With Seven Samurai, Akira Kurosawa revived the classic Japanese samurai film. In 1961 and ‘62, he would reinvent it with his films Yojimbo and Sanjuro.
Set in the 1860s, Yojimbo is the story of a nameless ronin who travels under the alias “Sanjuro.” Sanjuro arrives in a town ravaged by an ongoing feud between two rival gangs, each funded by the silk and sake merchants respectively. Seeing an opportunity to benefit from the bloodshed, Sanjuro plays the two gangs off one another, until his deep-down goodness forces his hand and finds him trapped in the middle.
Yojimbo was the most successful film of Kurosawa’s career in Japan, as well as his most influential. While Kurosawa took certain cues from the westerns of John Ford, Yojimbo alone would have an even greater influence on American cinema, ranging from the westerns of Sergio Leone to Star Wars to Kill Bill.
So successful was Yojimbo that one year later, Kurosawa released the sequel, Sanjuro. While not as towering a success as its predecessor, Sanjuro was by no means a cash-grab. The story this time around finds Sanjuro as the reluctant mentor to a band of young, headstrong samurai intent on rescuing their master from the clutches of a corrupt politician. The humor is more lighthearted than Yojimbo, with much of it being derived from seeing Sanjuro’s discomfort at being held as a role model; as a result, Sanjuro’s character is much more self aware this time around, which diminishes his prolific stature somewhat. All the same, Sanjuro holds up as a terrific action film and is a must-see for fans of Yojimbo.
These two films are available separately, but Criterion also offers a nifty duel set edition that is more cost effective. The commentary tracks by Kurosawa expert Stephen Prince are loaded with interesting historical facts and film trivia; however, Mr. Prince is not the most captivating of speakers, so not everyone will find his commentary engaging. To that end, the installments of the “Akira Kurosawa: It is Wonderful to Create” series included here are a must see, as they regard both of these films with all the passion and energy that they warrant.
Yojimbo and Sanjuro are unrated, though parental guidance is advised due to bloody swordfights and thematic content. The two films separately are currently available for $20 each in stores or online at Barnes and Noble, while the duel set can be snatched up for $35.