I am not, in principle, against remakes. I am against them when they add nothing to a movie that was perfectly good all by itself. The problem is that the economics of moviemaking no longer favor storytelling, let alone individual expressions of ideas. They are, more than ever, all about pumping out a product that can be pre-sold on the basis of its name before a single frame is shot. Remakes are one of the easiest ways to accomplish that.
I’m also convinced every country’s moviemaking industry eventually enters a phase — maybe even a terminal one — where that kind of moviemaking becomes prevalent and drives out most everything else. Japan seems to have entered this phase in earnest. Why else would we have a remake of Akira Kurosawa’s Sanjuro, a movie which proved that even when Kurosawa was not at his best he was still miles better than most other directors? Watching this retread was one of the most depressing experiences I have ever had in front of a screen.
The first and most obvious problem with Tsubaki Sanjuro is that it is one hundred percent too much a remake. It’s not just the same story, set in the same time period. It uses the exact same screenplay. It’s not so much a remake as a restaging. Worse, if you’ve seen Kurosawa’s version (and if you haven’t, go do it), it’s next to impossible to watch any scene in this film without the corresponding original lingering over it like a wraith. Consider a scene in the original, fairly late in the film, where Sanjuro loses his patience while listening to his cohorts trying and failing to come up with a coherent plan of action. He’s off to one side, trying and also failing to amuse himself by tracing a design on the wall with his finger. In its original form the scene’s hilarious. Now comes the remake, where the exact same thing happens — with the only exception being that Sanjuro’s fiddling with the pieces for a go board. This is not innovation.
That brings me to the second problem, which is at least as great: Yūji (Bayside Shakedown) Oda’s performance as Sanjuro. There is not and never will be another actor like Toshiro Mifune, for the same reason there will never be another you or me. It would be unfair to say Oda had to be anything like Mifune, but Oda has not created a performance that stands out at all from under Mifune’s shadow. The original Sanjuro was scruffy, irascible, bad-tempered, but had some unshakable core of strength inside of him. This Sanjuro is just plain scruffy; he’s like the guy you kick out of the house after he’s slept on your couch for a month, eaten everything in your fridge and run up a massive phone bill. It’s painful to watch him strive for and miss the same notes Mifune hit, because he’s being frog-marched through the same screenplay. I’m not even going to go into how another role, once filled by Tatsuya Nakadai, has been turned into nothing much at all.
All the plot details and on-screen beats have been retained, except for
the film's stupefying climax. Why remake Citizen Kane and leave out “Rosebud”?
Kurosawa has been remade a few times before, with wildly varying results. I wasn’t fond of the way his Seven Samurai, as fundamental a movie as there could be, was made into an animated production (Samurai 7), where they added length and convolution, but not depth. But I did admire the way Yojimbo, this movie’s own prequel, was remade as Kaze no Yojimbo — in big part because it was not a remake, but a re-working of the inspiration for the original film in a new direction. Seeing it gave me hope that the folks in charge of Kurosawa’s estate would be equally judicious about future projects in the same vein. Seeing this took that hope away.
I need to emphasize that this is not a bad movie in the sense of an incompetent one. It is lavishly photographed; the actors are well-directed and all deliver passable performances (Oda would be fine in another movie, I’m sure); the details of the samurai period are all spot-on. It’s just that there’s absolutely no point to the whole thing. It’s a soulless waste of everyone’s skills. And how dare they tamper with one of the most explosive endings to any film ever made. Why remake Citizen Kane only to leave out “Rosebud”?
Note: As it turns out, this production was put together as a tribute, to celebrate Kurosawa's 100th birthday. I applaud the intent, but based on the end results I'm not sure this was the best way to salute his work.