Directed by: Akira Kurosawa || Produced by: Tomoyuki Tanaka, Ryuzo Kikushima, Akira Kurosawa
Screenplay by: Ryuzo Kikushima, Akira Kurosawa, Hideo Oguni || Starring: Toshiro Mifune, Tatsuya Nakadai, Yoko Tsukasa, Isuzu Yamada, Daisuke Kato, Takashi Shimura, Kamatari Fujiwara, Atsushi Watanabe
Music by: Masaru Sato || Cinematography: Kazuo Miyagawa || Edited by: Akira Kurosawa || Country: Japan || Language: Japanese
Running Time: 110 minutes
Akira Kurosawa’s Seven Samurai (1954) is without a doubt the seminal Japanese auteur’s most famous work, while Rashomon (1950) is perhaps his most influential for its eponymous plot device, The Rashomon Effect; my personal favorite work of his, however, and a film almost as recognizable as those aforementioned chanbara pictures is Yojimbo (“Bodyguard” in Japanese), best known in the West as the spiritual blueprint to Sergio Leone’s A Fistful of Dollars (1964), the first installment in his Spaghetti western Dollars Trilogy (1964-1966), starring Clint Eastwood. Both Eastwood’s stoic, dispassionate lead persona in Leone’s original Italian westerns, as well as those films’ greater narrative outlines of an opportunistic, battle-hardened loner playing rival gangs against one another in a small town, were “adapted (re: plagiarized)” by Leone from Kurosawa for Fistful in what is now considered one of the more famous early examples of unsanctioned international remakes in cinematic history. On its own, however, Yojimbo is a stylish, memorable samurai western (Oriental western? Eastern?) that takes advantage of its simple yet effective premise and charismatic star, the venerable Toshiro Mifune.
Mifune’s star image is as tied to the Japanese chanbara subgenre as the actor’s storied career is to that of Kurosawa. His 16 collaborations with Kurosawa include not only the three films mentioned above, but also Throne of Blood (1957), The Hidden Fortress (1958, a significant influence on Star Wars ), and Yojimbo’s standalone sequel, Sanjuro (1962). Though the two eventually had a falling out over the longwinded production of Red Beard (1965) and their conflicting ambitions, their career trajectories are unrecognizable without each other; to that end, I would argue Yojimbo represents their quintessential filmic synergy.
The most important visual aspects of the movie are a testament to this relationship. Kurosawa’s frame composition, the blocking of his cast, and Mifune’s aggressive physical performance set this chanbara apart from so many other stodgier period pieces from the same generation, Japanese, Hollywood, or otherwise. The writer-director’s choices of location — wide open outdoor meadows and streets to large courtyards with balconies, to name a few— help with his geometric construction of each scene, where actors often face one another in symmetrical groupings or, conversely, emphasize stark asymmetry. Most every shot of every scene is composed such that your eyes dart across the screen to absorb every piece of set-design, blocking, and lighting information regardless of how prevalent dialogue is within a given sequence. The end result of this geometric composure to Kurosawa’s direction, engineered here by director of photography Kazuo Miyagawa, is that dramatic sequences where characters talk at each other feel as dynamic as the action scenes, particularly when you take into account Mifune’s movements.
Kurosawa encouraged his castmembers to adopt physical ticks that would identify them to the audience even when they weren’t talking or facing the camera. Yojimbo feels the most distinctive of Kurosawa’s filmography in this regard thanks to Mifune’s performance as the lead (like Eastwood’s “Man with No Name,” referred to as “Joe,” “Manco,” and “Blondie” in A Fistful of Dollars, For a Few Dollars More , and The Good, the Bad, and the Ugly , respectively, the protagonist’s title of “Kuwabatake Sanjuro” in Yojimbo and its 1962 sequel is an opportunistic nickname made up on the spot; his true identity is never disclosed). Twitching his right shoulder while walking in a gruff, disgruntled manner, Mifune visualizes the brooding personality of his character like a big cat pacing throughout its territory, sizing up rival animals with little time to waste. So much of the main cast’s emotions channel through distinct yet never heavyhanded movements such as these, and the film’s three act structure traces the subtle changes in these physical performances as different characters and factions gain the upper hand.
As for the story itself, it’s not much more than the aforementioned premise, where an opportunistic soldier of fortune plays both sides against the middle after wandering into a rural village overrun with multiple criminal enterprises. Most of the first two acts revolve around Mifune manipulating the local gangs into open conflict with each other, profiting off their misfortune until their savvier members catch on to his act. The subsequent knockdown of Mifune’s protagonist by the start of Act Three feels logical and deserved, and his scrappy, improbable rise after several near-death experiences, well earned. These back ‘n forth power struggles culminate in an exciting yet concise faceoff at the end of the film between Mifune and the lone surviving gang; all told, the action wraps at a considerate 110 minutes, a nice happy medium between Rashomon’s abbreviated 88-minute runtime and Seven Samurai’s massive, near 3.5 hour length.
Akira Kurosawa directed an even thirty films over his fifty year career (1943-1993), and throughout that filmography, his samurai jidaigeki epics stand apart both for their material’s fit with the director’s inherent strengths in choreography, editing, and capturing movement, as well as the samurai’s quintessential status as a national, if controversial, icon of Japan. I argue that Yojimbo represents one of if not his most effective distillations of those narrative formulas for perhaps the broadest audience possible. The flamboyant, melodramatic Rashomon isn’t as famous as its eponymous plot device despite what cinephiles may believe, while the epic Seven Samurai ensemble is a big ask for non-Japanese viewers without three and a half hours to kill. Yojimbo, on the other hand, captures most of the highs of Kurosawa’s now classical chanbara style through a single heroic archetype courtesy of Toshiro Mifune in a simple, straightforward narrative.
SUMMARY & RECOMMENDATION: Arguably Kurosawa’s most efficient period action film, Yojimbo makes the most out of a simple premise and Toshiro Mifune’s charismatic lead performance. The ripples of this film can be felt throughout the final waves of successful cowboy movies in the West for good reason, ranging from the movie’s identifiable frame composition to its concise, direct swordplay choreography.
— However… like most classical Japanese cinema, you have to be OK with some level of heightened reality and melodramatic acting to take the story seriously.
? In this case, the knife is mightier than the gun!
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