For most all-star directors their more dramatic works receive all the attention while their comedies tend to be poo-pooed by critics and historians. Hitchcock’s lightweight Mr. and Mrs. Smith and The Trouble with Harry pale in comparison to his lauded thrillers. Spielberg made 1941 and Hook; Coppola made Jack. It seems that relatively few revered auteurs are able to do an all-out comedy that measures up to their more serious-minded fare. (The one blatant exception being Howard Hawks, whose His Girl Friday and Bringing Up Baby are as celebrated as any of his more dramatic films.)
In 1960, on completion of Yojimbo, Akira Kurosawa found himself in quite a predicament. He had a few projects he was testing the water for, but Toho Studios was breathing down his neck for a sequel to his ever-popular sword-swinging Western. He eventually relented but, not wanting to do a sequel that simply rehashed the original, he decided to mix things up.
In Sanjuro, the comedic elements sprinkled throughout the previous film are brought to the forefront. Once again our hero is the samurai with no name played by Toshiro Mifune. Last time he went by the handle “30-year old Mulberry Field” (kuwabatake sanjuro); this time he’s optioned for the more pertinent “30-year old Camellia” (tsubaki sanjuro). Where before he was slightly disgruntled, now he’s simply grouchy. He is still a man of minimal tastes: food, sake, gold, and the blessing to slice up a never-ending pantheon of samurai red shirts are all he wants. Oh, and some sleep. It seems that last part he can never get enough of.
Mifune’s performance is key to the success of the piece. Kurosawa was compelled by the use of expressionistic acting in silent films and much of the comedy that takes place is either of the physical or visual variety. There are a few clever sound cues (the Nine’s celebration dance, Sanjuro’s quip about their movement mimicking a centipede/goldfish dung), but most of the laughter comes from simply watching the way the characters’ physically interact with other.
It’s never really clear why Sanjuro decides to help the nine foolish samurai save the Chamberlain, especially as they continue to display massive incompetence and perpetually infuriate him, but perhaps that is because we really can’t understand the man behind the grizzled facade. As the characters’ discuss throughout the film, there are two layers to everything, one that commandeers our initial attention, and one that lies beneath and reveals true character. So it is with Sanjuro the character and the film.
The use of subtle visual/physical elements allows the humor and character elements to be easily interpreted across cultures. A foreign audience does not need to understand the nuances of the spoken language to get the joke and enjoy the film. Mifune’s shoulders tic when he walks, as if he has an itch he can’t scratch, or rather as if whatever is underneath his tough skin is clawing to get out. His facial expressions cover everything from pain to annoyance, from gravity to levity; appropriate reactions to the situation and giving nuance to the depth of what may initially appear to be a one-note character. When an old woman suggests a peaceful solution to the conflict, he traces his finger over a decoration on the wall, appearing bored at what seems a nonsensical idea to a trained killer.
It is only at the end that we get his true perspective on the nature of the feud. Likewise the Nine appear never to agree verbally on anything, but somehow move as if one person, whether they are following Mifune, turning their heads around a corner, or celebrating a victory before it has been won. The key is that Kurosawa never forces a joke down our throat with loud noises or repeated close ups; the action unfolds casually, allowing us to discover the humor for ourselves. With the laughter created by Sanjuro he proves himself to be a master director, one that can elevate and entertain material in what may appear to be even the most lowbrow of genres.