Portions of this review were lifted from the previous Criterion Collection edition review.Â Now on to the review…
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 lookÂ 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 be 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 if 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 fa’ade 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 clichÃ©, 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 mono tracks are still here, but the original Perspecta three channel simulated stereo track sounds surprisingly good, with a range better than expected for a film of this age. There’s even a hint of rear speaker work from time to time in the film too.
The remastered and uncropped image that comes on this 2.35:1 presentation is worlds different (read: better) than the first version. The picture is much brighter than before, and facial growth on Sanjuro can be made out in fine detail too. If Criterion’s remastering work on all their titles is going to look like this, then I’ll gladly double dip all the time.
There was damn near nothing on both this and Sanjuro, but Criterion has remedied this with a bit more meat. First and foremost, there’s a commentary with Stephen Prince, author of “The Warrior’s Cinema” and resident Kurosawa scholar. His tracks are always pretty active, and this is no exception. He provides a historical context to the scenes that were shot, and the Kurosawa symbolism is also mentioned when there’s a prime example. He covers the technical information and provides a solid shot analysis, and there’s a lot of detail about Kurosawa’s collaborators. He even discusses the samurai moves that Sanjuro uses to strike down his foes, the man covers everything!
Next is another installment of the “It Is Wonderful to Create” series that has appeared on all of Kurosawa’s films. This is about 45 minutes long, and covers most of the aspects of the film, and includes recollections by Kurosawa and other actors in the film. Members of Kurosawa’s crew, like Daisaku Kimura, also weigh in with their memories about what they did on set too. The production, the prop design, the weapons, the costumes, everything from soup to nuts is covered on the special, as it usually is, and is always a worthy complement to the film experience. You’ve also got a trailer, teaser and stills galleries. Oh, you want a more tangible extra? Well, there’s a twenty page booklet on the film, featuring recollections by Kurosawa’s collaborators and a film critic.
Criterion’s flushing out a neglected Kurosawa staple in their library immediately makes it a double-dip for those who had it, and it’s a definite rental exploration for those who don’t. Once you see and appreciate the layers of symbolism and other things that scholars bring to the table, you’ll suck it up and buy it, believe me.