When a mediocre or terrible film from a no-name director gets remade, the bar is set incredibly low. Hollywood can remake a trashy Canadian film like My Bloody Valentine, and turn out a product that, at the very least, has the potential to be more entertaining than its filmic antecedent. But when you have the combination of a truly great film, a truly great director, and a wonderful performance from an iconic star, what would be the point of a commissioning a remake? How could you possibly succeed?
For an American analogue, consider Gus Van Sant’s 1998 re-imagining of Alfred Hitchcock’s Psycho with Vince Vaughn replacing Anthony Perkins in the role of Norman Bates. The film tries to be a “shot-for-shot” remake with a few modern innovations here and there, but for reasons too plentiful to mention, it simply doesn’t work. The film doesn’t come close to matching the power of the original, and even worse, it doesn’t even work as its own thing.
With that perspective in mind, my attention now turns to Tsubaki Sanjuro, the 2007 remake of the well-liked 1962 film, which fulfills the latter model I described so precisely – great film, a legendary director in Akira Kurosawa, and an equally legendary star, Toshiro Mifune, in the lead role. Really, what hope do the film, its director Yoshimitsu Morita, and its star Yuji Oda have in the shadow of such cinematic heavyweights?
From the moment the project was announced, the deck was stacked against Tsubaki Sanjuro On a personal note, the 1962 film is one of my all-time favorites, but even so, I will be the first to admit that I was rooting for this film to succeed. But it doesn’t. If anything, the resulting lesson of this film isn’t “Don’t remake a classic.” Instead, I would argue that the filmmakers erred in their slavish faithfulness to the script and look of the original film, which fails to replicate the energy and feel of the original - all largely due to miscasting, pacing, and puzzling staging choices.
With a plot identical to its predecessor, the film begins in the midst of a clandestine gathering of nine men, all of whom are discussing what to do about the corruption in their clan. Izaka (Kenichi Matsuyama), the de facto leader of the group, believes that his high-ranking, but homely-looking uncle, Chamberlain Mutsuta (Makoto Fujita) is behind the whole conspiracy because he discourages further investigation, while the handsome superintendent, Kikui (Tokuma Nishioka) is virtuous because he promises to ferret out the guilty parties and bring them to justice.
The men are just about to rush off and confront Mutsuta when they are interrupted by an eavesdropping ronin (Yuji Oda). In his trademarked caustic manner, the scruffy-looking samurai (who will later identify himself as “Tsubaki Sanjuro”) tells the boys that that they’ve got the situation completely reversed: the chamberlain is the good guy, and the superintendent is the one responsible for all the corruption. Sanjuro turns out to be absolutely right, as Kikui’s men have gathered around their secret meeting place with the intent to slaughter everyone inside.
With some verbal subterfuge and a little brute force, Sanjuro repels the assassins and earns the respect of Kikui’s right-hand man, Muroto (Etushi Toyokawa). When Kikui’s men leave, Sanjuro decides that he can’t abandon these nine men to their own devices. Although good-hearted, they are dumb, impulsive, and sure to get themselves killed without his help. Sanjuro plays reluctant mentor, nursemaid, and guardian angel to this hapless group of heroes, as he tries to outwit the conspirators and save Mutsuta and his family from harm.
In watching this remake, I was astounded at how old-fashioned it seemed, that perception stemming largely from the director’s staging of the scenes. Most of the time, the film seems to replicate the mise-en-scene of the original film, right down to the angles and actor placement. But to what purpose? It really doesn’t help the film in any way, and sometimes that imitative quality seems to be on autopilot. For instance, in the original, the Chamberlain makes a joke in which he refers to himself as “horse-faced” and actually looks the part, whereas in the remake, the line is retained, but the actor looks nothing remotely like a horse. The joke is ruined. Why maintain that piece of dialogue? Why cast someone who looks normal?
Curiously, when the film does try to innovate, there are problems as well. Consider how the film handles the climactic swordfight. The original film boasts probably one of the greatest duels ever put on film, known for its use of a single take, a nerve-wracking prelude, and an unexpectedly explosive finale. To be fair, such an ending would be difficult to replicate to suit modern tastes, but the director’s decision to extend the fight, use multiple edits, employ slow-motion, and resort to a more subdued outcome seems to exemplify one of the main problems of the film. When the film isn’t simply copying, but actually trying to do something different, it fails miserably. For an audience that’s aware of the original, the ending of this duel will be disappointing; for new audiences, it will feel sadly perfunctory.
Of course, the biggest problem of the film is the casting. Yuji Oda is no Toshiro Mifune, but who is? Still, he seems too young and too goofy to inhabit the role of a grizzled, world-weary, but experienced antihero. It also doesn’t help that Oda’s swordsplay isn’t that great. I never believed for a moment that he was a master swordsman or a veteran of any battles on any scale. The frenzy of the swordsmanship in the original, which include scenes where Mifune cuts down numerous foes one after the other with brutal accuracy, is sorely lacking in the remake. Perhaps that can be chalked up to the fight coordinator, but it’s also clear that Yuji Oda just doesn’t have the swaggering physicality of Mifune. This is “Sanjuro Lite,” to be sure.
The problems with casting aren’t limited to the film's star. Kenichi Matsuyama’s acting is completely unnatural, unnecessarily broad, and too contemporary for the period setting. Whereas Izaka and his men were serious, if a little headstrong and naïve, the ones portrayed in the remake are completely out of their depth. They seem like contemporary otakus clad in samurai gear. Of course, it’s the director’s choice to make, but it takes away from the verisimilitude we need to be invested in the story. In the original, there was the sense that these men could actually pull things together with the right leadership – a feeling which made Sanjuro’s decision to help them all the more meaningful. But in the remake, Sanjuro truly is really nothing more than a babysitter.
For viewers who have seen Kurosawa’s Sanjuro, I think this film will simply pale in comparison. I don’t think it’s blasphemous to remake a great film – one can almost see how a great film could be thought of as a great play, open to new interpretations and new performances. There have been several wonderful versions of Hamlet, so can there not be several wonderful versions of Sanjuro too? Perhaps that’s exactly what’s so frustrating about this 2007 remake: it doesn’t really try to do anything new with the material. The film remains faithful to Kurosawa’s film, and yet it contains none of the energy that makes the original a classic.
For viewers who have no experience with Kurosawa’s Sanjuro, I don’t think they’ll rate this film that badly. Its clever, only slightly modified script seems to work no matter who is filming it, and it’s still chock full of funny moments as well as serious asides about what constitutes a “real samurai.” But without Kurosawa’s lively direction or a performance on par with Mifune's, this film might feel a bit old-fashioned – and in the worst sense of the term. Whereas Kurosawa’s film still feels fresh and alive nearly fifty years later, Tsubaki Sanjuro is bloated, sluggish, and soft in the middle. (Calvin McMillin, 2009)