While the basic theme of this story is not unique - the result of greed, manipulation of others, and the changing of the world (tradition vs. progression) - many factors add an interesting and unusual charm to this film. There are plots within plots, surprising deception, perfectly paced mounting tension, unpredictable plot twists, stories within stories, distinctive and amusing characters (the big guy with his huge mallet is a lot of fun), the seemingly never-ending face offs, backstabbing, character flaws; and our hero continually placed in the perfect position to observe, listen, and evaluate. Also, the bodyguard's impeccable timing in manipulation of both sides is nice, fulfilling our expectations and keeping the story moving along. What if bodyguards were really like this? (mischievous, brilliant, manipulative) The famous people of the world would be in terrible trouble.
The humor in this story is wonderful, even the macabre humor of the dog carrying the human hand in its mouth while trotting along to fairly spunky music. I also love the funnier fight sequences, which seem to come right out of clown school and resemble football skirmishes instead of battles. In several of the scenes, it appears that the swordsmen are miming roasting marshmallows instead of fighting with their weapons. Nice addition of lightness to a serious tale. Our hero sticking around after he has discontinued his services purely for "the entertainment" also accentuates the humor aspect of this movie.
The mix of character types is also interesting including a dominatrix, a prodigal son, a damsel in distress, several amusing drunks, and many bumbling idiots. The ease in which our hero is able to manipulate these human beings is extremely unbelievable; however, many aspects of this film fall into that category and it is still a wonderful story. This is one of those rare instances in which certain trite, far-fetched, and predictable elements are actually good and serve to enhance the story.
The nature symbolism is a nice addition to this film including the cleansing rain allowing us to shift gears from Act I to Act II, and the dust storm, which precedes the more unpredictable part of the story serving to unsettle and disorient us.
Finally, the shadowy, light dancing, night fires scene is amazing, intensifying the town's debauchery and our hero finally stepping up to get involved in the action before ultimately getting caught in his own web. This scene is perfect, like an expertly lighted stage drawing us into Act III.
I have only described a few of the wonderful features of this film. There are many others, which warrant several viewings to truly appreciate the complexities of this story. For those who enjoy this movie, I also recommend the sequel, Sanjuro, which is equally well done.
J.H. Sweet, author of The Fairy Chronicles, and Kurosawa fan.
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