The mysterious stranger wanders into town. Gruff and aloof he has no interest in petty, parochial concerns. Unless one of those concerns can make him a quick buck, then he might just stick around long enough to get paid. After all everyone’s got to eat. Gradually we see there’s more to this supposedly cold-blooded mercenary than originally believed. He’s got a soft spot. Maybe its a woman, could be a cute kid, or maybe somebody done shot his dog but this killer with a heart of gold isn’t going to let the bad guys of easy. He’s got a plan and when he’s done he’ll be the only one left standing. Sound familiar? That’s because that description could fit any of a myriad of anti-heroes throughout the ages. It’s a story as old as time. But there is one example that stands at the pinnacle of this character type: Sanjuro.
Brought to life brilliantly by Toshiro Mifune in Akira Kurosawa’s twin masterpieces Sanjuro and Yojimbo; Sanjuro, which literally means “thirty year old man” in Japanese, is the perfect distillation of the archetype. But why? What makes this ronin superior to the rest? Well first is his general demeanor. Most heroes to this point were clean cut, polite, reserved. Not Sanjuro, he spends the majority of his two films dirty and disgusting often twitching, scratching, and generally acting like an ass. But he is an honest ass. Ignoring the strictures of polite society Sanjuro instead acknowledges the brutal reality that he sees. He stands as the mid point between the gangster mercenaries seen in Yojimbo and the young men of noble intention in Sanjuro; hiding in the filth but unable to suppress his own goodness.
His demeanor draws the audience in but it is his skill with a blade that holds their interest. Because Sanjuro is the Master-swordsman, capable of killing a dozen enemies in a single skirmish. There is no doubt that he is a remorseless killer, even more than that he enjoys what he does. If people need killing, Sanjuro wants to be the one to do it. An audience loves watching the lone warrior master take on ridiculous odds. It combines the joy of watching an expert do what they do best with the deep connection of rooting for an underdog.
But it is Sanjuro’s devious mind that makes the Japanese “man with no name” an all time classic. Playing both sides against the middle is his specialty and the character traits discussed above make his enemies underestimate his cunning. Slowly through trickery and manipulation Sanjuro uses their greed and arrogance against them chipping away at his opponents strengths until he is ready to confront them head on in stunning climax.
Sanjuro changed the way we looked at our heroes and left a lasting legacy. And while he is well documented as the direct inspiration for Clint Eastwood’s “Man with No Name” in Sergio Leone’s Dollars Trilogy; many other icons of the screen, such as Han Solo and Captain Jack Sparrow, can also trace their linage to this singularly disagreeable ronin. Sanjuro is one of the greatest characters ever to grace the silver screen directly impacting Westerns and Samurai films for decades with no sign of that influence waning. So let us close with a reflection from this most honorable mercenary “I’m not dying yet. I have to kill quite a few men first.”