Sanjuro (Toshiro Mifune), a ronin (masterless samurai) comes to a small
village, hoping to earn some quick buck, even though the local innkeeper
(Eijiro Tono) tells him to leave this godforsaken spot right away, since the
village is a battleground of of the clans of Seibei (Seizaburo Kawazu) &
Ushitora (Kyu Sazanka).
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Sanjuro however sees an opportunity to seize & immediately slaughters 3
of Ushitora's men ... only to better advertise his services to Seibei.
Seibei gladly employs him, as he plans to attack Ushitora's place the next
day, but when Sanjuro eavesdrops on a converstion between Seibei & his
wife, who conspire to kill him once the job is finished, he at the very last
moment bails out, & with amusement he watches the 2 clans fight each other
from a watchtower ... a conftrontation that is only cut short when a policeman
arrives in town ...
It is not long though before the policeman, who has favoured Seibei over
Ushitora, is killed by some of Ushitora's henchmen ... who Sanjura soon
captures & sells to Seibei - who can make good use of them to strengthen
his bargaining position against Ushitora.
So of course, Ushitora's men - led by the gunwielding Unosuke (Tatsuya
Nakadai) -know nothing better to do than capturing Seibei's son & suggest
an hostage exchange ... at which Unosuke shoots the hostages of Seibei, his
master Ushitora's henchmen, in cold blood, just to strengthen Ushitora's
bargaining position ... an idea that falls flat on his feet when Seibei's men
present yet another hostage - the wife of one of Ushitora's strongest allies !
At the second (successful) exchange of hostages, everything seems to run
more smoothly ... but Sanjuro has to realize that said wife of Ushitora's ally
was actually stolen from a poor gambler, with whom she has a son ... & out
of pity, Sanjuro frees her from her heavily guarded prison, reunites her with
her husband & son & sends them away, intedning to blame everything on
Unfortunately though, Sanjuro is found out by Unosuke & his henchies
& violently tortured so he can give away the hide-out of the woman. No such
luck of course, as Sanjuro, despite being severely injured, manages to escape
prison & hides himself under the boardwalks of the village while Ushitora's
men search every corner of town, & when that doesn't help, they finally
slaughter Seibei & his clan ...
Sanjuro however can escape to the cemetary with the help of his only friend,
the innkeeper, slowly regains his strength & trains himself in
When Sanjuro learns though, that the innkeeper has been captured by
Ushitora's men, he returns to the village, to face all of Ushitora's goons at
once - including Unosuke, the only man in town with a gun ... but thanks to a
surprise knifethrow, Sanjuro can put Unosuke out of action, & after that
free the village of its oppressors & free the innkeeper ...
This very grim swordfighter (or chambara) movie is nowadays regarded
as one of the key films of the genre ... & I tend to agree: a very dark
story, crisp pacing, beautiful cinematography, rough but three-dimensional
characters, great acting & fine music all make this a first class Eastern
that really stands out of its genre.
Due to the success of this movie, 3 sequels were eventually made, Sanjuro
in 1962, also by Kurosawa, & Zatoichi to Yojimbo/Zatoichi meets
Yojimbo (by Kihachi Okamoto) & Machibuse/Ambush at Blood Pass
(by Hiroshi Inagaki) both in 1970, with none of them (of course) coming close
to this film.
The story itself was at least remade 3 times, as Per un Pugno di Dollari/For
a Fistful of Dollars - the key Spaghetti Western - in 1964, in
1984's good-natured but meaningless The
Warior & the Sorceress the film was transposed into Fantasy-Land,
& in Walter Hill's 1990's version Last Man Standing it has become a
1920's/1930's gangster tale.