Here we are, a decade after DVD’s introduction, and Kurosawa’s films are still in the process of getting the lavish treatments they deserve. The Blu-ray vs. HD-DVD turf war may get a lot of press these days, but there are still lots of classic films waiting for their Special Edition turns on standard-def discs. In this case, Criterion has released new editions of “Yojimbo” and “Sanjuro” that you can purchase separately or as a box set.
Both of them are single-disc releases, but they still pack plenty of supplements, as you’ve come to expect from Criterion these days. I don’t think I need to bog everyone down with lengthy plot recitations, but for those of you unfamiliar with these films, which tend to get less attention than “Seven Samurai,” “Ran,” and other major Kurosawa works, they follow a samurai who calls himself Sanjuro Kuwabatake, whose name roughly translates as “30 years of mulberry fields.” In other words, he prefers to remain anonymous.
“Yojimbo” (the title translates as “the bodyguard”) introduces Sanjuro as he enters a town where two rival clans are engaged in a bitter feud, killing each other’s members and giving only the local casket-maker a viable means of making a living. A classic anti-hero, Sanjuro plays both sides against each other, trying to right wrongs wherever he can but mostly attempting to make the clans wipe each other out so he can collect some money and move on to the next adventure. Star Toshiro Mifune gives an impressive performance in this film, as well as in its sequel, proving that he truly was a great actor, not just a great Japanese actor.
“Star Wars” fans may pick up one of Lucas’ many Kurosawa inspirations in the scene where Sanjuro deftly kills three members of one clan, leaving one of their arms on the ground in a shot reminiscent of the Mos Eisley cantina scene. Of course, anyone who has seen Sergio Leone’s “A Fistful of Dollars” may notice more than that, since Leone’s western is practically a scene-by-scene remake of “Yojimbo,” which was remade a few more times by other directors.
Sanjuro proved so popular that he returned the following year in a film that bore his name. This time, he helps a group of men rid their clan of corruption, becoming a more straight-forward hero in the process. “Sanjuro” doesn’t offer as much complexity and nuance as its predecessor, but it’s still a fun ride that shows Kurosawa’s consummate skills, even when he was simply satisfying Toho’s constant demands that he make more commercially-appealing films. Sanjuro’s saga ended with the second film, which isn’t a surprise given the director’s general lack of interest in sequels.
Each of these DVDs contains a scholarly commentary track by Stephen Prince, who contributed to the joint track on Criterion’s recent three-disc “Seven Samurai” DVD and who is the sole speaker in the commentary track on Criterion’s two-disc edition of “Ran.” As I said in my “Seven Samurai” review, these kinds of tracks are like going to film school, which delights folks such as myself but are probably a bore for those who’d rather hear what the weather was like the day a particular scene was shot, or how Mifune hid in his trailer and wouldn’t come out until someone took all the red M&Ms out of the bowl. (Yes, I realize the latter never happened; I’m just goofing on today’s obsession with mundane aspects of celebrities’ lives.)
Each disc also offers the theatrical and teaser trailers for its film, along with a gallery of behind-the-scenes photos. The centerpiece of each set of supplements, however, is another installment in the “Toho Masterworks” series “Akira Kurosawa: It is Wonderful to Create.” The “Yojimbo” edition runs 45 minutes, while the “Sanjuro” one is 35 minutes, similar to the “It is Wonderful to Create” installments that were in the “Ran” and “Seven Samurai” DVDs. Each one features interviews with surviving cast and crew from the film, reminiscing about incidents that happened while filming (such as the malfunctioning fake blood valve for “Sanjuro”) and discussing their interactions with Kurosawa.
Finally, each DVD includes a booklet that contains Kurosawa’s thoughts on each film, along with essays by film critics and recollections by members of the cast and crew. While the major film studios have started to drop the simple chapter lists that they used to slip into DVDs, it’s nice to see Criterion continue its lavish treatment of classic films with professionally-crafted print materials, on top of the wealth of video and audio supplements it offers. “Yojimbo” and “Sanjuro” may be considered minor films in the Kurosawa pantheon, dwarfed by more ambitious works that get more attention, but they’re still great films in their own right, and these DVDs are certainly worthy of purchase by not only film buffs but also anyone who has an interest in cinema history.