Sanjuro is, as the title suggests, the sequel to the immensely popular Yojimbo. It is, in fact, the only sequel that Kurosawa would ever make.
Kurosawa had written the script for Sanjuro even before he directed Yojimbo, but back then the film was called Peaceful Days and the main character was far different from Sanjuro.
He had planned to pass the project off to Hiromichi Horakawa to direct it but, because of the success of Yojimbo, Kurosawa himself ended up re-writing and then finally directing the picture at Toho's request.
While Sanjuro never got the same acclaim or respect as Yojimbo, it is still another fun adventure tale with one of Kurosawa's most endearing characters.
Sanjuro begins with nine samurai discussing their plan to rid their clan of corruption. What the samurai don't know is that Sanjuro (Toshiro Mifune) is quietly listening in an adjacent room.
After saving the samurai from being killed at their forest outpost, Sanjuro decides to stay on to aide the samurai.
Sanjuro and the other samurai plan to rescue the lead samurai's uncle, a trustworthy official, who has been taken hostage by the two corrupt clan leaders.
Their main opposition, a man named Muroto (Tatsuya Nakadai), does not know Sanjuro is in league with the samurai and attempts to enlists his help in finding and killing them.
Sanjuro eventually earns the trust of the captors and, with the help of the samurai, re-claims the samurai's uncle while at the same time bringing about the end of the corrupt clan rule.
In the end, as Sanjuro is leaving to once again roam the country, he and Muroto duel to the death in one of the most violent climaxes of any Kurosawa film.
Perhaps because of the fact that the film was based off a script that Kurosawa had already written, or maybe for other reasons, Sanjuro is a far less daring picture than its older brother Yojimbo.
While Kurosawa's antihero took far more pleasure in killing in Yojimbo, in Sanjuro his propensity to reach for is sword over using his head is greatly reduced, though when he does use it, he wields it with the same masterful fury as before.
Where in Yojimbo, Sanjuro often kills simply for sport, in Sanjuro he unsheathes his sword only when it is necessary. He even laments at the deaths of the soldiers he had to kill in order to save some of his fellow samurai.
Sanjuro's more peaceful attitude in this film may have something to do with one of it's overarching themes, which is first brought up by the wife of the man the samurai are trying to save, and who they saved themselves.
The woman compares Sanjuro to a glistening sword and tells him that the best sword is kept in its sheath.
These words stay with Sanjuro throughout the film, and are said again by him in the end when he reflects on the death of Muroto.
Sanjuro once again attempts to distance himself from any sort of emotional connection with his compatriots. The characters in this film confirm what was already quite obvious in Yojimbo, which is that Sanjuro's praise comes out as abuse.
Even after all is said and done and Sanjuro has accomplished his task, not only does he not attend a celebration in his honor, he warns his fellow samurai that he will indeed kill them if they attempt to follow him.
Perhaps taking a cue from John Ford's hero in 1956's The Searchers, where Ford's hero leaves his family behind to go out on the road again, Kurosawa does the same with Sanjuro. Both men know they can't function in any sort of ordered society. They cannot be tamed.
Sanjuro and Muroto are the only characters in the film who seem to have much sense at all. Like Sanjuro and Unosuke in Yojimbo, they are the only two who think before they act.
The other samurai are rash and quick to act. Even when Sanjuro saves them several times, they question his loyalty due to his un-samurai-like behavior. He uses foul language, he's lazy and as one samurai points out, he begs for food rather than starve like a traditional samurai.
This all leads back to yet another theme from Yojimbo, that of the conflict between tradition and modernity.
The nine samurai are steadfast in their traditional ways. They sit, speak and act formally. Sanjuro is the modern samurai, roaming from town to town trying to make a living rather than trying to make a name for himself or holding to any sort of code of honor.
Sanjuro knows how to survive in this increasingly modern world, and attempts to impart his wisdom to a bunch of samurai who are often unwilling to listen.
The film itself feels far more like a traditional Japanese jidai-geki (period film) than Yojimbo. Much of the likenesses to the American western in the first film are gone from the second. Gang rivalry is something one might see in any American film, but corruption in the form of feudalism is something truly Japanese.
Indeed, this is again more than likely a result of a re-worked script. If Kurosawa was able to write the film completely from scratch it may have been different.
Another difference between Yojimbo and Sanjuro highlights just how much a movie can change when you are working with a different cinematographer.
Where the photography in Yojimbo was often dynamic and intense, contributing greatly to the film's brilliance, the photography in Sanjuro often feels far tamer.
What the film lacks in visual appeal it more than makes up for in its story.
While many sequels will try to duplicate as much of the same story as the first film, Sanjuro is a completely fresh tale.
Because the film takes fewer risks and the story is more traditional and the film has a far lighter tone than Yojimbo, the film contains far more humorous moments.
Comedy may not be something Kurosawa was noted for, but Yojimbo and Sanjuro certainly show off the lighter side of the director.
He even throws some physical humor in the mix, something especially rare for Kurosawa.
The very end of the film also presents something rarely seen prior to this film, that being the sight of a good amount of blood.
In a fight that seems to last forever, Sanjuro and Muroto stand completely still until they both move to strike at the same moment. Sanjuro bests Muroto with a swift movement of his sword as blood comes rushing out.
Tatsuya Nakadai, the actor who played Muroto, was almost knocked over by the force of the blast.
It is also interesting to note one other experiment Kurosawa attempted, or rather wanted to attempt with this film.
At one point Sanjuro is to signal his fellow samurai by sending camellias down a stream. Despite filming in black and white, Kurosawa wanted to have only the flowers shot in color. Sadly the technology was not perfected in time for Kurosawa to use it, though he would the next year in High and Low.
Sanjuro may lose a lot of respect due to its constant comparisons to Yojimbo, but it still remains a delightful companion and entertaining picture in its own right.