Noble Poverty as an Alternative to the Orientation on Power and Wealth – to a Life of Self-Aggrandizement and Vanity (Analysis of Twenty Two Stills from “Sanjuro”)

For a samurai who eternally wanders from place to place because of moral disagreement with the way people live – to meet by chance a group of younglings who are in desperate need of help without knowing or understanding it, and to intervene in their destiny is the decision that goes against his principles. Alternative life must at best be created on the margins of a society which breeds inequality and is impregnated by corruption and lust for money and power. But the innocence that is doomed to be sacrificed has an appeal Sanjuro cannot resist. He decides to help. He risks his life. He knows that even if he will be successful in helping the youth the evil forces will soon reorganize and start to scheme again to position themselves back on top and that the next time he won’t be around, but…

Kurosawa uses medieval setting as a stylized backdrop of a very modern and even up to date socio-political situation: the right-wing extremists try to topple Democracy. Since the 60s this situation became even more obvious, and real, especially in U.S. What Kurosawa saw in the middle of the 20th century as an essential danger – loosing Democracy and returning to totalitarianism, today, at 2010 in U.S. is already in the process of being realized, firstly, during eight years of conservative rule and later, after the 2008 election, when a democratic president became a target of a systematic fierce attacks and strategic non-collaboration on the part of the Republican politicians. How Kurosawa could foresee that this would and will come about?

The democratically oriented (pragmatic, tolerant and polite) leader of the clan whose official position is a chamberlain (simultaneous reference to the administrative function of a democratic civil servant and the historical figure of the British politician famous for trying to appease the German Nazis) is a courageous and a just person who nevertheless is not able to prevent a coup de’ Etat by the right-wing politicians – he is a political relative of many among today’s American liberal politicians. What he cares about is the smooth functioning of life in the clan. He likes his clan to be respected by the larger world. He is a positive and rational man and likes to think well of others including those who plotting against him but he is not able to protect democracy against the anti-democratic powers within the clan.

The conservative plotters are depicted as typical for our times: they are obsessively calculating the success of their disruptive actions and opportunistic plans (that must be achieved by any price), they use force and mean tactics to oust the democratic leader, they hunt after the young idealistic youth supporting the chamberlain, they think only about grabbing and enhancing their power, and they use torture and falsified information to mislead and deceive the population. The psychological characteristics of the plotters and specialists who are hired by them is archetypal representation of universal right-wing figures: Takebayashi’s worrying and nervousness is George Bush’s, Kurofuji’s face is physically deformed like Dick Cheney’s by cruelty and nastiness, Inspector Kikui’s face of an inquisitor darkened by permanent suspicious over-alertness is of a hybrid between the Home Land Security Chief John Ashcroft’s and Bush’s official Michael Chertov’s, and Muroto’s cynical cheerfulness of a hired political strategist with a proud professional proficiency is Karl Rove’s.

The idealistic young democrats who believe that the American democracy is solidly in place and that it will never be possible to turn the history back to pre-democracy are mirrored by the boy-samurais in the film. According to Kurosawa, the wishful dream that the young people can save and promote democracy is a very dangerous utopia – democracy is psychological maturity and in this sense it is always in contradiction with the psychological condition of young people. All their ideas are symbolization of the imaginary, and they are absolutely helpless in front of conservative acting out. Young people in the film have to learn a lot from their homeless pauper- guru and not only on the level of strategic persistence and tactical maneuverings – they have to get a deeper understanding of the very nature of their conservative opponents’ minds and hearts. They have to learn how to be simultaneously gentle and tough, spontaneous and analytical, compassionate to others and demanding from them, and that modesty and humility are preferable to honor, glory and greatness. But they are too young to understand all this, and their mentor cannot stay for long.

“Sanjuro” is a comedy about tragic events, the very smile of suffering. It is almost a mathematical representation of an impossible resolution to an unbearable situation. It is a hopeful glimpse into a future history and at the same time a tormenting confession about its improbability.

*The first time I saw “Sanjuro” in Moscow in 1971- and I started to look at the Soviet reality through Kurosawa’s images – as Sanjuro sees Muroto and his masters (I saw Muroto as only an outsider can see a careerist). After my emigration to and experience in U.S. and my endless re-watching of this film I again found myself perceiving, now the American reality, through Kurosawa’s images – as Sanjuro sees Muroto and his right wing employers and bosses. Kurosawa explained to me “between the lines” of his images that the Soviet and American Murotos are twins, like Soviet bosses are the twins of the American conservatives. The masters of life will believe in anything and everything that promotes their interests, while (professional) careerists don’t even need to believe in a cause, they just work for salary and/or profit.

Stylishly dressed Kurosawa (with espresso) on the set of “Sanjuro” with Mifune concentrating on his Sanjuro-Saint George mission

Young people are the main asset in wars, fascist coups and revolutions because they are too credulous, cheaply idealistic, too narcissistic and they think with affects, not with brains. The composition of this shot is quite informative – we see the youthful samurais after one of their incredible, yet typical tactical blunder that could mark the end of their rebellion (in defense of democratic principles) against the brutal actions of conservative conspirators. In the first line are those who are mainly responsible for the blunder and pulled in the rest of the group along despite Sanjuro’s disapproval. Two of them are from the conservative sub-faction within the democratic group, one is from the group’s liberal sub-faction, and one is from the left-inclined sub-faction. They are shamed – not because of having made a mistake, but the fact of having made it is humiliating for their inflated pride. They are sulking like children and unconsciously appealing to the father-figure, Sanjuro, to have a pity on them and not treat them harshly. Their reaction is purely socio-morphic (that is concern about how they look in somebody else’s eyes) and it subdues their capability to assess their error, understand the reasons behind their misjudgments and try to be more observantly reasonable in future. Throughout the film they will make one misstep after another. They intuitively prefer passionate camaraderie to personal responsibility. Their psychological borders (between one another) are blurry – they think like one organism, whatever they feel they feel together to know clearly what they are really feeling or thinking.

Young people without understanding this, live inside a box (which Kurosawa shows us here) – of their passionate naiveté, galloping initiatives and sweeping prejudices. They are not able to reflect about their place in the world and grasp that they are in advance outsmarted by the elder ruling males – masters of power and manipulation, that everything (not just something) they are thinking about life is wrong and will be used and turned (and already turning) against them and their interests. Not to grasp how they were and are manipulated – that their very perception of the world and their ideas are the result of manipulation, is an instinctive attempt on their part to avoid narcissistic trauma – to come to the discovery of how stupid, uneducated, simpleminded and gullible they really are. And still the only way for them is to go through this ordeal of overcoming the trauma, to psychologically survive it and to start to try to live a bit more reflectively.

Leader of the Centipede
Sanjuro doesn’t want to be the leader-brain to a centipede’s body (a little fuehrer of a small gang) – too many intellectual disadvantages are connected with the role of being in command of those who either blindly admire and follow you or are dumfounded by your ideas and then passively resist them. It is a very difficult task to awaken the critical thinking in those who live between their bodily sensations and emotional perceptions on the one hand and their thinking through their imagination and dreams on the other, like between sun- and moon-light.

Rapport Between Thinking and Understanding
Intellectual rapport between thinking and understanding – IRBTAU (personified in this still by Sanjuro and the leader of the liberal sub-faction of the democratic group) is a precious cultural asset of rare psychological capability for both functions – thinking and understanding what thinking is saying. These days IRBTAU is very rare because the value of mentorship is destroyed by consumerism and jingoistic mentality with which conservative leaders distract the youth from existential education.

Why is the Quantity of Young Samurais 9 Like the American Supreme Court Justices?
Because of compassion Sanjuro is locked into being a mentor, a psychotherapist and savior of the nine-member-group trying to restore the justice undermined by the conservative plotters. He also tries to rescue the life of the kidnapped leader of the clan. The identical number of young samurais with the number of American Supreme Court justices is not coincidental – Kurosawa parodies not the democratic rule of the majority but its deterioration into manipulation of the issues by conservative politicians (passing laws that will provide more rights to the financial elite above the rest of society) and into fruitless verbal exercises of politicians-democrats (whose real motivation is to smoothen out the contradictions). Juxtaposing the conservative politicians as plotters and young samurais as liberals Kurosawa laughs at both sides that transform democracy into a façade for their private interests and try to keep the status quo intact. The decisions of Sanjuro as a really democratically oriented person are always ahead of the decisions of the “democratic” majority, because he is disinterestedly thinking and is dedicated to truth while the “majority” (like the “minority”) is in vanity, prejudices and complexes.

Liberal vs. Conservative Perception of Thinking
This shot demonstrates the very difference between intellectual rapport (of the leader of liberal faction with Sanjuro) and a purely emotional (prejudicial and superstitious) perception of a sober thinking by the conservative psyche (that is steeped deep in imaginary charged by an energy surging from the primitive affects). The liberal samurai tries to understand Sanjuro’s thinking while the conservative guy sees in it supernatural powers instead of human logic and earthy experience.

How to Take Ladies Over the Wall? To use Sanjuro's Back as a Stool
If not Sanjuro’s ability to quickly offer his back as a stool for the ladies (gesture no one young samurai is capable of) our heroes could never escape defeat.

Human Being vs. (Hired) Specialist
The conflict between the heart and mind of existential wholeness (personified by Sanjuro) and fragmented obsessive interest in making career and achieving success (personifie by Muroto) underlines the geometrical composition of this shot showing the three core groups of American population as they are related to this basic (for Kurosawa) psycho-cultural conflict. The three groups we see behind the combatants are those with liberal sensibility (the center), those with a leftist orientation (on the left, behind Sanjuro), and those with conservative orientation (to the right, behind Muroto).

Genuine Life vs. Power, Money and Career
Kurosawa identifies the conflict that leads to a duel between Sanjuro and Muroto as a conflict between a genuine and honest life and the orientation on power, money and career (typical for a formally democratic modernity). Today’s society has theoretically allowed choice between these two orientations but has failed to educate the people for the task of making this choice in a competent and rational way. Muroto is a prototype of those who put aside their own conscience and responsibility for the sake of becoming hired specialists (as many people even with a democratic sensibility are today who for example, work for the military industry as scientists and technicians while they vote for democrats).

Spectators as Voyeurs
The majority of people are just spectators (psychologically – voyeurs). Their ability to act existentially (inside the wholeness of life which is not fragmented into private interests) is paralyzed by the stationary hugeness of a system that has transformed them into consumers and possessors of things.

Sleepiness Is Better than Vanity
Relaxation Is Wisor than Over-concentration
Existence Is Worthier than Calculation
Sanjuro dominates the situation (and the composition of these shots) by relaxation, not by over-concentration that is reserved for those who live to calculate the success of their actions. Existential creativity flowers in peace and quiet while fragmented feverish calculation lives on strain and stress. These three shots emphasize the difference between the logic of wholeness (freedom from stress is good for existential creativity) and the logic of psychological fragment (stress is good for calculation). That’s why today’s rich decision-makers don’t want people to live a relaxed life. They organized life in such a way that we have to be permanently occupied with a feverish calculation of our survival and success (gains, losses, advantages, disadvantages, strategies, efficiency, possibilities, problems, etc.)

Tough Spot
Visible and Invisible Ropes
Sanjuro is in a tough spot – he is separated from his sword by the ropes that the rulers and their guards put on everybody (ropes of conformism are invisible) to feel free to pursue upgrading their power and wealth. It is dangerous not to follow the system and instead try to help those who are doomed to become victims.

Gentle Gravitational Field
A strange gravitational field can be detected between Sanjuro and the wife of the liberal clan leader (kidnapped and tortured by the plotters to force him into making a false confession to save his skin). It is deeper than (amorous) attraction; it is a kind of an ontological compatibility rooted in their experience of thinking about human life.

Idea and Image of the Enemy are More Important than Real Enemy
For young people in competitive societies the idea and the image of the enemy is much more real than the reality of the enemy – they always deduce the enemy, not induce it. They are both – over-suspicious and prone to be wrong in identifying who the real enemy is and who is not. For them a dangerous person is who can be immediately recognized as dangerous. The same goes for their approach to truth – it should be instantly graspable. For this reason they are easy objects for manipulation on the part of those who say the expected and for this reason obviously (seemingly) correct things and look like customary role-models.

James Bond Is Not Sanjuro
Kurosawa and Mifune try to emphasize Sanjuro’s humanness. There is no James Bond’s shining narcissistic glow in him. Extraordinariness ought to be the offspring of the ordinary, and the exceptional the child of humility, like spirit should be the brother (not the ruler) of flesh.

Ontological Curiosity
This curiosity is not super-human – its object (the wife of chamberlain) returns its ontological weight to the one who is curious. Sanjuro is not condescending to the person he is looking at. The subject and object are both equally human.

Humanness of Sanjuro
Sanjuro‘s humanness is proved to be much more effective than the strategic and tactical clichés and the group excitement of his young protégés. With “Sanjuro” we learn to respect human nature vs. human aggrandizement, local initiatives and situational wisdom vs. globalist ambitions and huge dreams. May be, it is multiplicity of local spots of concrete human lives, experiences and resistance is where the excesses and cruelties of global solutions and wide perspectives can be corrected. May be, it is through the drops of ocean of life that we can recover its wholeness.

Few questions to the readers and viewers

1) What is Sanjuro’s strategy in the first sword’s battle (in the forest) in the beginning of the film?

2) Why Muroto upon finding Sanjuro on the ground with tied hands and legs, believes him that he was out-forced by the attacking opposition and lost the battle and is not suspicious that Sanjuro is lying to deceive him?

3) Why (does) Muroto insist on having the personal fight with Sanjuro? What is the psychological motivation which pushes Muroto to fight in a duel?

4) Why Sanjuro after going through so many battles and having killed so many people, kills Muroto in such a peculiarly special way?

5) Why chamberlain, the clan leader, is not frank with young samurais when they shared with him their concerns/suspicions about a right wing conspiracy in the clan? Why did he try to distract their attention from the matter instead of addressing it?

6) What is the significance of the funny story chamberlain gives (in a gathering after being liberated by Sanjuro) about his “horse face” and of his own reaction on this peculiarity of his?

7) How Kurosawa avoids scapegoating the 3 main conspirators – Takebayashi, Kurofuji and Kikui?

8. What is the significance of the fact that while Muroto talks with individualistic references (“Kikui thinks he is an able man”), Sanjuro is oriented on personal self-elimination, for example, he borrows his name from the landscape?

9) Can the infantilism of the boy-samurais throw some light on the leader of the clan as a role model? Why chamberlain couldn’t help the youth to become more wise and mature? What is tragically absent in his pedagogy and why this point is so important for U.S. today and for democracy in general?

10) In which character in Robert Bresson’s “Lancelot of the Lake” (1974) can we find essential similarities with Sanjuro?

More questions (and answers) to Kurosawa’s “Sanjuro” are available.

Posted on July 5, 2014v-   “Sanjuro” (1962), by Akira Kurosawa by Acting-Out Politics