Even the greats make sequels! It is strange that one of Japan's most celebrated directors released what is essentially a sequel a year after the highly acclaimed (and deservedly so) Yojimbo debuted. But like all the greats he spotted an opportunity to develop a story he had already wrote and to use the samurai he had made so famous the previous year to sell that story. Sanjuro follows the same lone samurai (of the same name as the film) first portrayed in Yojimbo and this time he happens upon nine younger samurai who are in need of some help. The men Sanjuro decides to help are attempting to save their master who has been kidnapped by a rival clan who are far greater in number and would appear to have the upper hand in the conflict.
Toshiro Mifune reprises his role as our anti-hero and plays him with the same natural aplomb that only he can. As you can no doubt tell the basic storyline is slightly different this time round, with Sanjuro actually teaming up with a group of samurai involved in a conflict, rather than putting himself in the middle of said conflict. Fortunately this does not stop his devious mind from working overtime and it is not long before he is working within the enemy to play them against themselves, this of course results in some delightful comedy and as ever, much of that graceful Japanese action choreography that unfortunately only fans of the genre truly seem to appreciate.
Although much of what is on display here has been seen in Yojimbo, Kurosawa somehow manages to make if feel fresh. The riveting music is nigh on identical and some of the set pieces are extremely familiar, yet by building on the same offbeat humour that made Yojimbo so enjoyable and delving further into the character of Mifune Sanjuro becomes a classic in its own right. Although classed as a companion piece to Yojimbo, Sanjuro holds many qualities that can be found in the American Movies Sequel handbook. A tighter running time, a greater number of action set pieces and of course, more blood! (The final fight has an outrageous special effect that is more akin to a Hong Kong Action Movie than a Kurosawa Samurai epic), but all of this actually makes Sanjuro sometimes that little bit more entertaining than its predecessor, for that reason alone any fan of Yojimbo and indeed, Kurosawa, should make a point of seeing this great companion piece.
To showcase the stunning cinematography found in Kurosawa's films you really need to see the films in their original aspect ratio preferably with anamorphic enhancement for widescreen owners (a feature that has thankfully become almost standard). Much like Yojimbo this Criterion edition presents us with another fine looking print (considering its age) at its original aspect ratio but is again lacking anamorphic enhancement. So, presented at its original 2:35:1 aspect ratio the print Criterion has sourced is in much greater condition than the one used for Yojimbo. There is of course some print damage in the form of white specs and dust but that is pretty much it, detail is again very high and the picture never looks soft, the only major problem (and it is very noticeable) is that of an irritating moire (where lines - like those of a cheque shirt - create a wavy effect) effect due to the various kimono's seen throughout the film. The can prove very distracting and it is disappointing that Criterion could not solve this problem during the films encoding process.
Framing Issue - Both the Sanjuro and Yojimbo Criterion DVDs have a problem with how the widescreen image has been framed. I am no expert on the situation but here is my take on it. The only time that the framing of the image is a problem is with the films titles/credit sequence at the very start where the left and right of the image appears to be cut off. What is however quite strange is that when played via a PC there is no problem at all with the framing of the image so it is very possibly down to the overscan settings of our televisions (it is still a fault with how Criterion produced the DVD though as the majority of DVDs do not require you to change your TV settings).
Presented in its original Japanese 1.0 Mono soundtrack Sanjuro's audio is exactly what you would expect, perfectly adequate considering the source material. There is no sign of any background noise (like that found on the Yojimbo DVD) leaving the soundtrack to present both speech and music to a good level. Subtitles are again well presented with a good font choice and only the odd spelling/grammatical error (again, strange for Criterion), of course those using Widescreen TV's will have to adjust their Zoom mode to be able to read the subtitles.
Just like Yojimbo the only extra feature present on this release is the original Theatrical Trailer. The only added bonus is that within that trailer is some brief behind the scenes footage showing Kurosawa at work.
Of course fans will not be disappointed with this excellent companion piece for Yojimbo but this is actually a great film to watch if you have never seen a Kurosawa movie as it has a pace not usually seen in his other work and so is more suited to the uninitiated. As for the DVD, well Criterion have of course got a lot to answer for and really need to go back and remaster their earlier titles now that the DVD format has progressed (more extras and anamorphic enhancement would be a good start), but for now this release is perfectly adequate and should not be left on the store shelf.