Thursday, July 16, 2009


Yojimbo, 1961
Dir: Akira Kurosawa
July 15, 2009
Netflix Wakefield MA

I think it is impossible to say what is the best "samurai" film ever (there are so many good ones), but Yojimbo (The Bodyguard) has to be up there. Kurosawa, with his great love for the American Western and the films of John Ford, created a darkly comic tale of a wandering ronin with no master or money who, after coming to a town where rival gangs are vying for control of the silk industry there and the profits from gambling, plays both sides and restores order to the town.

"Sanjuro"(Toshirō Mifune), which is the name the ronin gives, is a great usage of the "man-with- no-name" character, probably made most famous by Clint Eastwood in all the Westerns and Spaghetti Westerns that were just remakes of Kurosawa's best films. Despite that, Mifune's is way cooler than anything Eastwood ever conjured up. As soon as he "shows his worth" to one side, you know the movie is going to be awesome. His seeming ambivalence to the madness that surrounds him and his lack of fear make him far more menacing than the ugly thugs the gangs have hired, which is why most of them give him a wide berth whenever he ventures into the town. At the very beginning of the film, Kurosawa's camera sits behind Toshiro Mifune's man-with-no-name, inviting us to look up at the back of his head as he walks the earth, inviting us to be in awe of this man. And as he walks, super-cool walking-the-earth music plays. There is nothing left to think about with this man. He might be the coolest film character ever.

The lone wolf's only seeming threat in the film comes when Unosuke (Tatsuya Nakadai, who plays the main character in Sword of Doom (1966), and I knew he looked familiar but could not place it while watching), the youngest brother of one of the gang's boss, comes back, and in true Western style, is actually a "gunfighter" instead of a samurai. They play off each other nicely; Kurosawa actually told Mifune that he pictured the ronin as a wolf or dog and Nakadai that he pictured him as a snake. If you watch the film, you can see both characters actually displaying traits of these animals, particularly Mifune's famous shoulder twitch, as if he were trying to shake off some fleas. Unosuke, in the end, of course, is no match for the awesome of "Sanjuro."

Kurosawa actually uses a ton of Western techniques, like wide shots for showdowns right down to the town crier motif (like in High Noon (1952) ). The moral ambiguity of the ronin is actually far more in tune with the Spaghetti Westerns that this movie spawned, as opposed to the black and white (good vs. evil) value system of the traditional Western. Most of the comedy is universal, such as ugly dumb thugs who get played for suckers and skulking swordsman trying to intimidate each other but retreat in comic fear every time the other group make an aggressive move forward (this scene is done so well, you can't help but laugh). The music is incredible, and very few directors create atmosphere as well as Kurosawa. Yojimbo is cool any day of the fuckin' week, kiddies.

1 comment:

Glacier said...

this film is actually an adaptation of sorts of "Red Harvest" by Dashiell Hammett. You might have noticed that "MIller's Crossing" was as well. Both films are significantly different from the novel, but the Coen's probably thought it was cool to pay homage. Kurosawa played the safe move because when "A Fistful of Dollars" came out and clearly stole the plot of "Yojimbo" Kurosawa sued Leone and said he actually made more from that lawsuit than from the entire revenue from his film. I've read "Red Harvest," and the only similarity is that one man is between two camps of bad guys and takes them both down. AKA, pure badass.