Remaking movies is a perilous business. Remake a bad film, and you run the risk of repeating the same mistakes. Remake a good one, and you run the risk of unfavourable comparisons. Remake a widely acknowledged classic, and you are surely sitting yourself up for failure.
This is very much the case with Tsubaki Sanjuro, a 2007 remake of Akira Kurosawa’s 1962 jidaigeki (Japanese period film) of the same name. The original film was intended to be an adaptation of a Shūgorō Yamamoto novel, but was rewritten to accommodate the popularity of Toshiro Mifune’s Sanjuro character from Kurosawa’s Yojimbo (1961). The 2007 edition, directed by Yoshimitsu Morita, does not bother with remaking Yojimbo and goes right for the sequel. It goes for the sequel so rigidly that it even uses the same screenplay co-written by Kurosawa.
It is a genuinely bizarre choice to make, because by adapting Kurosawa’s work so directly Morita actively invites – and fails in – comparison. Morita has a decent handle on the material, but he is no Akira Kurosawa. Who is? Likewise Yuji Oda is entertaining as the scruffy, manipulative ronin Sanjuro, but he is never at risk of supplanting Toshiro Mifune in the role. It ultimately makes Morita’s film more of a curiosity than a properly entertaining work. If you have seen Kurosawa’s film, then a weirdly leisurely colour duplicate is unlikely to satisfy. If you have never seen the original you might find the latter version more entertaining, but you will be watching the substandard version. A smarter choice might have been to bring back the Sanjuro character, but situate him inside a fresh narrative. Such a technique worked wonders for Japan’s range of Zatoichi follow-ups, and it could easily have paid solid dividends here.
For the viewers unfamiliar with Sanjuro: the titular ronin overhears nine young samurai meeting in secret to discuss the growing corruption in their town. Realising they have made a terrible mistake – they assumed the wrong local powerbroker was the corrupt one – Sanjuro takes pity on their predicament and works to bring down the criminal enterprises from within.
Yuji Oda lacks Mifune’s immense screen presence, which is not surprising, and it gives his Sanjuro a smaller, somewhat less intense presence. The variation of style, however, including a more openly comedic approach, does bring some much-needed energy to the film. It is oddly leisurely in pace. Despite using the same script, Morita’s re-imagining takes nearly half an hour longer to resolve. It does not feel particularly leaden or contemplative; it simply lacks the same narrative energy and economy of storytelling. Oda, of course, can only compensate so much.
This is such a hard film to judge. It certainly is not badly made, and taken on its own merits is a reasonably enjoyable samurai action-comedy. It simply lacks a sufficient reason to exist in the first place. Stumble upon in on your travels, and it will not waste your time. Actively seek it out, and unless you have a particular interest in remakes it probably will. Best to use your own judgement.