After making such internationally renowned samurai period films such as Rashomon and The Seven Samurai, Akira Kurosawa did make another film Yojimbo, with a decidedly different tone, bordering on dark comedy. The opening shot is of Sanjuro (Toshiro Mifune, Throne of Blood), a samurai without a master, who looks at a mountain, and suddenly scratches his head, as if his hair is on too tight. It’s almost the breaking down of a facade, helping to show you that the film will …e bit different from other Kurosawa samurai films. The introductory cards say that the film is set in the 1860s, and the samurai comes into a town ruled by rival gangs. He doesn’t know this when he comes in, but the first thing he sees in town is a dog carrying a human hand. People have said that the way that this film was told reminds them a lot of the Clint Eastwood/spaghetti westerns that came out several years later, and it’s easy to understand why, with the quiet main character whom you can never really tell he’s a hero or villain. He deals with some situations with a toothpick in his mouth, reminding me of Chou-Yun Fat in Hard Boiled. Kurosawa does action flicks? That’s probably the best way to characterize it, but he does it well, without a lot of one-liners or lack of common sense seen within a lot of today’s action films.
Sanjuro meets with one of the gang leaders named Seibei, who offers him money to kill his rival Ushitora. Sanjuro agrees to the offer, but finds out about an arrangement that Seibei’s family has to kill him after the attack on Ushitora. Just before the attack, Sanjuro announces that he’s cut ties with Seibei, and sits on top of a tall post to watch the feuding gangs. The gangs however, don’t really seem to have the courage to fight, so it’s a lot of showboating with nothing behind it, which is pretty funny to see. Ushitora’s brother comes into town, a gun-wielding iceman named Nosuke, and he manages to arrange a “cease-fire” between the gangs. But Sanjuro wants them to battle, and he helps to manipulate them back into conflict yet again. The stakes are upped when a woman is thrown into the situation, and Sanjuro manages to drop the façade long enough to free the woman from her captors (Ushitora’s, despite working for him as a bodyguard), and sets her and her family free. The truth about the incident does come out though, and Sanjuro is captured and beaten. He manages to escape, but in the midst of his escape, Ushitora goes after Seibei and kills him and his family, consequently taking over Seibei’s territory in the process. Sanjuro comes back into town for revenge, and sets up a pretty cool battle between him and Ushitora’s men, culminating in some resonating final words from Nosuke before his death.
If this is the Kurosawa version of an action film, it’s a very good one. To borrow a cliché, if imitation in the sincerest form of flattery, you can see why Kurosawa is so praised. To see the action film be done countless times in Kurosawa’s format stands as a testament to how good his work was. It provided some good action scenes, and had some funny moments in it as well. Combined with another outstanding Mifune performance, it’s a very good film. To consider that it might not be one of Kurosawa’s best only reiterates just how good his films are.
The audio is in 1.0 Japanese with English subtitles.
The picture looks very good, while it has scratches and grain to it, it’s still a fairly clean black and white image. Despite the 2.35:1 widescreen, there is one flaw to bring to everyone’s attention. In the beginning, the introductory cards are transposed over the picture, and the cards are in English, and some of the letters are cut off at the end, which is a bit disappointing.
When it comes to extras, this Kurosawa/Criterion release only contains the trailer, unfortunately.
Despite a surprising lack of extra material from Criterion, Yojimbo is a very good film, one that served as another example of Kurosawa’s influence in Western cinema, and is worth a rental to film observers.
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