Wednesday, March 11, 2009

Camellia Thirtysomething

The final Kurosawa movie at the Grand Illusion was a sequel to Yojimbo, Tsubaki Sanjuro. The title translates as "Camellia Thirty Year Old," roughly. As in Yojimbo, the man with no name simply states what is in front of him when asked his name. This is a really great movie, one of the few Kurosawa that I had never seen. I wasn't terribly excited about it, since I knew it was quickly put together as a sequel from a different script. I was way off; in many ways it is superior to Yojimbo, and the source material, a novel called Peaceful Days, probably helped with that. The iconic man with no name does better within the context of a broader world. He seems both more out of place and more admirable.

The basic story involves nine samurai who are attempting to ferret out corruption in their clan. They are repeatedly mistaken in their assumptions and reckless with their planning, and Mifune's character, the man with no name, guides and assists them. The overall plot is spare, with the heart of the story focused on the samurai, and the evil samurai's mercenary, called Hanbei.

There are some elements of the character that are explained in this film. A character comments that he takes money, which is dishonorable. He listens to the input of two women, which would be rare for the time and place. I like these elements, and they don't seem to be pandering. Mostly this is due to Mifune, who plays the character with the right combination of humor and intensity. He really must have been an amazing actor to be around.

The man with no name is an amazing character, in part because he is a person of modern sensibilities placed in the medieval past of Japan. The Japanese dialogue makes this clear. The subtitles don't work as well on this film, because there is less of an effective way to switch from a formal English to a modern dialect. We don't have the layers of formality, so we can't see the difference between Mifune's modern slang and the other samurais' formal feudal speech. The most obvious problem with the translation, though, is in the comedy. There are a few ancillary characters that play into the story, and how they speak is as important as any role they have in the plot. Two women and a captured enemy are all involved with the main characters' work to free the honest old samurai, imprisoned by the evil samurai. The older woman speaks in a polite, modern tone, making her judgments sound maternal and out of place. She seems sweet and clueless, and so does her daughter. At one point the captured enemy returns to the closet where he is ostensibly captive with an "excuse me." It's a nice comic moment, especially since he uses the version of the expression that has a light meaning, as though he had interrupted their schedule.

I'm sad to see an end to the Kurosawa festival. I would have liked some of his later works on the big screen, like Ran or Dreams. Watching Sanjuro, I understand why the period pieces get all of the attention. They are exceptionally well done, and they capture a world that is alien to Americans, and even to modern Japanese people. It's fascinating to see the court intrigue played out in a society where speech and honor mean something different than they do now. The final scene, where Hanbei is killed by the man with no name, is all the more sad for this reason. As in Yojimbo, the world is falling to pieces when two men like this are forced to kill one another. At one point earlier, the character even screams at the nine young plotters that they have forced him to kill. It has a relevance to the scene, but also to the state of affairs. Samurai like him are forced to become something evil in this world.

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