A Ragged, Glistening, Unlikely Hero: Sanjuro (1962)

All he wanted was a place where he could spend the night for free.

Unfortunately for the man in question (Toshirô Mifune) — the title character in Akira Kurosawa’s 1962 film Sanjuro — his sleep is interrupted when nine young samurai convene in the building where he decided to bunk down. Concerned about corruption in their clan, the samurai recently wrote up a proposal for eradicating it. One of them, Iori Izaka (Yûzô Kayama), presented this plan to his uncle, Chamberlain Mutsuta (Yûnosuke Itô) — only to have Mutsuta reject their assistance, going so far as to tear up the document itself. An offended Izaka then turned to Superintendent Kikui (Masao Shimizu), who was much more sympathetic. “He thought about it and said, ‘All right. I’m with you. I’d like to talk with your group. Gather all your men quickly,'” Izaka tells the others. The samurai, delighted by this news, are ready to leap into action, but it’s at this point that they hear a half-yawn, half-groan from the next room. “Wait just a minute,” says an unfamiliar voice. The erstwhile slumberer emerges from the darkness, looks around at the startled young men, lets out another yawn and informs them that they have the situation all wrong.

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Naturally, the samurai don’t take kindly to this stranger’s interference. For one thing, he knows nothing about their clan and its issues beyond what he’s just overheard; for another, he’s hardly a prepossessing figure, with his ragged clothing, his scruffy beard and his air of perpetual indolence. Sanjuro is, in fact, a ronin, or masterless samurai, wandering from town to town and trying to get by as best he can. However, as he notes, his outsider status gives him a certain advantage over the others. “‘The spectator sees more than the player.’ He can judge the right course of action,” he says. Unlike the samurai, he thinks the chamberlain is the man they should trust and that they should be wary of Kikui — and as it turns out, he’s absolutely right.

What’s more, he proves to be right again and again as the situation becomes increasingly complicated. Before long, Kikui and his men have kidnapped the chamberlain, his wife (Takako Irie) and his daughter, Chidori (Reiko Dan), and convinced the rest of the clan that the chamberlain and his supporters are the ones not to be trusted. The nine samurai are at a loss as to how they should proceed, but not Sanjuro. “People aren’t what they seem,” the chamberlain told Izaka when he presented the proposal, and that’s quite true of the mysterious ronin. For all of his apparent lethargy, the way he’s constantly yawning or scratching himself or rubbing his neck, he’s a lightning quick thinker. In the battle of wits that ensues between the two sides, he demonstrates a remarkable gift for predicting what Kikui and his men are apt to do next. Even in the rare instances when his plans hit a snag, even when his own life is in danger, he always manages to find new solutions on the spur of the moment.

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It may be, too, that his laid-back personality complements his natural intelligence by preventing him from acting rashly. The samurai are eager to do something — anything — the moment they receive new information, but Sanjuro keeps reining them in, pointing out flaws in their logic. “Aren’t you tired of being stupid yet?” he asks them. In truth, their problem is not so much stupidity as youthful impatience, as well as the fact that the whole affair is deeply personal to them, so their emotions are running high. Sanjuro, outsider that he is, is able to maintain a certain level of detachment. (This independence also makes it easier for him to manipulate the other side, much as he did in Yojimbo, Kurosawa’s 1961 film featuring the same character.)

Yet no matter how indifferent he may appear, he soon becomes just as involved in the matter as anyone else. Annoyed though he is with the samurai and their bumbling, he can’t abandon them, even after he declares, “I’m out of patience. I’ve had enough of you idiots.” In the next scene, he’s still with them, and when one of them says, shortly thereafter, “Live or die, the nine of us are together,” Sanjuro corrects him: “Ten of us.” By this stage of the film, in spite of his insults, he seems to have developed a grudging affection for them, a rather paternal sense of responsibility. Besides, they provide him with food, money and something to do, all of which he needs. “It’s a stupid plan,” he tells the young men at one point when they want to act, “but some excitement might keep me awake.”

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No doubt he takes pleasure in outguessing and outsmarting his adversaries (not to mention the nine samurai), and cleverness isn’t the only asset he gets to put to use. Although his appearance belies it, he’s a master swordsman, more than capable of leaping into action when necessary. Indeed, he’s so skillful that he appears almost superhuman when he’s fighting, never in any serious peril even if he has to take on a dozen or more opponents by himself.

The virtue of this gift is called into question, however, after he rescues the chamberlain’s wife and daughter by slaying several guards. “I hesitate to say this after you so kindly saved us,” the ever-polite wife tells Sanjuro, “but killing people is a bad habit.” He had just contended that it was a necessary evil, yet he looks slightly abashed by her gentle reprimand. She goes on to say that he “glistens too brightly,” explaining, “You’re like a sword without a sheath. You cut well, but the best sword is kept in its sheath.” While he doesn’t give up fighting by any means, it’s clear from this time on that her words have affected him, making him question his violent, kill-or-be-killed lifestyle. He is, he notes, nearing forty; how much longer can he continue like this?

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In one scene, Sanjuro announces to the young men that he’s going to offer his services to Kikui. Some of them trust that this is all part of his plan to help them; others are sure that he’s betraying them for his own profit, which illustrates how difficult it is to get a clear read on him. They begin to argue about him, about whether he’s a “true samurai,” but his behavior has been so inconsistent that the two sides keep canceling each other out: he defeated Kikui’s men, he begged the young samurai for money, he was moved by the chamberlain’s wife’s “purity of soul.” The problem, if it is a problem, is that he doesn’t fit into any mold. “He’s a good man. I don’t care what logic says,” Izaka declares. A good man who survives by killing; a lazy man with razor-sharp wits and reflexes; an irreverent man who does all he can for the people he constantly belittles — Sanjuro is a mass of contradictions and a true original.

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