Without one special effects mistake made on a Kurosawa film in the 1960s, the entire genre of action movies would be completely different.
Action movies, as they exist today, would not be the same without a mistake made by a special effects team in the 1960s. Akira Kurosawa’s films are all incredibly influential, from Seven Samurai establishing action film structure to rashomon‘s unreliable narrators. However, it is his 1962 samurai movie, Sanjurothat may be the most impactful of them all.
At the climax of Sanjuro, Hanbei Muroto (Tatsuya Nakadai) demands satisfaction from Sanjuro Tsubaki (Toshiro Mifune) after being made a fool throughout the movie’s runtime. Sanjuro is reluctant to fight and attempts to dissuade Hanbei but to no avail. The subsequent duel is short: Hanbei is able to pull his blade from his sheath, but not before Sanjuro has already sliced straight through him. The duel is more reminiscent of a quick draw than a swordfight, which is fitting as Sanjuro‘s prequel, Yojimbodirectly influenced Clint Eastwood’s Man With No Name in Sergio Leone’s dollars trilogy. Sanjuro’s speed with his katana is emphasized by a geyser of blood erupting from Hanbei’s torso as he dies, coating everyone and everything around them.
While it’s incredibly impactful, the blood geyser was not supposed to happen like that. For the effect, Tatsuya Nakadai had a hose hidden under his costume that was filled up with fake blood and put under 30 pounds of pressure. However, when it came time to film the duel, a coupling in the hose broke. This meant that all of the blood was released at once instead of a smaller, more continuous flow of blood. The pressurized burst of blood was helped by the recipe of the fake blood itself: chocolate syrup diluted with sparkling water. Diluted chocolate syrup was a common recipe for fake blood in black and white movies. It was similarly used in the shower scene in Alfred Hitchcock’s Psycho. Despite it being a mistake, Akira Kurosawa loved the blood geyser and refused to reshoot the effect. It has since gone on to influence the entire action genre.
This influence can most clearly be seen in the films of Quentin Tarantino, most specifically in the “Crazy 88” fight in Kill Bill Vol. 1. In order to avoid a ban in the United States, the scene abruptly turns black and white when The Bride (Uma Thurman) starts dispatching O-Ren Ishii’s entire army, one by one, with her katana. With each kill, a similar geyser of blood erupted from the slain bodyguards. The scene is a clear homage to Kurosawa’s Sanjuro and one of the greatest action sequences ever made, punctuated by the massive amounts of blood spilled and one of Tarantino’s highest body counts.
The effect was so impressive that Kurosawa himself continued to utilize it in his later films. Lady Kaede’s Decapitation in 1985’s ran is similarly impactful to Hanbei’s death in Sanjuro because of the gigantic blood spray on the wall behind her. To this day, modern action movies continue to use the blood geyser effect. Sword fights in movies like The Princess would not be anywhere near as fun to watch without them. Every time an action movie character dies in a spectacular display of blood and carnage, it is due to one mistake on the set of Sanjuro.
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