Exceptionally shot, played, scored and staged, Kurosawa's follow-up to his hit comedic actioner Yojimbo is every bit as good as its predecessor, and far better photographed. Reprising his role as the nameless, slovenly, chin-scratching master swordsman, Mifune is in fine, ferocious form - as is Nakadai as yet another of so many imposing villains. The supporting cast is terrific, as well: veterans Takashi Shimura and Kamatari Fujiwara ham it up delightfully as a pair of witless antagonists, Yuzo Kayama exudes bold charisma in the Upstanding Young Man role he was typecast for and Takako Irie imparts genteel wisdom as a court matron. As lightweight chanbara comes, this is as good as it gets - a cunningly plotted, calculatedly proportionate mix of high action and fresh comedy. A few unlikely plot twists are nicely offset by humorous contrivances, and the film's many surprises are sure to keep even those uninitiated to the genre guessing and involved until its final duel - among the briefest and bloodiest to be seen in any jidaigeki.
This Criterion disc has most of what you'd expect from a release of that vaunted distributor: pristine audiovisual quality, theatrical trailers, a good featurette, attractive menus and a commentary track that's sure to put even the most devoted cineast into a coma.
I can't possibly overstate the excellence of this edition. Even though Sanjuro was greenlit by Toho to further capitalize on the runaway success of Yojimbo only a year later, the studio furnished Kurosawa with better equipment and more shooting time, and he took full advantage of these assets to produce one of his most visually stimulating black & white features. The balanced contrast of the anamorphic picture has been perfectly preserved in this excellent transfer from a first-rate print; none of those crucial dark scenes are over- or underexposed. It sounds great, too - both the Dolby Digital 1.0 mono and Dolby Digital 3.0 stereo audio (re-recorded from the muscular Perspecta Stereo soundtrack) are almost perfectly transparent.
I'm of the opinion that the vast majority of those precious few engaging audio commentaries are spoken by members of the movie's principal cast and crew. Film historian Stephen Prince voiced the track for this disc, which did nothing to change this opinion. Criterion pioneered the commentary track with their Laserdisc edition of King Kong in 1984; unfortunately, their usual practice of commissioning historians to record them usually yields pretty bland results. Prince is a much better orator than most of his ilk and he has a wealth of information to convey. Unfortunately, his perspective and knowledge are better suited to a textual medium and without any direct involvement with the movie's production, his insights just aren't terribly interesting.
Many of Criterion's Kurosawa DVDs feature corresponding episodes from the Toho retrospective series, Akira Kurosawa: It Is Wonderful to Create. The Sanjuro entry on this disc is a nice treat, and relates stories pertaining to the film's production by means of narration and interviews with Nakadai, DP Takao Saito and many other cast and crew members. It's a charming (if overtly reverential) presentation, the highlight of which is a recounting by Nakadai and others of how the famous final duel was shot.
One of the two theatrical trailers is full-length and the other a teaser; both utilize footage shot between takes to exploit Kurosawa's celebrity and the success of Yojimbo. The stills gallery consists of photos of Kurosawa on set, and it's nice to look at.
Framed by film stills and publicity shots, and underlaid with late Edo-period damask patterns, the menus of this disc (like those of the Yojimbo DVD) are elegant and wholly accessible. Chapter selections are available for the film, the featurette and even the commentary track. Available either in this individual edition or bundled with Yojimbo, this is a big step up from the middling late-'90s release and especially the Home Vision VHS edition. For Kurosawa fans, chanbara enthusiasts and anyone who just enjoys exciting, funny stories well told, this is well worth its high price.