Wednesday, 15 August 2007
Yojimbo (1961) dir. Akira Kurosawa
Starring: Toshiro Mifune
“Yojimbo” is a landmark film for Akira Kurosawa. He was already on the map with “Rashomon” (1951) and a master filmmaker by “Seven Samurai” (1954), but he became a living legend with “Yojimbo”. The film famously influenced Sergio Leone to create the Spaghetti Western “Dollars Trilogy” and George Lucas to create “Star Wars”. “Yojimbo” is a supreme example of the adaptability of Kurosawa’s storytelling, but unfortunately beyond historical significance it doesn’t quite stand up to Kurosawa’s other more revered works – “Ikiru”, or “High and Low” or “Seven Samurai”.
Toshiro Mifune plays Kuwabatake Sanjuro, a feudal Japanese Ronin who is first seen wandering rural Japan. He has nowhere to go and no timeline, and so he puts his fate to chance by throwing a stick on the ground to determine his direction. The stick directs him to the small township, similar to those one-horse towns from the American Western. Sanjuro is an opportunist and immediately he sees an opportunity to make some money and exploit the gang war that plagues the innocent bystanders. Sanjuro offers himself to the highest bidder and schemes from both sides of the conflict to incite the gangs to destroy themselves thereby freeing the citizens their tyrannous rule.
Kurosawa’s frames are brilliant. Widescreen black and white always looks good and “Yojimbo” is one of his best looking films. Kurosawa mixes long lens portraits, which influenced George Lucas and the classic wideangle establishing shots of the town, which influenced Leone.
Plot wise, the film doesn’t hold as well today as it did in 1961. The second act drags. Sanjuro’s manipulation of the gangs is never clearly thought out and the moment he is beaten up, there’s a long stretch where the film almost comes to a complete halt. Interestingly, “Fistful of Dollars” suffers from the same flaws as well.
It’s fun to watch the opening fight scene in “Yojimbo” to see where it influenced both George Lucas and Sergio Leone in separate ways. Leone takes Kurosawa’s humour, specifically mimicking Mifune’s last line to the coffin maker – “Two coffins... No, maybe three”. Lucas borrows the fighting style of the Samurai. Compare it the scene in “Star Wars: The Phantom Menace”, when Liam Neeson and Ewan Macgregor rescue the Natalie Portman from the droids in the first act. Watch how Neeson kills the droids with his lightsaber with speed and sheaths his saber exactly like Sanjuro.
The Western archetype is the prevailing theme – a wandering fighter, a loner who balances personal ethics with crafty selfishness. Wind and dust are important to the look and feel of the film. It fills the frame with chaotic movement while the characters move with slow deliberate steps. Like those who were influenced by him, Kurosawa’s work is an amalgam of several other sources - the great American Western filmmakers, John Ford, Howard Hawks, George Stevens, Japanese myths and classic Shakespeare.
The 1962 film “Sanjuro” is a sequel featuring the same character on a different adventure. Though it has some flaws as well, it features a fantastically bloody ending which “Yojimbo” lacks. But all quibbles aside there’s nothing to take away from Kurosawa. He is and always will be one of the top five filmmakers of all time. Enjoy.
Buy it here: Yojimbo - Criterion Collection
This is the final confrontation – spoilers obviously: