, yet the ronin is nothing if not a living exemplar of the lady’s philosophy. He successfully deflects a potential bloodbath in the opening minutes, and when he later sheds blood it is always a last resort—usually his hand has been forced by the irascible stupidity of his timid underlings. He has to pragmatically trade the lives of a few clansmen to protect the ostensibly weaker conspirators, though it’s not at all apparent that they, mere guards doing their duty, are in any way different from those he cuts. And to call the conspirators his ‘friends’ would be a tremendous stretch. Undoubtedly he has his feelings for them, pity namely, but why them? Why protect them yet sunder an equal measure?
Our only recourse would be to conceive of the alleged wrongdoing of the Superintendent as a sort of generative malice; our hero sees corruption on the one hand, and honesty and nobility on the other (as his opening remarks about the Superintendent and the Chamberlain would indicate). Or more likely, his remarks about the Chamberlain being “a great man” carry greater import than initially guessed. The swordsman sees himself as a great man, an extraordinary one, and is willing to be an agent for the Chamberlain only because he senses these attributes in him too. This interpretation of character also aligns with the ronin’s attitudes in Yojimbo, where it’s determined that he is a gallant man worthy of gambling life and limb on a whim. And like that film, this Sanjûrô has brushed against a world of youth and there are lessons to teach.
Another line of thinking is given finality at the end of the film as the Chamberlain’s words parallel our hero’s dialogue about the Chamberlain in the beginning. The compliment to the above theme, and seemingly the moral that most viewers take away from the film, is an even simpler and rather amusing one: “Don’t judge a sword by its sheath.”