Wednesday, December 19, 2012

One Shot: The Final Duel from Sanjuro

One amazing shot can take a good film and make it great, or take a great film and make it a classic. In each edition of One Shot I take a closer look at one of these shots. Today: Akira Kurosawa changes a genre forever with one spray of blood in Sanjuro.

In 1962, Akira Kurosawa was at the top of his game. With classics like Rashoman, Seven Samurai, and Throne of Blood under his belt he was already being lauded as Japan’s (and arguably the Earth’s) greatest director. Unlike many of today’s top directors, Kurosawa was able to make films that were both populist crowd pleasers and beautiful pieces of art, like Michael Bay and Stanley Kubrick rolled into one man.

Nowhere were these dueling goals, crowd pleasing and thoughtful art, more in harmony than in 1962’s Sanjuro. It was a semi-sequel to the previous year’s Yojimbo in that it featured the same main character: a gruff, street-smart samurai of few words but quick with a blade, played by the great Toshiro Mifune (Clint Eastwood played the part in the American remake Fist Full of Dollars). This time around the nameless Samurai finds himself shepherding around a gaggle of naïve and hapless samurai as they fight to save their clan from the plots of the villainous Superintendent.

Along the way the Samurai becomes more and more disillusioned with the violence and killing he is forced to engage in purely due to the stupidity and thoughtlessness of others.  Throughout the film he repeatedly spars with his opposite number, a brilliant young henchman of the Superintendent who is in many ways a dark reflection of the Samurai. In the end the Samurai defeats the young henchman through trickery and deception rather than skill with a blade.

In the final scene of the film, the young henchman Muroto confronts the Samurai at a dusty crossroads as he is trying to leave town. Masterless and disgraced, Muroto challenges the Samurai to a duel. After trying and failing to convince the younger man to change his mind, the Samurai agrees and the two square off for a fight to the death.

Kurusawa stages the entire sequence as one long shot, with the gaggle of young samurai watching in the background framed between the two men, who are standing conspiratorially close as they discuss the duel.

If this whole setup looks like a high noon scene from a Western that is no accident, Kurosawa was a big John Ford fan, and all of his Samurai movies show a distinct Western influence. Ironically, Kurosawa’s Samurai movies would go on to inspire a generation of Spaghetti Western directors in Italy, due in no small part to the ending of this shot.

The two men stare at each other for a long moment, appearing relaxed except for the intensity in their eyes, until suddenly they both draw their swords. The Samurai is just a bit faster, of course, and he slashes across Muroto’s chest, creating a shocking fountain of blood as the young man falls.

The blood is shocking first of all because it’s there at all. Up to this point Sanjuro has been a bloodless film. Plenty of people were killed, but all we see is a man getting hit by a sword and falling down. Its also shocking because there is so much of it. It flows out in a sudden, gushing, torrent. According to legend, Kurosawa wanted people to see the blood in order to drive home the violence and finality of this duel, but it was only supposed to be a short spurt. The effect malfunctioned sending fake blood out of the spout concealed in the actor’s clothes with such force that the actor had to struggle to keep from being lifted off the ground. Reportedly Kurosawa loved the result so much that he asked for no second take.

That blood fountain became iconic almost immediately, and after that it wasn’t possible to release a Samurai movie without fountains of fake blood spraying everywhere. Subsequent directors around the world based their entire careers around creating gorier and gorier effects. You can draw a straight line from this shot to such diverse modern masterworks as Harryhousen’s Clash of the Titans or Tarantino’s Kill Bill.

There is a good point to be made here about too much of a good thing. To an audience in 1962 that blood fountain was shocking and novel (and it still works, especially after viewing the entire film in all its bloodlessness), but today you have blood filled squibs popping off everywhere in every action or horror film with nowhere near the same effect. Kurosawa couldn’t have known that he was sending us down a road that ended in mass desensitization to violence, he just knew that he had made an awesome effect, and he was right.

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