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Blu-ray Review: Sanjuro – The Criterion Collection

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When it comes to classic films it's fair to say that the Criterion Collection is the pinnacle of what most DVD collectors would consider to be "essentials". No other publisher has as much variety and quality as they have in their catalog and every time announcements are released it's always a treat to see what's up their sleeve. While many directors and series stand out in their lineup, it's safe to consider famed Japanese director Akira Kurosawa to be a favorite.

During his career, Kurosawa created 30 films. Some of these were more obscure than others, but there were a few that stood out and really withstood the test of time. With the shift in format towards high definition, Criterion has made the move to Blu-ray and has taken Kurosawa with it with the release of Kagemusha. That Kurosawa classic will be joined later this month by Yojimbo and Sanjuro will both offered by Criterion in 1080p. The titles will be available as a set and individually. 

Sanjuro was the, direct sequel to Yojimbo and came out just a year later in 1962. Toshiro Mifune reprised his role as Sanjuro, a wandering samurai who finds himself in situations in which people would otherwise be lost without his help. This time around things were somewhat different, however, both in terms of tone of the film and what we see from the character. It's by no means a continuation of the original tale about a doomed town, but rather a story about a clan with corrupt leaders and honest men who want to do something about it.

When the film starts Sanjuro is hanging out in a temple eavesdropping on a conversation nine men are having about their situation. As they talk Sanjuro's interest is peaked and he comes to a conclusion about what's going on in the clan. It seems as though these guys need his help, and that's especially the case when they are soon surrounded by one of the corrupt leader's battalion of men (lead by a character played by Tatsuya Nakadai). Some exciting fighting takes place and eventually he gets drawn into their plight further, to the point he feels he can't leave with unresolved business.

Back in the home region of the clan, the men continue to reveal what's been going on. It would seem that one of their uncles is actually the just and righteous leader of the clan. He has been kidnapped by the opposing force along with his wife and daughter. Soon the men, along with Sanjuro of course, plan a rescue the man's wife and daughter. They don't quite know where the uncle is, but having part of the family is a start and they eventually make their base in the residence next door. From this point the film basically follows Sanjuro as he goes behind enemy lines undercover and does everything in his power to do what's right. That's a fine blurry line, however, and we really get to see his disdain for death in this picture.

Levels of the character come through in Sanjuro that just weren't present in Yojimbo. For instance, in the original film Sanjuro was a money-grubbing, opportunistic bad-ass who didn't think twice about killing and really didn't display any remorse. In Sanjuro, however, money seems to be less of a focus for him. He also spends more time thinking rather than fighting. He shows his displeasure whenever he is forced to take a life and in some ways it seems as though the woman he rescued rubbed off on him. She talks about the best swords are the ones that never leave their sheath, and that's a philosophy Sanjuro seems to adopt. He also tries to be a voice of reason while the men he's helping would foolhardily sacrifice their lives for their ideals. It's a contrasting view of the character and as a companion piece to Yojimbo this film really fleshes him out in a mature way.

Ultimately the story here is rather straightforward, but there are some nice levels of complexity to the plot and plenty of surprising twists. It's the tone in Sanjuro that really sets it apart from others in the genre, and even Yojimbo itself. This piece isn't as darkly comedic, and it's nothing like the western motif that the original presented. Overall, anyone who enjoyed the first film will definitely want to add this second one to their collection. Personally I felt Yojimbo was the better of the two films, but Sanjuro brings plenty to the table and is a classic in its own right. It's not to be missed and serves as a perfect companion piece for many different reasons.

Criterion's remastered standard definition DVDs looked pretty darn good, and after checking out the Blu-ray release of Yojimbo it was clear that Criterion was going the extra mile for these releases. In the case of Sanjuro, the transfer and touch-ups aren't quite as pronounced and the film doesn't stand out nearly as much, but this presentation is still the best the feature has ever looked. Sanjuro is presented with its original 2.35:1 aspect ratio, 1080p resolution, and is encoded with MPEG-4 AVC.

The resolution here is sharp, there's clear definition, fantastic detail, and all around there's a general lack of noise, dirt, and scratches in the transfer. Some scenes look truly spectacular and speak to the quality of the source material and cleanup job employed by Criterion, while other scenes don't look nearly as good. There are some moments where the picture is either too bright, or too dark, and in between there are some scenes that appear softer than they should. These flaws may merely be attributed to the condition of what Criterion had to work with, however, because the vast majority of this film is downright gorgeous.

The audio package on this release is fantastic as well, just like Yojimbo. Once again a Japanese DTS-HD Master Audio 3.0 and Japanese LPCM 1.0 were included for this film. As we experienced with Yojimbo, this presentation for Sanjuro was perfect for the source material. The quality was clean, sharp, and pitch perfect in every way. No flaws were present on this release and despite a more robust presence on the soundstage, one couldn't have asked for a better offering. English subtitles are included.

Like the release of Yojimbo on Blu-ray, Sanjuro also includes a decent array of bonus features. There's a 20-page booklet in the case that includes information about the film as well as commentary, images, and the like. Another audio commentary is provided here by Stephen Price, and once again it's informative, interesting, and entertaining. There is also a trailer, picture gallery, and teaser for the film. Another installment of "Toho Masterworks series, Akira Kurosawa: It Is Wonderful to Create" is provided here and this featurette about the production of the film is every bit as enjoyable to watch as the one that accompanied the Yojimbo release.

Sanjuro's release on Blu-ray is something that should make Kurosawa fans rave about. The film is as good as it has always been, but the improved audio/visual, and included supplemental material, really makes this release something special. Criterion has outdone themselves with the companion pieces of Yojimbo and Sanjuro. Both films are important pieces of Japanese cinema and stand out as classics among classics. Highly recommended!

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