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Yojimbo (1961: Akira Kurosawa: Japan)

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"Mifune's Sanjuro and your Unosuke are like a stray dog and a snake." -- Akira Kurosawa to Tatsuya Nakadai

Akira Kurosawa is one of my favorite directors and Yojimbo (means bodyguard in Japanese) is one of my favorite films. I would consider this canon for any budding cinephile along with several other of Kurosawas oeuvre like Seven Samurai and Rashomon. It is fascinating and a testament to the universality of movies that Yojimbo which would be influenced by westerns would later have copious influences on films worldwide. It arguably helped create the Spaghetti Western craze become worldwide when Sergio Leone made an uncredited remake named A Fistful of Dollars* with a taciturn Clint Eastwood. Kurosawa would later sue for copyright infringement and win.** It was remade by Walter Hill as Last Man Standing and has had homages in countless films including Hills The Warriors and John Woos Hard-Boiled. But beyond just its influence on directors and critics it is quite a fun movie.

Sanjuro (means 30 years old in Japanese) is a pseudonym for this surly and drifting ronin (a masterless samurai) who literally leaves his wandering path to random chance. He drifts upon a windy town (similar to Shane a film that was quite popular in Japan; one could easily imagine a tumbleweed being blown through the streets; High Noon was another influence on this movie) and comes upon a foreboding scene of a dog carrying a decapitated hand one of the most iconic scenes from Kurosawa. Two warring factions have decimated the population and put in hiding or exodus the good members of the town. It reminds me of the Jack Napier quote in Batman (1989) -- Decent people shouldn't live here. They'd be happier someplace else. This town is a fabulous functional set that certain auteurs like to use like Anthony Mann in The Fall of the Roman Empire. Kurosawa learned from Kenji Mizoguchi to use real props and authentic sets.

The dirty anti-samurai and atypical harbinger of righteousness is a man without a real name or an identified past but with unmatched skills with the sword, played with panache by Toshirô Mifune. Almost all of the movie is seen with his presence. He is looking to rid the town of the two sides run by the sake merchant (Takashi Shimura) and the silk merchant (Kamatair Fujiwara) and their grotesque gallery of rogues apparently either just for fun, a little bored and/or maybe for a little money. This character was the creation of Kurosawa who originally wrote it as somebody who would stand up against the world of the yakuza which had infiltrated business and other aspects of life. This character would not only be appropriated by Clint Eastwood but would be the main influence of John Belushis SNL character Samurai Futaba. There is a certain je ne sais quoi about this character that has him as one of my favorites along with Alain Delons performance in Le Samourai.

His initial plan is to play both sides until they exterminate each other. His plan was succeeding until Sazankas younger brother Unosuke (Tatsuya Nakadai; I feel he is a seriously underrated actor) comes into town with a scarf (a western oriented clothing), a pistol and a nasty disposition. This would be the first starring performance for Nakadai in a Kurosawa film and he would go on to be another antagonist in Sanjuro and have starring roles in later Kurosawa films Kagemusha and Ran. Unosuke would tilt the side heavily to the sake merchant. But when Sanjuro saves a farmers wife from captivity his good deed goes punished as it leads to his getting captured without his sword. How will he get out of this?

This film was important for Japanese film because it was one of the earliest films to combine violence and comedy. It used realistic sound for sword effects so the slashes sounded like flesh being cut. As Stephen Prince points out in his commentary on the film you can see a geyser of blood in the background during one battle. This arterial spurt would be taken further at the end of the sequel Sanjuro and the jidei geki (period film) would never be the same much to Kurosawas chagrin. It was a big hit for Toho. Also it is important to note how important the performance from Mifune was. You have this anti-samurai whose values do not fit within the existing Bushido code (which was on its way out during this time period), but helps push the idea of the antihero in Japanese chambara (swordplay) films.

I find so many positive aspects to the film that it is hard for me not to wax poetic with an abuse of hyperbole. It is one of the most exquisitely filmed movies. The use of chiaroscuro and composition, especially with the multiple frames, deep focus, multiple camera setup, perpendicular axis of movement, the right angle dominated cinematography and telephoto lens is so vast that there is a wealth of literature just on this aspect of production. This is in big thanks to the camera work of Kazuo Miyagawa (Ugetsu) who previously worked with him on Rashomon. The musical score by Masaru Satô is also quite influential (another aspect that was copied in A Fistful of Dollars) and is an integral part of the enjoyment of the film. The combination of artistic elements, comedy, critic significance, memorable performances, storyline, importance on world cinema and general coolness makes this a must own for your cinematic library. It is a film I have rewatched many times and even imitate the shoulder shrug now and then.

Criterion has a very good release of this in both DVD (technically a rerelease) and BD. It comes with an outstanding and informative commentary from Stephen Prince a 45 minute documentary from the Toho Masterworks series Akira Kurosawa: It Is Wonderful to Create, trailer, teaser and insert essays always worth reading. Be warned that there are some issues with the Yojimbo BD becoming possibly bronzed and/or peeling preventing playback. You can send these affected discs back to Criterion for replacements.

* A Fistful of Dollars was by no means the first western made in Italy or Spain. The film was of seminal importance in creating a popular trend.

** Contrary to what many people have wrote, and why you should always question sites even established ones like IMDB, this movie is not a remake of Dashiell Hammetts Red Harvest. There are a couple of scenes influenced by Hammett, including the beating scene which is clearly from The Glass Key and there is possibly one or two scenes influenced by Red Harvest.


The Films of Akira Kurosawa 3rd Edition (1996/1998) by Donald Richie

Something of an Autobiography (1982/1983) by Akira Kurosawa

Kurosawa: Film Studies and Japanese Cinema (2000/2005) by Mitsuhiro Yoshimoto

Akira Kurosawa Interviews (2008) Edited by Peter Brunette

Criterion Insert Essays

Stephen Prince Commentary (2006): a fascinating and worthy commentary to listen to. I do not always agree with him on the political aspects where he goes too far into anti-capitalism rhetoric where he loses the fact that Kurosawa is criticizing yakuza first in this film not business first. He also misses at least one possibly place where Red Harvest seems to be an influence on a scene. He also tends to downplay the western influence on this film.

CriterionForums.com Thread: I argue about the differences between Red Harvest and Yojimbo, plus a variety of other posts including notes on the Criterion commentary.

Fistful of Dollars Lawsuit (and pictures)

Roger Eberts Great Movie Review: Unfortunately states that this movie was inspired by Red Harvest.

Other Akira Kurosawa Reviews of Mine:

Sanshiro Sugata

The Most Beautiful (1944)

Sanshiro Sugata Part II

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Toshirô Mifune is the man.

Morgath asked me what my favorite fighters were and I put Mifune on my list and I wrote the following below at bulletsandbabes. Now the scene below is from the sequel Sanjuro to this film (any Yojimbo fans out there?) and is a worthy watch as well.

Toshiro Mifune: just his Sanjuro characters alone (Yojimbo, Sanjuro, a couple of others where he uses that name though one might wonder without Kurosawa is it really the same character :D) were so influential to not only the Japanese market, but worldwide. Who did Clint Eastwood pattern his man with no name after? Mifune was a collector of swords and was so incredibly fast with the draw that Kurosawa had him slow his speed down on of his most famous scenes (shown below) in Sanjuro (the moment that helped bring in the blood geyser movement in Japanese cinema.) With his panache and characterization I seriously would rather fight Bruce Lee than face him with a sword. One of my favorite actors of all-time.


Check out the ending (again if you have already seen it):


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Have you seen any Akira Kurosawa films? Now my feelings are biased and I am a big fan of his work but I do think he is an outstanding director.

I've seen The Seven Samurai (excellent film) and Ran, which was also quite good. Oh, I've also seen Sugata Sanshiro.

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