This movie makes more sense if you have already watched Yojimbo because Sanjuro is a worthy follow-up to Yojimbo. Mifune is a drifter samurai who stumbles into yet another village that he can exploit. His task is made easier by the infighting between the rival groups in the village. A well-directed and well-acted movie that continues the hit streak of its director Kurosawa and lead actor Mifune. One of the classics.
He's a nameless, grizzled man who wanders through 1800s Japan. Think Clint Eastwood with a topknot.
And the sequel to Akira Kurosawa's classic "Yojimbo" is very different in tone -- rather than a straightforward grizzled-anti-hero-cleans-up-the-town tale, it's a comic story about the unnamed hero getting stuck on a ship of fools, and having to unravel a small-time political conspiracy. While it's Kurosawa's lightest samurai movie, it's still a solid action/drama flick with plenty of comedy sprinkled in.
A gang of idealistic young nobles are gathered in a decaying house, talking about how they are trying to battle local corruption. Suddenly a scruffy warrior (Toshirô Mifune) who calls himself Sanjûrô Tsubaki (basic translation -- 30-year-old camellia... going on forty), appears and tells them who is lying and who isn't -- and that after confiding in the treacherous superintendant, they're being set up for an ambush.
After he saves their butts and drags the none-too-bright young men into hiding, he begins concocting a plan to save one young man's uncle, who is being held as a political hostage. After rescuing the lord's wife and daughter, Sanjuro and his band of fools continue with their plots to save him from the evil superintendant -- and he teaches his bumbling co-conspirators that exalted social position isn't what keeps you alive...
Kurosawa isn't known for having made goofball comedies -- he tended more towards action and tragedy -- but there's a definite comic flair to "Sanjuro," from the pampered prisoner offering nuggets of wisdom ("Get back in the closet!" one of his captors yells) to the silent "happy dance" that all the young noblemen do. At the same time, there's a poignant note to Sanjuro's regrets about the men he's killed -- including men much like himself.
Even steeped in comedy, Kurosawa's knack for action and vibrant creativity is still intact -- to give the feel that people are running, he shows short, rapid shots of several young men running down different streets. Every action scene is a pared-down, sharp-edged affair, and he juggles the complex plot threads easily. There are a few flaws (a lot of people get cut down without a speck of blood) but these are just minor quirks. And the finale is a shatteringly brutal scene, reminiscent of a western shoot-out, where you almost expect Sanjuro to put on a white cowboy hat and spit.
Mifune is wonderful as the grubby, grumpy samurai who is like an "unsheathed blade," and who has more brains than his little gang. He gives the character a lazy, languid air, sort of like an unexploded land mine. His followers are well-acted, though they don't have much individual personality -- think the best buddies of Bertie Wooster, except with topknots and katanas. And small supporting roles -- like the kindly, prim noblewoman and the friendly prisoner in his little closet -- are very well-drawn.
As for the Criterion blu-ray edition, it has pretty much the same extras as the original DVD edition: improved subtitling, a behind-the-scenes stills gallery, theatrical trailer and teaser, an audio commentary track by a Kurosawa scholar named Stephen Prince, and a half-hour excerpt from "Akira Kurosawa: It Is Wonderful to Create" about "Sanjuro."
Lurking under the comic flourishes is an intelligent film with likable characters, solid writing, and plenty of action. "Sanjuro" is as good as the film before it, though in a slightly different way.