Yojimbo (1961) June 18, 2009Posted by Cal in : 1960s films, Jidaigeki , trackback
Director: Akira Kurosawa Main cast: Toshirô Mifune; Tatsuya Nakadai; Yoko Tsukasa; Isuzu Yamada Territory: Japan
A Ronin calling himself Kuwabatake Sanjuro (Toshirô Mifune) wanders randomly into a town split into two warring factions. The rival gangs are vying for supremacy and causing much work for the local coffin maker. Sanjuro decides to play the gangs off each other, who are both anxious to employ the samurai to get the upper hand over the other. His plan to eliminate the scum hits a snag when the balance of power is shifted with the arrival of the brother of one of the gang leaders wielding a pistol.
I have to admit that the merits of this Kurosawa film were sometimes lost on me as I struggled to come to terms with how completely Leone had plundered Yojimbo for his A Fistful of Dollars without so much of a nod to the source material. Yes, I was aware of the legal wranglings over Leone’s film, but I was unprepared for how closely it follows Yojimbo – even as far as shot composition (just compare the screenshots on this very blog!).
The opening is brilliant – Sanjuro wanders into town and sees a dog carrying a human hand in its mouth. This is obviously not your typical small friendly town full of community spirit where everyone helps each other. It’s actually a vile little town, as Sanjuro soon finds out. Seibei, the undisputed boss, has a new challenger for power in the form of his former right hand man Ushi-Tora. Both have their followers, and they have essentially ripped the town in half with their power struggle. Each side’s avarice and duplicity gets the better of them when acquiring Sanjuro’s services. Although his mind is already made up before meeting the inhabitants of the town, the gangs prove beyond doubt they are without any redeeming features. Seibei even plots to kill Sanjuro in his sleep after defeating Ushi-Tora and his followers.
Yojimbo is also full of sardonic humour, as demonstrated when the two gangs call a truce when an official visits town. Or when Sanjuro first unleashes his skills and kills two thugs and seriously wounds another – he walks back to the Cooper and simply says: “two coffins…maybe three”. In fact, I’ve been wracking my brain thinking if this very line was uttered in A Fistful of Dollars. I don’t think it was, but it certainly sounds like something Eastwood would have said. Another funny scene is when Sanjuro gets the two gangs to face off with each other, and then quits the fight to watch their pathetic mid-day squabble from the bell tower, which is reminiscent of the ‘cowardly’ depiction of the samurai fight from Rashomon.
As usual, there’s an air of Kurosawa being ahead of his time. There’s a fantastic special effects shot where Sanjuro throws a knife into a leaf blowing around a room. This effect blew me away, and although it turns out to have been achieved in the most mundane and obvious way, it still seems to have been shot in a way that still seems realistic today.
Yojimbo is a great film, but I sincerely wished I’d seen it before A Fistful of Dollars. That way, its impact on me would have been greater. Out of the two, I think Kurosawa’s style, humour and the use of black and white film gives this film a grittier edge than Leone’s film. Mifune seems born to be Kurosawa’s cinematic alter ego and gives a solid performance here. What’s more, he handles the katana with speed and convincing confidence. He certainly had me convinced he was a samurai master, anyway.
For once, I thought the BFI DVD was quite good – although the image quality could have been better. But the subtitles are removable and an appropriate size, which was an immense relief. It’s probably not a patch on the Criterion edition, though. One for the wish list, perhaps…