Iconic and Unforgettable. Two words that can best describe "YOJIMBO" (1961)--a tale of an alienated, scornful Ronin anti-hero, permanently inked into the pages of samurai history .
Arguably Kurosawa Akira's most famous film alongside with his other Jidai Geki masterpiece, "Seven Samurai". (But what about other forgotten films like "Sanshiro Sugata and "Stray Dog"?) First released in 1961, the film was a tremendous success and paved the way for other films in the samurai genre. The lead character played by Toshiro Mifune would become his most famous role and would invigorate the world of Japanese cinema with the emergence of other lone wolf swordsmen long before the blind swordsman Zatoichi started swinging his sword. "Yojimbo" also marks his reunion with cinematographer Miyagawa Kazuo; together the two had awed western audiences with their other masterpiece called "Rashomon" in the 1950‘s. Akira Kurosawa's "Yojimbo" is also the inspiration for Sergio Leone's "Fistful of Dollars" and other "spaghetti westerns"--the Italians are forever in the debt of Japanese Jidai Geki films.
A wandering Ronin, comes across a small town where Sheido, a wealthy silk merchant who also controls a brothel and Ushitora, a rich sake brewer along with their gangs of cutthroats constantly battle for control of the town. A wimpy constable and a town mayor allows the two feuding gangs do as they want, and the townsfolk suffers from their constant fights. The wandering samurai displays his skill with a sword and it is rather obvious that the gang who secures his services would have the clear advantage. However, things wouldn't be so easy for Sheido and Ushitora, as the nameless samurai (later known as "Sanjuro Kuwabatake") has his own agenda and plays both sides against the other.
So just what is it that makes "Yojimbo" so awesome?
Well, Kurosawa and Miyagawa is a dream team of Japanese filmmaking. They both superbly complement each other's skill. The director has very meticulous set ups and Miyagawa excellently does a deep focus technique in camera work, a style where everything (the foreground and the background) stays in perfect focus; thereby complementing Kurosawa's rich, complex visuals. So just how important is this? It allowed for some very nice techniques that allowed certain subtle mini-scenes receive attention and careful exposition. This was displayed when tavern keeper Gonji (Eijiro Tono) gave the layout and power structures in this shabby little town by opening shutters to our wandering Sanjuro; individuals are shown in the sub-sections of the small wooden openings. It is a very useful device in compact storytelling, and manages to say a lot of things within a few quick and simple shots. A very methodical and meticulous style that revolutionized the way films were made.
Oh, I'm not done yet.
At the beginning of the film, the character of our wandering ronin is fully fleshed out in the first few minutes of the film. We see him with his back turned, Sanjuro shrugs his shoulders and scratches his head quite a lot because he is itchy and haven't bathe in awhile. When he thinks, he pulls his hand inside his kimono sleeve and touches his chin; a simple gesture to suggest that he is cunning, clandestine, stealthy and calculating. The move is a visual guide to his character, giving the viewer an idea as to what this unkempt samurai is all about. When Sanjuro comes to a fork on the road, he throws a stick in the air and goes to the direction where it points. A clear exposition of someone looking for purpose with no intended destination. These things are what made Kurosawa such a celebrated filmmaker, he makes you pay attention to his simple visuals and trains the viewer to read between the lines. Kurosawa had created a multi-layered lead character with so many dimensions, and while we are almost certain that he is no defender of justice, we are privy to his own crisis of conscience.
Actor Toshiro Mifune always meshed well with Akira Kurosawa. Together they have made several unforgettable films that put them both on the map. I don't like to sound repetitive, but I always saw Mifune with a very strong charismatic presence onscreen. He has that personality that makes him "own" his role--his character just attains a certain dimension that gives the character life. Mifune had taken on less than stellar roles to support himself under less efficient directors because it takes Kurosawa time to put together a film. Mifune may not have a flawless resume but don't let those films be your cause to judge his skills as an actor.Now let's break down the film's screenplay, characters and dialogue. The kindly tavern keeper, Gonji serves as the moral center of the film as he constantly lectures our wandering samurai that killing is wrong. Sanjuro says "..in this town, I'll get paid killing and this town is full of men who are better off dead". This simple sentence gives a lot of character development to the town itself and to our anti-hero. It demonstrates that Sanjuro himself is an opportunist and may well have only come to profit out of the town's disorder. But much to his own surprise, he finds himself slowly developing compassion as he befriends Gonji and becomes enraged when he hears the plight of the Kohei and Nui. Human nature and compassion are excellently played in its screenplay however powerful and at times subtle it may appear to be.
The screenplay is just so full of dark humor that makes the film truly enjoyable. It may have a lighter tone than other chambara films by Masaki Kobayashi but keep in mind that this film deals with the dealings of the common folk--farmers, peasants, ronins and the like. The film is full of metaphors that are excellently played at. Accompanied by the soundtrack by Masaru Sato, the film exudes a playful but percussive arrangements that fits the film's mood. The characters are given a life of their own and allowed room to develop in each frame. Tatsuya Nakadai (Hara-Kiri, Sword of Doom) also makes an appearance as Uno, the pistol-wielding sociopath brother of the sake merchant. This early pistol provides a cheapness to Ushitora's group, and meant as an ace in their sleeve--why use a gun when everyone else is holding a sword?
The film has some nicely choreographed bits of swordplay but it isn't anything too flashy or extravagant. The swordfights are quick and precise. This may not be Mifune's crowning moment in displaying his convincing display of skills with a katana but nonetheless, the fights are fun to watch. They are nothing elaborate but prove to be extensions of our protagonist and as a display of his resolve and righteous fury. In the film's final act you see the blowing sandstorm to initiate the final showdown and Kurosawa did this to further begin a somber mood (began after Sanjuro gets beaten), which begins to abandon its somewhat darkly humorous pace.
"Yojimbo" has massive western appeal and those unfamiliar with samurai films would be well advised to check out this title first. This is a pivotal film to the samurai genre and is a great introduction to samurai films. See epics like "Samurai Rebellion", Inagaki‘s "Samurai Trilogy" and "Seven Samurai" when you are ready. "Yojimbo" is one hell of a masterpiece that will awaken your interest in samurai films.
HIGHEST POSSIBLE RECOMMENDATION! [5- Stars]
Fact: Anyone who has seen "A Fistful of Dollars" will notice striking similarities to this film. Leone's spaghetti western is an almost shot for shot remake of "Yojimbo". Kurosawa had wrote Sergio Leone about his displeasure about it that led to litigation. Apparently, Leone's group was trying to ask permission but could not reach Kurosawa--but they decided to go ahead with the project anyway. It culminated to Kurosawa being awarded 15 % of "Fistful of Dollars‘" worldwide receipts. Kurosawa then took a scene for "Yojimbo" from 1960's "The Magnificent Seven" (a remake of his own "Seven Samurai) which was ok, since he was taking a sort of "trophy" or reward in light of this artistic links. (scene where Sanjuro throws a dagger at Uno) Quite a bit ironic and also bit appropriate.
Video/Audio: 2.40 anamorphic widescreen. This Black and white Criterion re-mastered high definition transfer is exceptional. The film is very clean, radiant and full of contrast. The blacks are solid but maintains a grayish tone when needed. The re-mastered 3.0 Dolby Digital track is also impressive with the subtitles being well timed and well translated.
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