Akira Kurosawa’s Sanjuro


The Movie

Created in 1962, “Sanjuro” was Akira Kurosawa’s twentieth film. Once again starring Toshiro Mifune as the title character, and recapturing the role he played in “Yojimbo.” “Sanjuro” was retooled from an earlier script based on a story by Shugoro Yamamoto. However, while the project was initially dropped, it was later rewritten to include Mifune’s character, Sanjuro, after the success of the film “Yojimbo.” The original story was about a peaceful warrior who used his head instead of the sword to resolve conflicts because of his obvious limitations. According to Kurosawa himself only a third of the original script was transferred to film. (Richie 156).


The Story

The Story begins with a wandering samurai who helps a band of falsely accused warriors prove their innocence. While simultaneously, revealing the true conspirators through the use of cunning manipulation and strategy. The title character, Sanjuro, takes on opposition from both sides in what is arguably the most peaceful civil war in world history. Hopelessly outnumbered, with the help of Sanjuro, the nine idealistic young Samurai and their disreputable drunken master manage to successfully engage the enemy without losing their lives. Because without Sanjuro it would have been a on sided battle. Among the recurring themes that carried over from other Kurosawa films (such as Rashomon, Throne of Blood, Stray Dog, Ran, and Dreams) is that all men are forgivably weak in the face of unknown desires, and that, even in moments of adversity ones greatest enemy is not so much their own ignorance but their own pride (Higham 739-740).

Nowhere is there greater evidence of this so clearly demonstrated in “Sanjuro” than when trust is necessary to accomplish some goal. For example, there is a point in the story where Chidori the chamberlain's daughter, not the wife of the chamberlain, among the characters within the ensemble cast releases an enemy spy. The spy stays in Sanjuro’s Hideout for several reasons, he could continue to gather information because the conspirators have no intention of killing him, he is in no immediate danger of loosing his life for revealing enemy secrets, it never occurred to Chidori, or the woman who spared his life, that the enemy spy would escape, so he couldn’t leave. Further reasons could include guilt by association, there is no guarantee that Muroto would risk allowing an enemy spy to live, despite allowing a potential enemy to slip through his fingers. Another incident that reveals how men are forgivably weak in the face of adversity and stifled by their own pride is when Sanjuro decides to accept Muroto’s employment opportunity in order to gather intelligence on the enemy stronghold. Three of the nine warriors do not trust Sanjuro because his actions have revealed him to be as crafty as a fox. Unable to judge Sanjuro’s true character, and unwilling to trust their compatriot’s judgment because his cousin released the enemy spy. The three young warriors, and the chamberlain’s nephew, are captured in Muroto’s or Kikui’s Stronghold. Ultimately, Kurosawa’s theme that all men are forgivably weak in the face of their own desires in moments of adversity is what leads to the downfall of the dastardly trio, comprised of Kikui, Kurofuji, and Takebayashi. This was accomplished through Sanjuro’s clever act of trickery, by convincing the actual conspirators that there was a Paul Revere styled signal for when and where to attack, the dastardly trio blindly believes they are saving their own lives, but were in reality signing their own death warrants.


The Character

Heralded as the spiritual successor, if not the prequel, to Akira Kurosowa’s “Yojimbo,” actor Toshiro Mifune returns to his role as the abrasive, scruffy, unkempt, rascal of a social engineer known as Sanjuro. It should then come as no surprise that the title of this remarkable film shares it’s name with the main character, the one and only Sanjuro Tsubaki. As in the film “Yojimbo,” the name of the title character in “Sanjuro” has been specially fabricated by a man as cleaver as a stuffed fox and twice as deadly. It goes without saying that Sanjuro is the smartest guy in the room, regardless of which room he is in. Still, his curiosity and altruism never seems to get the better of the title character as it did in “Yojimbo.” Despite “Sanjuro’s” lead character being protected by plot armor, the supporting cast members of the film are portrayed as humans with human fallibility. However, there are often moments of strange humor where the characters do behave as though they lack any sense of individuality. One instance could be easily described as the formation of the human centipede as the nine bladed warriors follow behind Sanjuro like box cars on a train. At times it seems the only opportunists in “Sanjuro” are the coup leaders, Muroto, and the title character.

One of the more notable differences between Sanjuro and Yojimbo is the introduction of the title character to the audience. In Yojimbo the title character is introduced as a confident, self righteous, dilettante, looking for his next adventure. Our hero throws a stick into the air, and where it lands he does not care. Allowing the illusion of fate to determine the best course of action on his journey. For this reason, one can conclude that the star of “Yojimbo” is not the same impish samurai that stumbled upon the brain storming session taking place between the nine young warriors in “Sanjuro.” On the other hand, anyone who watches “Sanjuro” can see that the impish Samurai is fully content to lead, follow, or get out of the way. Even going so far as to risk being caught with a band of falsely accused conspirators. This action was no doubt taken in order to satisfy Sanjuro’s curiosity or perhaps to validate his beliefs about human nature.

From watching the film it’s clear that the character Sanjuro believes in better living through social engineering. Often you will find him implementing various social engineering strategies such as elicitation, pretexting, preloading, and the ability to build instant rapport despite being a real jerk. For example, Before the name of the title character is revealed at the beginning of the story, Sanjuro uses elicitation to gather information and analyze the situation from the perspective of an outsider. Using the pretext of an unemployed samurai to infiltrate an enemy stronghold, Sanjuro later on convinces Muroto he is a spineless coward instead of a professional assassin. Through these and other actions, Sanjuro is managing peoples impressions of his character, without revealing his true character. Towards the end of the film the impish samurai used preloading on both sides of the fence to convince the conspirators that the young blades were ready to attack at his request.

According to Sun Tzu, the supreme art of war is to subdue the enemy without fighting (Mitnick 55). Sanjuro accomplishes this by not only building an instant rapport with the inexperienced samurai, but with their enemy, Muroto, as well. Ironically, this seems counter intuitive because Sanjuro is arrogant, shameless, violent, seemingly selfish, and a real jerk. As a result, Sanjuro is also blessed with the ability to take out seven samurai in a single blow, his experience with the blade and with his mind have been sharpened to a fine point, and as a true slight of mouth expert he cannot be trusted (Hochheiser 27).

Additionally, Sanjuro’s skills in persuasion are neither based on influence or power, as evidenced when he followed the nine young Samurai on their foolish quest merely to satisfy his boredom. What then could account for his inhuman ability to build instant rapport with those around him? Of course, the simplest answer would be that as a comedy and a work of fiction there are conventions that a contrived reality must follow to satisfy the whims of the author or the sophistication of the audience.

However, a complex character in the round would not be believable if he was merely the product of a deranged mind. Sanjuro clearly knows the secret to rapport is the effect you have on others. Rapport works similar to generalized reciprocity, the more you give the more you get. By being a good listener, finding ways to meet the needs of others, or by having a genuine interest in forming a greater understanding of human differences one can develop an empathic bond. Throughout “Sanjuro” and “Yojimbo” we can see the character Sanjuro comforting himself by rubbing his face, there is some pseudo scientific basis to indicate that facial rubbing is morse code for boredom, deception, discomfort, or fear (Hagen 18, 20, 39). In as much as, it can also indicate interest, or kinesthetic thinking. (Handnagy 106, !34, 156). When viewed in the context of what Sanjuro is doing, it then becomes clear that he is constantly listening to the conversation of others and carefully observing the details in the world around him. The impish samurai does seem aware of the impact he has on others and is at times willing to humiliate himself to meet the needs of others. Sanjuro is also genuinely interested in people and will often reciprocate contravention with the best of intentions.


Scene Analysis


As the scene begins we see an establishing shot that is matted and framed within the context of a close up of an over the shoulder high angled point of view. In the shot we see Izaka, Chidori, and her mother. Chidori is the central focus of the image, which is matted in black, within the framing of the shot. Her mother’s head is cropped off from her body (within the frame), and blocked from view by Izaka. The chamberlain‘s nephew has come to warn them not to dawdle, unless they want someone from the Kurofuji household to spot them. Izaka is staged outside of the mat framing. The scene then tracks Izaka as he moves from a hunched position in profile facing left into a standing one in order to see if anyone is peering over the fence into the courtyard. The speed with which this action is accomplished is illustrated by the movement of the camera as it follows Izaka. The camera moves up with Izaka as he straightens his spine, pulls his shoulders back and takes in a breath. As this occurs the camera pans right so that the audience would have some idea of what he is looking for. Through the cluster foliage that was later identified as Camilla blossoms, we can see a fortress in the upper left hand side of the frame. The camera movement has not only extended the frame but has changed the texture and depth of liner perspective. Assuming the fortress isn’t an optical illusion the audience can clearly see that the enemy camp is literally within walking distance. Highlighting this fact only emphasized the feeling of apprehension, suspense, and danger of the situation. However, the fortress is also a deceptively small detail that is practically as big as the moon when compared to the surrounding foliage. This may also have several symbolic meanings, since our protagonist hasn’t yet adopted the mantle of Tsubaki/Camilla. There is little possibility the meaning pertains to Sanjuro overtaking the enemy, this meaning can only be ascribed after the protagonist has adopted the name. One possible meaning is that all power is an illusion. In much the same way the moon appears small from a distance and is all but intangible to anything on earth but the naked eye, yet holds sway over the earth‘s ocean. The enemy faced by Sanjuro and the nine young samurai seems at first to be small and deceptively weak. Yet, upon closer inspection, one would realize that the fortress and enemy are respectively far larger than they first appeared.

The scene then cuts to a close up of Izaka framed between two doors as Sanjuro, an enemy spy, and another young samurai are facing away from Izaka and appear to be staring into a dark closet. The symbolism present in this moment is all too obvious. Izaka and his allies have been framed for a crime they did not commit and are staring into an abyss of darkness. Sanjuro himself is looking into the abyss with his head cocked to one side revealing that he may have a slightly skewed perspective about the enemy they are facing, but he can still see it clearly. The enemy spy is similarly an individual framed for conspiring against the chamberlain while simply following orders. He is looking down into the abyss because his future is uncertain, he is afraid of dying, and the enemy spy is also mourning the loss of his freedom. The remaining figure, Izaka’s friend, is cleaning out the closet. This is a bit of irony that relates to the metonymy of universally ambiguous concepts such as skeletons in the closet, or secrets behind the wall, or closed doors, which has long been a colloquialism for information that one would rather not disclose. Essentially, this represents the revelation of hidden knowledge being uncovered. This is extraordinarily ironic, in the sense that the enemy spy and the knowledge within his possession is about to be sealed within the closet. Because, the closet itself is a symbolic representation of hidden knowledge and the spy and the knowledge in his possession are essentially locked behind closed doors.

Shortly after the spy is locked within the closet the camera shows Sanjuro tossing the onion that was used to silence the spy into the courtyard. After scanning the area, before turning around into a match on action cut that shows Sanjuro reentering the upper hall. The camera then follows Sanjuro revealing a veil of total darkness behind him. The semiotic importance of this scene would imply that there is more to see in total darkness than can easily be imagined. The onion itself is symbolic of throwing away ones tears of mourning, in as much as, it symbolizes the loss of your ideal world as you enter the unknown. The darkness also emphasizes Sanjuro’s mysterious past as he demands food and alcohol. One of the samurai protests, because he believes this is not the time for libations. The young warrior believes this is the time for strategy, planning, and preparation for the untold changes and suffering that lay ahead. Sanjuro then smiles at the audience, because he knows, it is neither change or the unknown that causes suffering, but rather ones way of thinking. This also reveals an almost zen like philosophy held by Sanjuro. One cannot firmly state whether or not Sanjuro is a fatalist. However, it is clear that Sanjuro is at least aware that regardless of preparation or thought, the future is always in a state of the unknown. One cannot prepare for every eventuality, the road to hell is paved with good intentions, and chances are, no one can hide from the apocalypse because all life ends in the same way. As Sanjuro opens another door he tells the bureaucrat in no uncertain terms that he thinks better when he’s drinking. This clearly illustrates that one should take action before using diplomacy, otherwise the rules and regulations will get in the way. On the other hand, these actions could just as easily validate a belief that Sanjuro is not of the world, or the reality, against which he fights(Giles 282). Considering Sanjuro’s solution to eliminating corruption in the film “Yojimbo” was to first take action, before relying on diplomacy and discourse to persuade one side that the other was at fault, this clearly demonstrates a recurring theme. Ironically, Kurosawa’s films speak to the human condition. The people in the first movie, “Yojimbo,” are all so corrupt they refuse to believe that there is anyone on earth who’s loyalty cannot be purchased.

The bureaucrat then informs Izaka that Kikui plans to pin all of his crimes on his uncle, the Chamberlain. Often, it is the villain of a story that gives a narrative its vitality (Erdoes and Ortiz, 180). What then can be said of Kikui, despite being the main villain of the story he is rarely seen outside of exposition. Even Muroto, the stories antagonist, does not work directly under the leadership of the true conspirators. Sanjuro and the young samurai are fighting an unseen enemy. We can see Sanjuro listening to this conversation intently like an actor outside of the spotlight, but silently waiting on stage. Sanjuro is isolated from the others by the staging of the visual divide, that separates him from the three warriors. This is accomplished through linear perspective and the architectural layout of the room. Sanjuro is positioned to the left of the composition in a medium close up whereas the others are staged behind him to his immediate right in a medium shot. The Bureaucrat then continues to inform Izaka that the conspiritors intend to force the chamberlain to sign a confession before being interrupted by the chamberlains wife as she enters the room with her daughter. The men immediately fall silent as the lady speaks. The camera cuts to an over the shoulder close up of Sanjuro’s head as the lady enters Izaka’s living room from the courtyard. Since the shot is staged using both layers and perspective, the chamberlains wife moves from the right portion of the screen before her view is obscured by the bulk Sanjuro’s head. Chidori, the chamberlains daughter, enters shortly after her mother leaves the visual field of the camera before the camera cuts to reveal the chamberlain’s wife asking the three young samurai to be honest with her about her husband‘s situation. The three men bow and wait for the lady to be seated before sitting back up. Sanjuro does not bow before the lady, yet still sits with her as a show of respect and support. This can be taken several ways, one, Sanjuro either doesn’t know social protocal, or two, Sanjuro will not bow, showing legitimate respect for her and addressing that he sees her as an equal. Again, there other ways this scene can be interpreted. For example, to the western eyes it appears that Sanjuro is willing to show her respect, but is not willing to accept her as his leader.

Ultimately, this scene ends with Sanjuro revealing his name, one that he fabricated after looking at a Camilla tree. This pique’s the interest of the chamberlains wife. And, the scene ends rather unremarkably. One has questions about the moment of darkness, wherein, Sanjuro literally and figuratively enters before revealing his name. Is it possible that he has no memory of his previous life, or does the darkness symbolize memories of a hidden past? These questions go unanswered, and in the grand scheme of things they don’t really matter as Kurosawa leaves that interpretation to the audience.


Overall, “Sanjuro” is a memorable film and a worthy successor to “Yojimbo.” Part of what makes it memorable are the rounded characters. Even minor characters such as the enemy spy hiding in the closet, or Murato’s generals seem genuinely human. However, it is Toshiro Mifune in the role of the title character that steals the show. As Sanjuro, Mifune has created a believable character that is neither contrived nor conventional. Sanjuro is at once a man of contradictions, possessing seemingly supernatural abilities while simultaneously suffering from human weakness. Ironically, in the grand scheme of things, Sanjuro’s weaknesses are also his greatest strengths. Sanjuro isn’t afraid of failure as he wallows in it, because he knows there’s more to life than what can easily be imagined. After all, in a room full of horse pucky there’s bound to be a pony in there somewhere.



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Hochheiser, Robert M. How to work for a Jerk. New York: Random House , 1987
Erdoes, Richard, and Alfonso Ortiz. American Indian Myths and Legends. New York: Pantheon, 1984. Print.
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