December 31, 2008

Yojimbo (1961 film)

Directed by Akira Kurosawa. Written by Akira Kurosawa and Ryuzo Kikushima.

Sanjuro Kawabatake. "Thirty-year-old mulberry field." That's the name our hero, played by Toshiro Mifune, introduces himself by, though he quickly follows it with the admission that it's complete fiction. The field is one he passed on his random trek into this small desert town. As for the age, with a stroke of his stubbled chin, he admits he's more than just a tad older than thirty.

The listening party is one of two crime lords, both of whom clash for control of the town with their gangs of ruffians and competing businesses in sake and silk. Sanjuro made quite a splash with his swordfighting skills when some hoods tried to jump him the day he walked in, so both gangs see him as the element which will tip the balance in favor of whomever scores his allegiance. But Sanjuro has a plan, and his multiple pledges of alliance prove as fictitious as his name as he secretly plots to build the rival tensions until their skirmishes break out into a full-on war.

I've heard this samurai film referred to as the ultimate western, and it's impossible to ignore the influence it had on the genre's revitalization in the 60s. The hero is cool, but flawed. The villains tough, but human. The stylistic photography and windswept locations imbue everything with a larger-than-life quality. The violence is sudden and shocking after a tense, drawn-out buildup. And it's all backed by a score which blends traditional period music with a modern, jazzy swing.

After the tension of The Bad Sleep Well, Kurosawa seems to be having some fun here. No, it's not as light as Hidden Fortress, but there most certainly is a twisted sense of glee as we see this one man trick these greedy idiots into taking one another down. And I love how Kurosawa and Mifune use Sanjuro to examine middle age. While the ronin's a skilled, powerful fighter, he's not as young as he used to be and, between violent bursts, he walks around with a tired slump, groans as he stands, and thinks his way through a situation as far as possible before having to draw the blade. It's an interesting examination of the phase of life, complete with a literal crossroads, both men were experiencing at the time.

If I have one complaint, it's that the two gangs are a little too stereotypical in their sneering villainy. A few years earlier, Kurosawa would have really dug into the social circumstances which led them to their situations, but he seems to be over that by now as they're just toys for us to watch in delight as our hero bats them around. I'm not entirely complaining because they are fun to watch and the performers (many of whom are Kurosawa regulars) deliver perfect performances, I just miss the bits of ambiguity which the director was exploring several films ago.

I must give special props, however, to the pair of men who find themselves genuinely allied to Sanjuro. Eijiro Tono and Atsushi Watanabe are probably the only two people in town who remain neutral to the conflict: the tavern keeper and the coffin maker. One benefits from business during peace, the other from battle, yet both are allowed to live their lives free from having to choose one side over the other. They also serve as our inside informants, giving us the initial poop as to who's who and it's to them that Sanjuro gives his promise to clean things up, whether they want it or not.

I like this movie. While, no, it's not quite as deep as the stuff Kurosawa was doing throughout the 50s, and the plot does drag a bit when our hero finds himself caught, it's a rousing, shocking, surprisingly funny film, and a fascinating indicator of what the western genre would become in the years immediately following.

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