I’d forgotten – particularly amidst all the remembrances of the depth of his humanism, his experiment with narrative in Rashomon (1950), the magisterial sweep of his epics – how surprisingly… well, goofy, Akira Kurosawa’s sense of humor seemed to be. Take a scene in Sanjuro, the underrated companion to the undisputed 1961 classic Yojimbo. It’s no comedy, of course – its protagonist is a fairly cold-blooded killer, after all, and the vicious ending reminds the audience of that fact – but here’s the scene: the nine young and inexperienced samurai are hiding next to the corrupt Superintendent’s compound, waiting to attack. They discover their not-so-complex ruse has worked; the Superintendent has sent all his men to a faraway temple, leaving the place unprotected.
Upon finding out about the emptied compound, the young samurai uncharacteristically jump up and down like giddy little children, and Kurosawa cues this oddly jaunty trumpet music on the soundtrack to underscore the moment – until the samurai realize they might just be overheard next door, and they clam up amidst their own shushing. Even the music ends abruptly. But their glee is uncontainable, and they laugh and celebrate again – with smaller, more restrained leaps this time – and then Kurosawa plays the happy trumpet music again. But more quietly this time.
Well, I guess you kinda hadda see it. Much of the humor comes straight from the unparalleled Toshiro Mifune, the grumpy ronin who ends up begrudgingly “mentoring” the nine impatient samurai. The irony in this setup is that Sanjuro himself is the picture of bored impatience: he yawns, he stares outside the window, he absently traces a drawing, he futilely takes catnaps in the midst of all the action, he scrabbles away at some invisible itch in his scruffy beard. Indeed, he doesn’t have to do anything to elicit a laugh; Kurosawa sets up his shots so that in contrast to the straight-backed discipline of the nine samurai, Mifune is almost always slumped like a drunken angel across the length of the frame, scratching away irritatedly at his beard.
In fact, everything around him is a source of irritation: the stupid stupid samurai, his itchy hair, the food, and most especially, the clueless women they’ve rescued and are now saddled with. The irony here is that Kurosawa lets the women have the final word over Sanjuro; it was they who came up with the brilliant plan about the camellias, despite Sanjuro’s seething impatience, and they’re right, of course, down to their perceptive assessment of Sanjuro as a “naked sword” – but “good swords,” says one, “are kept in their sheaths” – a piece of insight sharper than his sword may ever be. Sanjuro is no different, really, from the other wily foxes that Mifune has played, except that in Sanjuro the tension in the air, I’d like to imagine, comes from a cast trying very hard not to laugh.