|Yojimbo (Criterion Collection Spin #51)|
|Written by Bill Warren|
|Monday, 27 September 1999|
No director made more outstanding films than Akira Kurosawa -- nobody, not John Ford, not Alfred Hitchcock. Unfortunately, he's known in the US more by his reputation than from many of his movies having been seen here. The major titles, "Rashomon," "The Seven Samurai," maybe one more, have been widely shown here and are available on video.
Fortunately, in 2001, Criterion began producing DVDs of what amounts to the Best of Kurosawa, and they rarely get better than "Yojimbo." This exuberant, violent comedy is one of the most entertaining foreign-language films ever released in the U.S., and has been remade, legally and not so legally, several times, most notably as "A Fistful of Dollars," the spaghetti Western that established director Sergio Leone and turned Clint Eastwood into an international star. More recently, Bruce Willis starred in "Last Man Standing," yet another remake.
Toshiro Mifune stars as Sanjuro, a ronin, a samurai without a master, who's so footloose that at crossroads, he tosses a stick and follows the direction it points. He's a sword for hire, cynical, a bit grimy (Mifune improvised shoulder twitches and scratches), looking for food and perhaps a job. He arrives in a small town where all the locals are hiding out -- neither he nor we see very many of them -- and which is so rough and tough that even Sanjuro is surprised to see a dog trotting by with a human hand in its mouth.
From the local sake seller, Gonji (Eijiro Tono), he learns that two rival groups of gamblers -- gangsters -- control the town, and have periodic battles. To show one faction he's an accomplished swordsman, Sanjuro picks a fight with warriors from the other side, killing most of his opponents, lopping the arm off another, and coming out unscathed. But he finds he can't trust them, and trades off -- then backs out of the conflict altogether. There's a great bit of him sitting atop an observation tower, laughing as the two groups bluster back and forth beneath him.
"Yojimbo" is a gorgeous movie, photographed in crisp, anamorphic black and white by Kazuo Miyagawa; Kurosawa himself edited. The outstanding score by Masaru Sato was a revelation in Japan; Kurosawa wanted something other than the traditional chambara (samurai film) score, and Sato delivered an imaginative, driving score. It's witty, dynamic and unforgettable, particularly the Sanjuro's-going-someplace theme.
Mifune's character is often called Yojimbo, which means "bodyguard," but he does identify himself as Sanjuro in the dialog. Sanjuro means "thirty years old," so it might not be his name anyway; after a glance out a window, he says his family name is "Kuwabatake" (mulberry field). In "Sanjuro" itself, he notices some flowering trees -- which figure in the plot -- and claims his family name is "Tsubaki" (camelia). But by whichever name, he's a great, mythic figure. No wonder the film has been remade over here several times; Sanjuro is a vivid, iconographic figure, a hero of a type no one had really seen before, but which delighted audiences everywhere, including in Japan, where this was one of the highest-grossing movies released. It altered the view of samurai, previously seen as basically noble heroes; Sanjuro is a hero -- he defeats a group of men so easily that he has to fake a more elaborate battle -- but he's opportunistic and cynical (he's a bit more noble in the sequel, "Sanjuro"). He shocks everyone by his desire to be paid, but he's just being realistic; all of Japan was in chaos at the time, and he needs to get by.
Mifune is magnificent; every performance he gave for Kurosawa is outstanding, but this one established his image -- John Belushi's samurai sandwich chef is simply Sanjuro transposed to an unlikely setting. Mifune himself once wrote that he had never really liked any performance of his that was not for Kurosawa -- and this is a man who directed himself. He's utterly real, utterly masculine, and completely convincing as a master swordsman. And he flies in the face of the chambara tradition; in "Sanjuro," the value of the much-revered bushido code, the samurai tradition, is questioned.
Mifune is also very funny, and so is the movie, really Kurosawa's only comedy; "Sanjuro" has some humor, but it's much more serious than "Yojimbo." It's a hard-edged comedy, to be sure, violent and bloody with whirling swords and flying body parts, but it is very funny; even when Sanjuro is beat to a bloody pulp and crawls across the town back to the sake shop the sequence is capped with a remarkably funny line. (So is Sanjuro's departure from the town.)
"Yojimbo" isn't quite up to the level of, say, "Ikiru" or "The Seven Samurai," because it is essentially a comedy; it's not treating timeless themes, it isn't presenting complex characters. It's a breezy, fast-paced action comedy, one of the best ever made.
Criterion's DVD is excellent; there are good production notes on a flyer, and a trailer on the disc itself, but there are no other extras. It was made from a new digital master with improved subtitles; the contrast is excellent, and the image is very sharp and clear. It's an ideal way to own this great film.
Let me also recommend Stuart Galbraith IV's huge book "The Emperor and the Wolf," a biography of both Kurosawa and Mifune, with detailed notes on the making of each of the films they made together. It also concentrates on the question that has hovered over their careers: why did they STOP making films together with "Red Beard" (1965). It seems to have been a matter of pride and stubborness on the part of both men.