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  1. Akira Kurosawa made the best samurai movies in cinematic history, since he mixed in other elements (spaghetti westerns!) and crafted the action around the stories. And the two-movie pack of “Yojimbo” and “Sanjuro” is deeply satisfying — vivid, compelling, often humorous and they star the fantastic Toshiro Mifune.

    “Yojimbo” was an adaptation of Dashiell Hammett’s “Red Harvest,” the story of a detective who cleans up a city. But Kurosawa yanks the action across the world, to a grizzled samurai (Mifune) who wanders into an impoverished town, after hearing a farmer talking about the corruption there.

    He wasn’t kidding — the nearby town is a battleground for two warring clans and the corrupt police. The samurai knows that he’s smarter than anyone else in the town, so he starts playing the two clans against one another, while deftly sidestepping the inevitable clashes.

    If “Yojimbo” is a dark comedy, “Sanjuro” is more of a straight-out comedy, with the return of Mifune’s scruffy, wily hero. This time, he rescues nine naive, inept young noblemen from the Superintendent’s thugs, and after figuring out the conspiracy that is forming in a nearby town, he decides to rescue the Superintendant, his wife and daughter.

    Unfortunately, the samurai (now going by the name of Sanjuro Tsubaki) soon finds that the noblemen aren’t very bright, and they also have a bad habit of disobeying him, since he is of lower rank than they are. He concocts a plan to thwart the Superintendant and his deadly lieutenant… assuming his army of nine doesn’t botch it.

    Kurosawa was a lover of American cowboy flicks, and at times this shows, especially in the rugged hero, who acts like a medieval Japanese gunslinger (he even has the piercing eyes for it). Mifune plays his character like a mellower version of a Clint Eastwood anti-hero, and it’s got deserted streets, corrupt officials, frenetic attacks on the bad guys, and other fun tropes of the genre.

    But first and foremost, these are solid stories, weaving together intricate conspiracies, manipulation, and some blood-spurting action sequences with flashing swords, Kurosawa’s filmmaking is not quite flawless — the dead have a tendency not to bleed (or they bleed too much) — but for form it can’t be beaten. Battle scenes have a flash-bang intensity, or the slow, building pressure of duels, and he knows when to defuse them with liberal amounts of humor (“Get back in the cupboard!”).

    Mifune is the ideal rogue samurai — he’s gritty, unpretentious, and laughs openly when he sees a bunch of bullies who are too afraid to actually fight. Kurosawa gives him more dimension in the second movie, where he is compared to an “unsheathed blade” and compares himself to one of the villains, because they are the same kind of person.

    Criterion is putting this blu-ray two-pack out, so you know it’s gonna be good stuff — it’s going to have fat booklets with essays, notes from Kurosawa’s crew, galleries, behind-the-scenes stuff, trailers, and selected documentaries from some Kurosawa-centric series “Akira Kurosawa: It Is Wonderful to Create”… specifically, the ones involving THESE two movies. And they’re being released on Kurosawa’s 100th birthday… sweet.

    For any rabid cinephile, Kurosawa’s films are a must. Epic action movies with plenty of swords, comedy and grizzled heroes don’t come any better than these.
    Rating: 5 / 5

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