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Yojimbo (1961)
Tonight's Feature Presentation

YOJIMBO (1961)

Starring: Toshiro Mifune, Tatsuya Nakadai, Yoko Tsukasa, Isuzu Yamada, Hiroshi Tachikawa

Written By: Akira Kurosawa (also story), Ryuzo Kikushima Directed By: Akira Kurosawa

The Short Version

Where would Clint Eastwood be if Kurosawa hadn’t made this movie?

Though built around violent men, Yojimbo is a study in manipulation.

And script writing.  And direction.  And cinematography.

Toshiro Mifune’s performance is a delight to behold.

A masterwork from a master: Yojimbo is required viewing.


The Long Version

What Kind Of Cheese Is It?

SPAGHETTI, WITH PARMESEAN.

This movie is, after all, Japanese spaghetti.  Think about it.


Pairs Well With...

SAKE.

“Sake.  I’ll drink while I think.”

“I’m not dying yet.  There’s a bunch of guys I have to kill first.”


Perhaps you’ve heard this story before.

A town in the middle of nowhere has been overrun by two rival gangs.  The gangs are engaged in a bloody turf war, but being evenly matched, neither side holds any real advantage.  Meanwhile, the town they occupy has effectively shut down as the few remaining good citizens cower behind closed windows, in fear of their lives.

Then a mysterious tough guy strolls in.  His name isn’t important; indeed, when asked, he doesn’t give a straight answer.  What is important is that he’s obviously a skilled killer, and whichever gang can woo him over to its side will suddenly have the edge needed to win the turf war.  Unless the mysterious tough guy turns out to hate gangsters and instead decides to play the gangs off against each other, but what are the chances of that happening?  Right?

Just don’t expect the gravel-voiced mystery man to carry a gun or sound like Clint Eastwood.  This one carries a katana and is played by Toshiro Mifune.

Welcome to the midpoint of the journey from Noir to Spaghetti Western.

Even for those who don’t pay much attention to such things, it’s reasonably well understood that many of the great Westerns (particularly of the “spaghetti” variety that made Clint Eastwood famous) actually derive from Samurai tales first filmed by the legendary Akira Kurosawa.  Such is the case with the “Man With No Name” trilogy, the opening chapter of which – A Fistful of Dollars – is a direct lift from this film, Yojimbo.  What most don’t realize is that Kurosawa himself lifted the story from a book by Noir master Dashiell Hammett called “Red Harvest.”

Why don’t I limit myself to reviewing just one genre?  There’s your answer.  Nothing, my friends, exists in a vacuum… especially art.

But that doesn’t mean that derivative stories all end up being the same; often, it’s quite the opposite.  So, what does master filmmaker Kurosawa do to make Yojimbo stand apart?  Is “almost everything” too general of an answer?

Yojimbo – which is Japanese for “bodyguard,” in case you were wondering – is a story centered around violent men that does not rely on violence as a narrative crutch; indeed, very little actual screen time is devoted to violence of any kind, and when it does occur on camera, it’s mostly quick and to the point, serving as a punctuation to events rather than as their primary means of exposition.   Instead, Akira Kurosawa and fellow screenwriter Ryuzo Kikushima choose to focus on the consequences of violence – “the wages of sin,” as it were – and on the skillful warrior’s choice to use his mind as a weapon moreso than his sword.  Sure, our hero could cut the bad guys to ribbons – and he does, when the situation arises – but it proves to be much more interesting to watch him manipulate his opponents into destroying themselves.  Yojimbo isn’t so much a Samurai action film as it is a psychological study, but thanks to a superb performance by Toshiro Mifune and outstanding work behind the camera from Akira Kurosawa and his crew, it feels like a fast paced action flick.  Here, stillness is motion, and motion is stillness.

Why yes, despite Akira Kurosawa’s desire to make Yojimbo something other than a typical Samurai flick – indeed, his instructions to the film’s composer were to make it sound like anything but, with the result being a riff on Henry Mancini that works surprisingly well – it is still essentially Japanese.  (Note the exaggerated expressions on the faces of the supporting players that look like something straight off of a Noh mask or out of a woodblock print, if you have any doubts.) 

With that said, Toshiro Mifune’s performance is a joy to behold in any language.  (Please watch this in Japanese.  Domo arigato.)  Taking a simple direction from Kurosawa likening his character to a dog, Mifune runs with that image to create a unique, memorable Samurai that simultaneously defines and defies convention.  The outer shell is tired, devil-may-care, and recognizable to all from a thousand other stories, but Mifune makes that tiredness his own, creating physical tics (shrugging his shoulders like a dog shrugs away fleas) and deceptive postures (even as he slouches, one can tell he’s ready to spring at any moment) while wearing an expression that speaks of weariness on its surface but which none the less positively radiates amusement... and disgust.  Looking for an inexpensive acting class?  Grab a fistful of dollars, and then use them to buy a copy of Yojimbo and study Toshiro Mifune.  You’ll be surprised at how many different aspects he can throw into one performance as a “tired old tough guy.”

The strength of that performance is only magnified by the incredible work being done on the other side of the camera.  Akira Kurosawa stands as one of the greatest movie directors of all time, and Yojimbo is a fine example of the master showing everybody how it’s done.  Kurosawa is a very economical filmmaker; there is never a wasted shot or a superfluous moment to be seen, as everything that happens does so in service to the story.  He is also a master of “moments” – those signature seconds that stand out in the viewer’s memory long after the end credits have rolled.  Here witness the stray dog running through town with a hand in its mouth: Kurosawa’s own idea to show that the town is “bad,” but also, given his direction to Mifune, perhaps a secondary commentary on the nature of Our Hero.  Now witness Our Hero demonstrating his prowess to the gangsters of the town: a scene that take mere seconds to complete but which serves as testimony to his skill with no need for further proof for roughly half the film.  (It also is the very clear inspiration for Obi-Wan Kenobi’s lightsaber demonstration in the Star Wars cantina, right down to the severed arm.)  Later witness clear and convincing evidence that sometimes, it really does work to bring a knife to a gun fight.  Now witness the blood - almost the only blood you'll see - pooling around the form of the last gangster as he slowly dies on the street, made all the more poignant by the black and white film stock that makes the detail easy to miss if you're not paying attention. Watching Yojimbo is like walking through an exhibit at an art museum; all of the pieces together tell a compelling story, but each individual piece is a story unto itself.

Silly Samurai flick?  I don’t think so.  Only worthwhile as a bit of trivia about where Spaghetti Westerns came from?  Not a chance.  This, my friends, is Truly Great Cinema, and that is that.

Bottom line, you owe it to yourself to witness that greatness firsthand.  Whether or not action is your thing, whether or not you normally watch movies with subtitles, whether or not you give a damn about the history of Westerns… if you count yourself as any kind of movie fan at all, you must watch Yojimbo.

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- Reviewed by Ziggy Berkeley, March 23, 2013

Akira Kurosawa's Birthday


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