As the summer blockbuster season is officially winding down, I did not visit theaters at all during the past week. Fortunately, even if I only saw two films at home, I can tell you right now they gave me no shortage of talking points.
Sanjuro by Akira Kurosawa (1962)
Nine young samurai have concluded that Chamberlain Mutsuta is a corrupt lord after having torn up their petition against organized crime. Someone among the group informs the local superintendent, Kikui, who agrees to deal with Mutsuta. The nine secretly meet at a shrine and discuss the problem. As they talk, a nameless ronin emerges from the other room after having rested up. He has overheard their plans and points out that the superintendent himself may be the corrupt official. The samurai balk at this supposition, but the ronin is quickly proven correct when they find themselves surrounded by Kikui’s men. After successfully fending off the attackers, the samurai decide that because Kikui would work to silence Mutsuta, the lord and his family are now in grave peril. With the ronin joining them, the samurai depart on a dangerous rescue operation, determined to put an end to Kikui’s corruption.
Before I get into my thoughts on this film, I feel a three-part question is in order. How many of you out there have experienced a fairly serious work whose sequel took on a drastically lighter, borderline comedic tone? Now of those works, how many of them stuck the grizzled main character with a goofy, idiot sidekick? Now of those works, how many of them were actually good? I don’t wish to come across as overly presumptuous, but I’m going to guess the number you’re thinking of is zero. If you came up with a number greater than zero, I’m going to assume it’s still fairly low.
There’s a simple reason why I asked this series of questions; it’s because nothing about this film screams “Good idea” when you’re parsing its basic premise. Yojimbo was a dark adventure film in which a nameless ronin wanders into a town and drives the two rival gangs running it into destroying one another. He is a classic example of an anti-hero: valiant and righteous, yet also a shockingly effective manipulator with an unapologetically rough demeanor. With Sanjuro, Mr. Kurosawa saw fit to give the same guile protagonist not one, but nine goofy, idiot sidekicks whose antics often make things difficult for him. In nearly every situation, making a sequel like this would be a recipe for disaster – the kind of material that would show up on innumerable “What were they thinking?” lists for decades to come. It especially didn’t help that this film was altered to incorporate the nameless ronin of Yojimbo, suggesting it wasn’t planned as a sequel in the first place. However, for any cinephile who could answer my multilayered question with a number greater than zero, I’m positive one of the examples you thought of was none other than Sanjuro.
With the odds massively stacked against it, the driving question is how does it work so well? I would say that Sanjuro works because its gags are humorous, but they wouldn’t have felt out of place in Yojimbo. It has a very dry sense of humor. It’s to the point where one could conceivably fail to catch onto the fact that they’re watching a comedy. Nonetheless, the bumbling antics of the nine samurai bring to mind the two dimwitted farmers from The Hidden Fortress, which leads to several bouts of situational comedy.
I would also have to say the nine samurai are effective as comic relief because their propensity to mess up their own rescue operation is more due to naiveté than actual stupidity. Furthermore, they actually do a great job complementing the ronin’s character. In Yojimbo, things more or less went according to his plan until the final act. Here, he is constantly altering his plan to compensate for the incompetence of his newfound comrades. In other words, while the original film established him as a chessmaster, the sequel demonstrates he is just as good at thinking on his feet, making his machinations all the more impressive.
The film also does an excellent job deconstructing the ronin’s tendency to resort to violence. |After the chamberlain’s wife professes her wisdom, he begins to question his habit of killing people, which makes his slaughtering of twenty-seven men by the end of the film hit hard. It lends a bittersweet note to the ending – albeit one in which everything turns out well for the forces of good. None of this stops his final encounter with Muroto, Kikui’s second-in-command, from being one of the single best moments in Kurosawa’s canon. To borrow a cliché, one could cut the tension with a knife in when Muroto and the ronin are staring each other down, and the subsequent explosion of blood legitimately caught me off-guard. Amusingly, it caught the actors off-guard as well; the pump that was meant to shoot blood blew a coupling when activated, causing it to blast out at full pressure rather than at the intended rate. However, the actors remained in character, and Mr. Kurosawa decided to keep the take as it was because it looked impressive and it would’ve been too difficult to clean the blood off the set and costumes for a second take. So for any anime fans out there, you now know that one of the genre’s more well-known tropes started by compete accident.|
All in all, I didn’t like Sanjuro quite as much as its predecessor, but to be fair, it had a lot to live up to and it is unquestionably a classic film in its own right. It’s amusing, earnest, and affecting all at once – something few filmmakers can claim to have done well. See it and Yojimbo if you haven’t already; you will not be disappointed.
Brazil by Terry Gilliam (1985)
Brazil takes place in a dystopian, bureaucratic future besieged by frequent terrorist bombings. Sam Lowry, a low-level government employee finds his job soul-crushingly boring. He often daydreams of saving a damsel in distress. One day, an employee swats a fly, causing it to jam itself into a printer. This results in the accidental incarnation and accidental death via interrogation of Archibald Buttle when they intended to arrest Archibald Tuttle, who is a suspected terrorist. While visiting Buttle’s widow, Sam is astounded when her neighbor resembles the woman from his reoccurring dreams. However, in Jill’s efforts to help Mrs. Buttle determine what happened to her husband, she is now considered a terrorist. Sam is now determined to track her down before the government can arrest her.
What led me to discover Brazil is somewhat complicated. I discovered the existence of the film back in either the late 2000s or early 2010s when Doug Walker, better known as the Nostalgia Critic, placed it on his list of his twenty favorite films. It was particularly noteworthy because it took the number one spot. Looking at Rotten Tomatoes seemed to only confirm the film’s quality, achieving a score greater than 95%. Despite wanting to see it for myself, I ended up forgetting about it for quite some time. It wasn’t until last year when I began seeing more films at home that I finally became interested in checking it out. However, I was slightly hesitant because from what little I heard of Brazil, it had all the makings of the kinds of stories I had long since become tired of, being a dystopian satire with a highly depressing ending. In other words, it sounded like a precedent for the soulless, satirical science fiction pieces that regularly get acclaim left, right, and center in the 2010s. Nonetheless, I insist on giving any work a chance before judging it.
Ultimately, I have to say that, while I was going into this film with a wary attitude, Brazil was better than I thought it was going to be. In fact, it manages to highlight exactly how modern dystopian fiction falls flat by coming across as a remarkable deconstruction of the genre. It’s a world in which nothing works, food is artificial garbage, the government punishes its citizens in wildly disproportionate ways, people have to pay to breathe fresh air, and citizens are too apathetic to do anything about their problems. At the same time, a majority of the government’s worst actions are brought about due to incompetence rather than malice. It’s to the point where the terrorist bombings are implied to technological malfunctions. |Plus, when the police pursue Sam at the end, the ministry does have a legitimate reason to do so given that he committed numerous crimes in his odyssey – some of which resulted in multiple deaths.| This right here goes a long way in making the setting more palatable than the standard approach of taking George Orwell’s 1984, ramping the human atrocities up to eleven, and claiming it’s 100% realistic.
Now even with all of the good things I can say about it, I’m sure some of you are wondering what I thought of the ending. I have failed multiple games and films that failed to stick the landing, and the ending of this film has quite a storied history. Universal was contracted to distribute Brazil in the United States, and the executives claimed the intended ending tested poorly. The chairman insisted on a re-edit in order to end the film on a happier note. Mr. Gilliam resisted this change at every opportunity, prompting a second editing team to enter production without his knowledge. This resulted in a version of Brazil with a consumer-friendly ending. In response, Mr. Gilliam conducted private screenings of his own cut without Universal’s permission for both film schools and local critics. When the film was awarded the Los Angeles Film Critics Association award for “Best Picture”, the studio relented, agreeing to release a modified version supervised by Mr. Gilliam.
With that backstory out of the way, I have to say I find the last act of Brazil to be a fascinating subject because under most circumstances, the motions it goes through would indeed cause me to invoke my scoring rule regarding weak endings. As it stands, it’s actually quite effective. |Sam’s friend, Jack, is about to torture information out of him after the police killed Jill while resisting arrest. From here, a resistance group arrives break into the ministry and rescue Sam. He then finds himself in a trailer being driven by Jill and the two leave the city together. Nothing I just described actually happened. As it turns out, Sam had been so thoroughly tortured by Jack, he retreated into a blissful insanity; his happy ending was a delusion. Declaring him a lost cause, Jack leaves the room as Sam continues to humming to himself. If it’s a film I’ve seen recently that I would liken this development to, it’s Upgrade. Brazil succeeds because it successfully conveys that things are too good to be true with Sam serendipitously falling into a coffin at one point and emerging in a completely different building to evade the authorities. While Upgrade gives its audience legitimate hope that things turned out alright before snatching that hope away and calling them idiots for their idealism, Brazil provides a highly sarcastic happy ending that is an elaborate joke on those not paying attention. Those who are paying attention call the film’s bluff while everyone else is made the butt of the joke.|
Brazil was notably not liked by Roger Ebert, who only gave it two stars. Though I myself wouldn’t be quick to count it among my absolute favorites, I do think it is better than he gave it credit for. Even if you don’t like these kinds of stories, I feel it’s worth giving a shot anyway.