There’s a belief in cinema that sequels can never live up to the original film. That’s not actually wrong, but it’s an incomplete statement: sequels can never live up to the original film, so why try to make the same thing twice?
Kurosawa followed up on Yojimbo’s success a year later in 1962 with Sanjuro, a movie built around Toshiro Mifune’s character from the first film. The gallows humour from Yojimbo is swapped for lighter comedy, and the action is less frequent, and yet it’s a more engaging film for it.
It can’t be overstated just how popular the first film was in Japan, especially Mifune’s character Sanjuro. The man is electrifying in the role, so much so that it’s easy to forget he’s got nine sidekicks in this film. Maybe two of them are named – it really doesn’t matter, though, as they function quite like the Greek chorus, commenting on the action at hand. The nine sidekicks are naïve samurai trying to do the right thing by weeding out corruption – only every other player in the game is five moves ahead of them.
Enter Sanjuro, who has softened a bit since we last saw him ruthlessly slaughter a gang to liberate a town.
It’s an odd couple sort of thing, the gruff ronin leading the naïve samurai, and it works. There’s comedy here, and genuine pathos, and a true arc for the characters. The writing is top-notch, especially in how Kurosawa so expertly sets the stage for each major confrontation and the inevitable climax.
More than that, there is genuine beauty to his photography. Yojimbo was a grim picture, stark and all too real. By comparison, Sanjuro is set across a series of Samurai mansions, with manicured gardens and pristine streams and creeks. The scenery is stunning, but the way Kurosawa manipulates it visually draws the viewer in and pulls them deeper into the world.
This, I think, is a hint of the elegance so readily apparent in his later work. It’s graceful, especially in comparison to the frenetic nature of Yojimbo. In so many ways, it stands together, yet apart from its predecessor, and is a stronger film on its own as a result.
A good sequel has to be more than a follow-up. Kurosawa accomplished just that with Sanjuro. It’s clearly a similar film from the same director, a familiar character – but it’s not the same.
After all, why try to make the same thing twice?
Ben Filipkowski lives and breathes film, books, history, music, and TV, so it makes sense that he's an aspiring novelist. When he's not watching Seven Samurai for the seventeenth time (with commentary), he can be found rewriting the latest draft of his novel, or out exploring another side of Ottawa.