January 29, 2007
Originally inspired by the American western and the crime fiction of Dashiell Hammett, Akira Kurosawa’s Yojimbo (1961) would go on to inspire countless other films, most notably the Sergio Leone spaghetti western A Fistful of Dollars (1964) and Walter Hill’s gangster film Last Man Standing (1996). Kurosawa presents a harsh world where two evil clans are pitted against one another with the poor villagers stuck in the middle. Sanjuro (Mifune) is a ronin, a master-less samurai who leads an aimless existence. He wanders into a town ravished by two warring clans. Times are so tough that the warrior comes across a dog running by with a severed hand in its mouth (this is one of the film’s most striking images that would later be referenced in David Lynch’s Wild at Heart) and the busiest man is the undertaker. The town is completely corrupt with a cowardly mayor and the head lawman is on the take.
Both sides are looking for bodyguards so the opportunistic Sanjuro decides to play both sides against each other. As one villager puts it, “Only swords can settle things now.” This suits the wandering samurai just fine as he gets paid to kill. As he puts it, “This town is full of men who deserve to die.” So, he decides to milk both sides for all they’re worth and then watch with bemusement as they attack each other.
Toshiro Mifune is excellent as the swaggering, tough-talking Sanjuro who has a knack for curt sarcasm and can back it up with deadly force as he proves in an early scene, quickly dispatching three men in a matter of seconds. Mifune plays his character as an astute tactician and shrewd businessman. He clearly had a lot of fun with this role as he chews occasionally on a toothpick in cool indifference much like Clint Eastwood would do with his cigars in the Dollars trilogy.
Kurosawa’s use of a widescreen aspect ratio is masterful as he utilizes its full dimensions, in particular conversations between many characters and the sword fights that take place on the street. His compositions of each frame are exquisite making Yojimbo easily one of his best films.
Kurosawa and Mifune decided to revisit the character of Sanjuro in a follow-up film named after the eponymous samurai in 1962. This time out, he helps a group of young, inexperienced samurai rid their clan of corruption. When we first meet Sanjuro, he has just woken up in a grumpy mood and thumps a few of the local samurai with his sheathed sword, testing them.
He ends up helping the young samurai devise a plan to weed out the bad elements but does so with an attitude that borders on bored indifference. It’s like Sanjuro has nothing better to do and this is as good a way as any to kill some time. He wisely observes and then tests the enemy’s defenses before attacking and it is this patience that separates him from his charges whose instincts are to rush in. The film plays out a battle of wills between the three corrupt leaders (and their henchman) and Sanjuro as they try to anticipate each other’s moves in a bloody game of chess. This film is more comedic in tone as Sanjuro views the young samurai as annoyances that he barely tolerates. The withering glares he gives them occasionally is quite amusing as is his sarcastic replies to their questions, like when one complains that it is too early for him to drink sake – “I’m smarter when I drink.” Mifune acts in a perpetual state of bemusement throughout the movie which contrasts nicely with the earnestness of his protégés.
The Yojimbo DVD features an audio commentary by film historian Stephen Prince. He argues that it is one of Kurosawa’s major films but at the time of its release was considered merely an entertaining film because of its box office success. Prince also points out that Mifune was a big movie star when he did this film but its success transformed him into an icon and it’s a film that he is most often identified with. Prince does an excellent job of explaining the historical period that the film is set in and the customs that were common at the time. He also provides in-depth analysis, discussing the influence of the American western and post World War II Japan.
Also included is “Akira Kurosawa: It is wonderful to create,” a 45 minute documentary about the making of Yojimbo. It examines how the director reinvented the samurai film through music, characterization, depiction of violence and a darkly comic tone. Many of his collaborators on the film tell anecdotes and talk about working with Kurosawa and Mifune.
There is a theatrical and teaser trailer. A small stills gallery includes behind-the-scenes photographs.
The Sanjuro DVD features an audio commentary by film historian Stephen Prince. He starts things off by commenting on the film’s origins. After the success of Yojimbo, Toho Studios encouraged Kurosawa to revisit the character of Sanjuro. Prince points out that this film is not a redundant sequel, but actually quite different in tone. He says that Kurosawa used the young samurai to mock the stereotype of this kind of character. He illustrates how the director constantly subverted the samurai code in the film starting with the slovenly, unkempt appearance of Sanjuro. Prince also goes into detail comparing and contrasting the two films in this informative commentary.
“Akira Kurosawa: It is wonderful to create” is a 35 minute documentary on the making of Sanjuro. Kurosawa wasn’t interested in making a run-of-the-mill sequel and introduced more comic elements and even more impressive swordplay. Many of his collaborators talk about his unique working methods and their own contribution to the film.
Also included is a theatrical and teaser trailer. Finally, there is a stills gallery with behind-the-scenes photos of Kurosawa in action, working with his actors.