The Kurosawa Odyssey
Studio: Toho/Kurosawa Production Co.
Screenwriter: Ryuzo Kikushima, Akira Kurosawa
Cast: Toshiro Mifune, Tatsuya Nakadai, Yoko Tsukasa
Cinematographer: Kazuo Miyagawa, Takao Saito
Music: Masaru Sato
Certain classic films feel like they were a complete trial for all involved – you can see onscreen the filmmakers stretching and just reaching transcendence…despite the hell it took them to get there. Think of movies like “Gone With the Wind,” “Schindler’s List” or “Apocalypse Now.” But then there are other classics that seem to appear fully formed. They play to all of the cast, writers and filmmakers’ strengths and you regard the movie, thinking “Well duh! Why didn’t they do this years ago?” Now think of movies like “North By Northwest,” “Jurassic Park” or “La Dolce Vita.” Everything just seemed to click.
And that’s how I feel while watching “Yojimbo.”
It perfects Toshiro Mifune’s whole jaded/smart/wildcard persona that he seems to have been rehearsing with Kurosawa all the way back to their first collaboration on “Drunken Angel.” Kurosawa (along with his frequent writing collaborator Ryuzo Kikushima) address all the major thematic touchstones of his career – poverty, wicked fools, one man going up against a seemingly impossible institution – and also throws in a samurai because that’s always cool. Mix it all together and, voila!, you’ve got a classic movie. If only it could always seem so easy.
Mifune plays a samurai who probably isn’t named Sanjuro, but it’s the name he gives when asked. His robes are slightly tattered and, for a samurai, he seems to care one hell of a lot about money. We first see him literally at a crossroads and throwing a stick in order to find out which way to head next. As soon as he walks down the path pointed out to him, the plot is thrust upon him. He finds himself in a small town overrun by two warring crime bosses – and as a result the few good people left are barely surviving. The main street in the town is either filled with evil minions or completely empty (except for a dog that walks around with a random severed hand in its mouth – yum!).
Sanjuro gets the lowdown from two of the only good people in town – the restaurant owner and the casket maker. The casket maker is the only businessman in town who seems to be profiting from the gang war…though later, when the bodies are stacking up, he opines “When the fighting gets this bad, they don’t even bother with coffins.” Sensing an opportunity to make a profit and do some good, Sanjuro calls out the thugs and immediately kills off two and disarms another (literally, he chops off the guy’s arm!) and finds both gangs fighting over who will get him as their bodyguard.
The gang leaders believe that they are playing a game of chess and that Sanjuro is the most powerful player… but what they don’t know is that the game doesn’t matter because there’s a bomb under the table. Not my best metaphor, but still apt. The heavies on both sides are all idiots – Kurosawa puts him in garish make-up that makes them look like silent movie villains (he did the same thing for the bandits in “Seven Samurai”), and so it’s easy at first for Sanjuro to outwit them. They plot to kill him after he does their dirty work pretty loudly in a place where they can be overheard, after all.
But the smartest man in the room taking down dumb people one at a time can get pretty tedious (do you hear me, “House of Cards”?!), so Kikushima and Kurosawa throw in several fascinating wrenches, most notable of which is a new villain in the form of one of the boss’ brothers Unosuke (Tatsuya Nakadai), who arrives with a gun and a deep suspicion of Sanjuro. He actually catches Sanjuro red-handed and beats him senseless, which is a nice shock to the system for the audience – this is real.
The movie is one of the most beautiful I’ve seen so far in Kurosawa’s oeuvre, sometimes matching “The Hidden Fortress.” There is this incredible shot that manages to show Sanjuro arriving for his last battle, Unosuke heading off to the battle and the old man strung up in the middle of the town – all introduced in the least-expected way – that is breathtaking. Though he does this often in other films, “Yojimbo” seems very concerned with getting information across through images alone with as little dialogue as possible (after the first 15 minute endless dialogue dump). And he’s smart to do this – the movie doesn’t feel oddly silent, but the lack of in-depth dialogue makes it feel more like a visceral experience.
Another one of “Yojimbo’s” strengths is that it does not linger. In “Seven Samurai” Kurosawa took stereotypes and gave them time to create depth, but here we have no real interest in getting to know the scorpions of the town. Sanjuro is an enigma, and we gain more insight into his character by seeing the ingenious ways he responds to situations more than we would through monologuing. His “friends” in town are not afforded any depth, and are essentially interchangeable. And why not? What more did we need to know about them? The movie is under two hours long, and that feels just about right. We get the epic sweep we need and the plot complications a story like this requires, but it also keeps the story economical. Instead of adding epilogue after epilogue (you just know at some point there must have been a beat where Sanjuro threw another branch to choose his next journey), as Kurosawa has done before in lesser films, the maestro simply ends the film seconds after Sanjuro succeeds in saving his friend… and it’s the perfect note to end on and, more importantly, the right one.
What strikes me most about “Yojimbo” watching it again, is that it’s always smarter than it needs to be. For a movie where most of the characters are idiots, it does not talk down to its audience. The dog with the hand, having one of the heavies carry the coffin, Sanjuro hiding under the floor… all beats lesser films would have not spent the extra draft or two crafting. And, as mentioned above, Kurosawa makes it look easy, which is a sign that it was probably really hard.
- Since you are voluntarily reading a blog about Kurosawa, it should not come as a shock to you that the maestro’s next film is a sequel, entitled “Sanjuro.” More interesting is that there are two other unofficial sequels that Kurosawa had nothing to do with. The first is “Zatoichi Meets Yojimbo” – the 20th film in a series about a blind swordsman. Though Mifune certainly looks like Sanjuro, he gets a real name in the film and is working for the government, so it’s pretty obviously not the same character. The second is “Incident at Blood Pass,” which feels more true to Kurosawa’s vision of the character, albeit with less body scratching. Neither are especially great films.