Life Lessons from Kurosawa Films Part 1: Sanjuro

Since I enjoyed writing the little mini-series of posts on Shakespeare at the end of last year, I thought I’d replicate the pattern but this time tackle the works of possibly my favourite filmmaker, the great Japanese director, Akira Kurosawa. Kurosawa actually made a couple of film adaptations of Shakespeare, not to mention two adaptations of Dostoevsky. Still, he’s best known for his action/adventure films, most of which of which nevertheless deal with deeper themes around politics and society. It’s those deeper themes which we’ll be exploring in this series using the archetypal schema I introduced in the series on Shakespeare.

Akira Kurosawa

A prime example of films with unexpected deeper meanings are Kurosawa’s numerous samurai films. Such films provide ample opportunity for cool camera angles and entertaining sword battles, but they are also the expression of the Warrior archetype. Each archetype has its own strengths and weaknesses. We can call the weaknesses the shadow forms of the archetype since, in a Jungian sense, they really are challenges thrown up from the Unconscious. If they didn’t come from the Unconscious, they wouldn’t be challenges.

Each archetype has characteristic challenges in the forms of temptations and traps that they risk falling into. For the Warrior, the primary shadow form is what I have called the hyper-masculine. Having accrued the skills and knowledge to use lethal force, what is to stop the Warrior from using those skills for wrong instead of right? Most stories with a Warrior hero deal with this question in one way or another.

Kurosawa holds what we might call a traditional political philosophy on the correct ordering of society. Following Plato, Aristotle, Toynbee and numerous other thinkers throughout the ages, Kurosawa sees the correct place for the Warrior class as subservient to a just and wise ruling class. It is when a just and wise ruling class is not present that the Warrior class is tempted to the shadow form of the hyper-masculine.

The wonderful Toshiro Mifune plays Sanjuro

It is this state of affairs which Kurosawa investigates with his wandering-samurai character, Sanjuro. The fact that Sanjuro is a wanderer tell us something right off the bat because a wandering samurai is, by definition, not being ruled over by a just and wise ruler. That is indeed the case because the two movies that feature the character of Sanjuro, Yojimbo and Sanjuro, are set in the declining phase of the Tokugawa era of Japan. At that time there was a huge problem with the samurai who had been made redundant from their traditional role serving the various clan leaders around the country. Many did, in fact, turn to crime.

In the first movie, Yojimbo, Sanjuro wanders into a village that is being torn apart by two mob bosses. The two strongmen are hiring whatever criminals they can find to try and build up a force that can destroy the other. Sanjuro, as a skilled Warrior, becomes a highly prized asset whose services both strongmen try to obtain. Meanwhile, the local authorities are corrupt and taking bribes from the two mafia bosses. Sanjuro comes up with a plan to hasten the destruction of the two groups but, when his plan is foiled, he gets sucked more and more into the situation and eventually must use all his wits just to survive.

Yojimbo is considered one of Kurosawa’s most influential movies. It was the inspiration for many a western film. In fact, Sergio Leone was so inspired by it that he lost a lawsuit to Kurosawa who successfully argued that A Fistful of Dollars was a copyright violation.

In my opinion, the follow-up film, Sanjuro is far more interesting since it involves the samurai wandering into a town where there is still a just ruling class but one that is under attack. Sanjuro’s job is then to perform the archetypal mission of the Warrior by holding the bad guys to account and restoring justice and wisdom to its proper place.

Sanjuro and his group of clueless aristocrats

This might sound like a classic Warrior movie with plenty of opportunity for battle scenes and justice to be served. That it is. But the movie is far more subtle than that. In fact, what is really going on is nothing more or less than the Orphan – Elder dynamic that I’ve written about extensively over the last couple of years. Sanjuro’s mission is, in fact, to initiate a group of Orphans into the ways of the world.

This forms the opening scene of the movie. A group of naïve young aristocrats, one of whom is the nephew of the clan leader, has discovered a fraud committed in the court and written a petition to the leader to address it. The leader tells them he will handle the situation himself. Unsatisfied with this response, they go to the superintendent. Unbeknownst to them, the superintendent is the crooked one and a sequence of events unfolds where the samurai saves the group from the superintendent’s men and then must try to rescue the clan leader who has now been framed for the crime by the superintendent himself. (Framing your opponent for the crime you committed is a story as old as politics.)

In archetypal terms, the group of young aristocrats are the Orphans trying to make their way in the world. They are overenthusiastic and naïve. The uncle, the leader of the clan, may want to handle the corruption quietly, but in doing so he provides no guidance or learning opportunity for the Orphans. He fails to become their Elder. Accordingly, they go and do something silly by alerting the very man who is behind the corruption who then tries to kill them.

Sanjuro happens to overhear their conversation. As an experienced man of the world, he instantly weighs up the matter and concludes that the superintendent is the corrupt one. Since Sanjuro has just arrived in town and owes no allegiance to the young aristocrats, he has no compunction talking to them and treating them like the fools that they are. For their part, they neither understand his ways nor trust him, despite the fact that he repeatedly saves their lives.

In this way, the movie Sanjuro is a demonstration of the archetypal breakdown of the Orphan – Elder relationship. It’s not enough to have just and noble leaders. That can work as long as those leaders are in place. But what happens when they are gone? A society must train the next generation of leaders. Therefore, somebody has to become an Elder to that next generation of Orphans and pass on the knowledge and skills required to continue the culture. That is the problem in the clan. The clan leader is failing to fulfill his role as Elder and has allowed the young aristocrats, the archetypal Orphans, to blunder into trouble.

Of course, the clan itself is under attack from the shadow form of the Warrior. The superintendent represents the Warrior class of the clan but he is the one behind the corruption. It takes the noble Warrior, Sanjuro, to restore the clan to stability by riding into town and saving the aristocrats from their own naivete.

Thus, Sanjuro is partly the story of the coming-of-age of the young aristocrats. They are going to have to learn about the real dangers of holding political power where naivete and innocence can get you killed. If that’s true, it makes Sanjuro their Elder.

Remembering the archetypal table I introduced last year:-

OrphanPubertyStudent, apprenticeIntellect
AdultMaturityEconomic, political, sexual maturityWill
ElderOld Age (menopause)Mentor, Elder, (Retired)Soul

The Warrior archetype is included in the generic Adult archetype alongside the two other primary archetypes of Ruler and the Sage (priest/scientist/wizard). Sanjuro begins the movie as the Warrior and is thrown together with a group of Orphans. His mission is to teach them the ways of the world. In order to do that, he must transcend to the next level in the table. He must become an Elder and confront his Soul.

What does Soul mean in this context? It means doing what is right for its own sake. In the earlier film, Yojimbo, Sanjuro’s mission was the standard Warrior’s mission. He had to kill the bad guys. That is the Warrior’s archetypal job. What is left ambiguous in the first movie is whether Sanjuro is doing what is right. Is it right to hasten the destruction of a town that is doomed to destroy itself anyway? Of course, the movie finds a way to make it clear that Sanjuro is doing what is right but it’s not so naïve to present this as an unalloyed victory.

This comes back to the eternal problem faced by the Warrior. How can you know that the use of lethal force is the best course of action? The answer is you can’t because the second and third order effects of lethal force can never be predicted in advance. The Warrior must act with imperfect information. Once the battle is over and the second and third order effects are known, it’s always possible to make the argument that the use of lethal force wasn’t worth it. Moral ambiguity is a problem that the Warrior must deal with. The temptation is to discard morality altogether, but that way leads to the shadow side of the Warrior.

Since Warriors need to get paid like anybody else, there is the added temptation to treat the work like a job. That’s exactly what we see at the beginning of Sanjuro. The aristocrats thank the samurai for his help by offering payment. Sanjuro takes that payment and is about to walk away when he realises that the superintendent is going to gobble up the young fools unless he stays and helps them. Thus, Sanjuro’s decision at the very start of the movie is to do what is right even though it is going to involve significant personal risk for little to no personal gain. That’s his first step towards the Elder archetype and the Soul.

I mentioned in last year’s posts about Shakespeare that the male Soul is almost always represented in film and literature by a female character which symbolises the Jungian anima. Sure enough, in Sanjuro, we find the anima represented by two noblewomen, the wife and daughter of the clan Ruler. The wife provides the wisdom that Sanjuro needs to hear and which exemplifies his transcendence to the Elder archetype: the best sword is kept in its sheath. We can translate this to more general archetypal terms: the strongest Will must be tempered by Soul.

The symbolic anima
The Warrior vs the Shadow Warrior

It is this message that Kurosawa reinforces in the dramatic final scene of the movie. The counterpart to Sanjuro throughout the movie is the equally strong Warrior, Hanbei Muroto. Muroto is the Shadow Warrior working for the corrupt Shadow Ruler, the superintendent. Sanjuro outsmarts Muroto several times during the film using various deceptions the last of which is discovered by his opponent leading him to challenge Sanjuro to a duel. Sanjuro attempts to talk him out of it but Muroto is insistent.

The film ends with an interesting archetypal observation which Kurosawa makes in several of his other films. Only the Warrior can appreciate the challenges faced by other Warriors, including and especially the temptations of the shadow forms of the archetype. Sanjuro and Muroto may be enemies by circumstance, but they are friends to the extent that both understand what it means to be a Warrior when nobody around them, especially the foolish young aristocrats, has any idea. The final scene captures both Sanjuro’s transcendence and Muroto’s downfall. Muroto is the Warrior who cannot sheath his sword. He succumbs to the shadow form of the archetype: the hyper-masculine. Sanjuro learns that the best sword is kept in its sheath.

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