Yojimbo (??? or The Bodyguard) may be the most well known Akira Kurosawa film in the West, and it is easily the funniest film of the master filmmaker’s that I’ve seen (even more so than The Hidden Fortress). But it’s not a great film, albeit very entertaining, and Kurosawa’s biggest money making film, to that point. That’s because it simply has no depth. It’s a fairly one note comic opera that plays variations on a theme: perverse samurai fucks with the minds of even more perverse villagers until he ends up destroying a town he hoped to save, merely for the hell of it (almost a precognitive sketch of what would later be done on the television show The Prisoner). Yes, there are wannabe critics who will preen on about how this or that moment or aspect of the film is a sly dig at this or that political element in then contemporaneous Japan, or try to derive the roots of a moment in some arcana, but none of this sort of preening on about capitalism’s vices nor Japan’s aborning industrialism has any real relevance to the action within the film because, in reality, Yojimbo is Kurosawa Lite.
Filmed in 1961, the 110 minute long black and white jidaigeki film moves very quickly. It follows a nameless ronin, or samurai sans master, played by Toshirô Mifune (then Japan’s and Kurosawa’s biggest star). Later in the film, he dons the pseudonym Kuwabatake Sanjuro (30 Year Old Mulberry Field), but he is the forerunner to The Man With No Name in Sergio Leone’s Dollar Trilogy- the first film of which, A Fistful Of Dollars, was a ripoff of this film, in terms of plot (to the point that Kurosawa sued Leone and won). It also inspired a successful sequel, Sanjuro. The film also has been held up as an example of Kurosawa’s debt to John Ford’s Westerns, but the truth is that Kurosawa was light years beyond Ford as a film helmer, and the humor, satire, black comedy, and outright farcical elements in this film are things that Ford never even dreamt of, much less attempted.
Sanjuro tries to play both sides against the middle in the 19th Century village he randomly wanders in to (greeted by a sweet dog casually strolling by with a human hand in its jaws), until he is informed of the raging battle between two aborning (and bumbling) yakuza syndicates that control the town, which is impoverished to the point that the only industry that is booming is that of the local casket maker. Here is where Sanjuro declares his desire to be puppetmaster because the folks in this town all deserve to die, unwilling to see that, in such a declaration he is no different than the yakuza heads that he wants to manipulate. Hence, Kurosawa pulls off a neat trick: endearing the viewer to the mind of an evil character who is, quite possibly psychopathic, as well as psychotic.
He offers his services to both clans, after accepting the job of bodyguard to one clan, headed by Seibei (Seizaburo Kawazu), only to turn the job down when he overhears their plans to kill him after he has vanquished the other side. This allows Sanjuro to bail out just before a major confrontation. But, then a local state inspector drops in, hostilities cease, and now even the casket maker is idled. Then, the other of the yakuza heads, Ushitora (Kyu Sazanka), orders the death of a magistrate in a nearby town, so that the inspector will leave, and hostilities can resume. Sanjuro now takes an offer from the second yakuza head, and ends up slowly undermining them, until he is found out by the head’s younger brother, Unosuke (Tatsuya Nakadai; Japan’s second biggest star at the time), who wields a pistol- then a new symbol of power in feudal Japan. He is captured, then held hostage and beaten by a giant, deformed thug (the obvious inspiration to Jaws, from the James Bond films). He devises a clever escape, watches as Ushitora’s mob totally annihilates Seibei’s, then recuperates for a few days, before a final showdown with Unosuke and Ushotora’s men, where, in one of the great action flourishes in cinema history, Sanjuro kills all ten men, including the gun-toting Unosuke, in under ten seconds. It is the proof that, despite the pretensions of many bad critics, Yojimbo is the ascension of the samurai film into an early example of superhero film; with the added bonus that the superhero is flawed to the point that he is not merely an antihero, but a superantihero, and no better than the yakuza scum he’s eliminated. And he is such a superantihero that his success, despite momentary failures, leads him to not even learn the film’s lesson at the end, as he winks and nods his goodbyes to the town, sure that he will wreak further havoc, sans consequences, in the future.
Most critics hailed the film as a great entertainment, but eyed it as just that. Only later film criticism has attempted to make far more of the film than it is (a proposition that, interestingly, even Kurosawa had little patience for). In fact, perhaps the best summation of the film came from the notoriously stolid Bosley Crother of the New York Times (that era’s answer to Roger Ebert), who wrote:
However, as in most Westerns, the dramatic penetration is not deep, and the plot complications are many and hard to follow in Japanese. Kurosawa is here showing more virtuosity than strength. Yojimbo is a long way (in the wrong direction) from his brilliant Rashomon.
No, the plot is rather easy to follow, and Yojimbo is not a long way from Rashomon, for Kurosawa was simply to great an artist for such a precipitous drop, but it is an almost archetypal example of brilliant style over mediocre substance, a fluffy treat that he would duplicate in Sanjuro, only to blast back with possibly his greatest all around film, 1963’s High And Low.
The DVD, from The Criterion Collection, is part of a two disk boxed set with Sanjuro. In 1999 the company released both films in poor transfers and in badly cropped versions which were excoriated. Having those copies, I can state this version is a huge improvement, although there are still problems with the company’s refusal to add an English dubbed track option. Furthermore, this oversight is only amplified by the company’s continued use of plain white fonts for their subtitles, which often are unreadable in harshly lighted scenes. Fortunately, there is minimal dialogue in the film, and the widescreen aspect ratio means most of the dialogue is shown over the black bars of the letterboxing. The aspect ratio is 2.35:1, and includes the original theatrical trailer and teaser, an insert booklet, a stills gallery, and a 45 minute long documentary on the film from Toho Studios, called Akira Kurosawa: It Is Wonderful To Create. It also features an audio commentary from the notorious Stephen Prince. I emphasize the word notorious because he is one of the most hit and miss commentarians around- he has some very good commentaries, and some awful ones. This one is merely solid, for Prince seems to not be reading from a script, yet he jabbers on way too much. Instead of letting a scene play out, then opining, or pointing to a specific moment, he just goes full bore into whatever scripted idea he felt needed to be mentioned. He also reinforces the notion that many critics miss the ball by claiming the Western’s influence on Kurosawa, for his influence on films made in the West is far greater- after all, Sanjuro is the forerunner to all sorts of action heroes from Ripley to Rambo to Bourne and beyond. His most cogent observation, though, is one I noticed, but was unsure of, and that is the reappearance of a minor character, at film’s start, at the film’s end. And while this character may lead many critics to see some faux depth in the film’s political message, it simply is a nice touch to help give the film a sense of closure, only to have that neat wrapping undone with Sanjuro’s final words and demeanor. Kurosawa, as all great artists, rarely lets something end on a predictable or trite note (the notable exception being Rashomon).
On the technical side, there is no flaw with this film- there are camera shots by Kazuo Miyagawa that blur perspective in just a slight movement of the camera, and almost all the significant action in the film happens in the presence of Sanjuro. Without him, much of the film would go unwitnessed, for we, the audience, can only see what Sanjuro sees (or hears), by and large. The screenplay, by Kurosawa, Ryuzo Kikushima, and Hideo Oguni, is well wrought fluff, and there are many ironically iconic throwaway lines, although the most uttered word in the script seems to be ‘Idiot!’ or ‘Fool!,’ showing Kurosawa’s endebtedness to not only the West’s Western films, but to many of its screball comedies of the 1930s, as well as the works of the Marx Brothers, The Three Stooges, and Abbott And Costello. The only discordant note, on a technical note, is the highly influential, but far too leading, soundtrack by Masaru Sato. Despite its then radical nature, and its excellence and evocativeness as stand alone music, it telegraphs the emotional power, or lack, of a scene far too easily. A lighter touch was needed.
Ironically, where much of Yojimbo is, as mentioned, merely Kurosawa Lite, the soundtrack’s harsh and deliberate veer into ‘depth’ just does not work. But, given the rest of the film’s formidably bearable being, it’s a forgivable flaw, for, let’s face it, Kurosawa Lite is far better than most directors’ ‘heaviness.’ You supply the bada-boom there yourself.
Japanese director and writer, and one of the most important figures in 20th century cinema. Kurosawa was greatly influenced by Hollywood - John Ford being his idol - but more than any other film-maker was responsible for introducing Japanese films to West. He originally trained as an artist and worked as a studio scriptwriter, before directing his first film in 1943, the martial arts drama Judo Saga. Kurosawa's next few films were made during World War II and had to adhere to strict state guidelines; it was 1948's gangster movie Drunken Angel that first saw the director's emerging personal vision, and was his first film to star regular leading man Toshirô Mifune.
Rashomon was the film that brought Kurosawa acclaim in the West, winning top prize at the Venice Film Festival in 1951, and a string of classics followed - Throne of Blood, The Hidden Fortress, Yojimbo, Seven Samurai - all set in Feudal Japan and combining incredible cinematography and thrilling action with humour, sadness and deep insights into human behaviour. The director also turned in some superb non-period film around this time too, such as the thrillers The Bad Sleep Well and High and Low.
The following decade proved a frustrating one for Kurosawa, as he struggled to get projects off the ground, culminating with the box office failure of Dodesukaden and a suicide attempt in 1970. The director's fortunes turned when 1975's Russian epic Dersu Uzala won the Best Foreign Language Oscar, while his next two films were among his very best - the beautifully shot Kagemusha and 1985's spectacular, hugely successful King Lear adaptation, Ran. Kurosawa's final films were smaller and more personal - Dreams, Rhapsody in August and Not Yet. He died of a stroke in 1998, aged 88.