Sunday, January 6, 2013


YOJIMBO (1961)

Director: Akira Kurosawa
Screenplay: Akira Kurosawa and Ryuzo Kikushima based on the story by Akira Kurosawa

It was somewhere around my third or fourth viewing of Akira Kurosawa’s “Yojimbo” that it occurred to me that the movie takes place, in one of the strangest worlds I’ve ever seen. It’s almost like the entire town was built specifically for Kuwabatake Sanjuro (Toshiro Mifune) to come in, and basically, have the town fall upon itself. He seems to be playing chess with two people who are both playing checkers against each other. What kind of town is this? It seems to have been placed full of criminals by some overlying government figure, who occasionally comes into town, to make sure no one is fighting. They stop fighting at that point, but then he leaves, then the two factions go back to fighting for control of the town. You’d think somebody would’ve either won, or at least, they’d have killed each other off by the time the lone stranger of Sanjuro comes to town.

Sanjuro, which is a Japanese word for “Thirty-year-old”, although he claims to be in his forties, is a tall and round man, who’s clearly been trained from years of swordsmanship, as well as lots of worldly experience. A lone samurai, if you will. He doesn’t come into a fight with his sword drawn; he seems to yawn into a room, not literally, but his behavior seems like he’s just been woken up in the middle of the night, to deal with with whomever is trying to kill him today. He never rushes or moves without thinking ahead. He waits for others to act, and only responds himself, when he recognizes no other option. Like a superhero, he’s more powerful, skilled and intellectually superior than everyone in any town he walks into or walks out of, and yet, he makes sure he gets paid, a sure sign of a westerner if there ever was one. Another sure sign, is that after he’s paid, it still doesn’t mean he’s loyal to one side or the other, and he can just as easily turn to the other side, on a dime. He’s a lone sole voice of independence, in a world, where groups and conformity are most precedent. Sanjuro, might be film’s first truly unbiased protagonist, making him all the more mysterious and interesting.
He quickly sizes up the bizarre situation, kills three of the town’s toughest in a rather short and impressive public display, and spends the entire movie, fielding offers from both sides. They believe, correctly so, that if he’s on their side, they’ll win. This reminded me slightly of a character in the Brazilian film “City of God”, about the Rio drug war/trade, and how one man,  Knockout Ned, had been a former marine, and while their was a lot of guns being shot off, when Knockout Ned shot his gun, he hit, and killed his targets with far more accuracy, while everyone else shot wild. Instead of drugs, they seem to only want control over the dusty old town. Sanjuro spends his days with the only person who seems to get any business, the local casketmaker. It’s there, the he goes back and forth, playing both sides, as they try to impress Sanjuro with offers. He claims, he’s waiting to tell which side is the right one to be on. If there is a right one, I couldn’t find it, but eventually he does, the right one for Sanjuro at the time anyway. “Yojimbo”, which translates to “The Bodyguard”, is quite possibly Kurosawa’s most Western film. More than any other Japanese filmmaker, he was inspired by American and Western movies and stories. He’s made ultiple film that were Japanese remakes of Shakespeare plays, including his great epic “Ran”. “Yojimbo”, so easily feels like a western, it’s amazing that he didn’t steal the story from an American film. Instead, famously, Sergio Leone, an Italian director, remade “Yojimbo”, and it’s sequel “Sanjuro”, into the spaghetti westerns, “A Fistful of Dollars”, and “For a Few Dollars More”, which launched Clint Eastwood’s career into superstardom and created his “Man with No Name” persona. As for Kurosawa, “Yojimbo” seems to be in a world so absurd, that I wonder if it was intended as a comedy. Personally, I don’t rank it as high on Kurosawa’s canon as his other films, except for possibly importance. His best film, depending on my mood that day, is either “Rashomon”, or “Ikiru.” I’m not as sure if “Yojimbo” is a success as a film (in fact, I tend to differ with most scholars believing “Sanjuro” to be the better film), but “Yojimbo”, is clearly the most interesting and strangest great film Kurosawa made. It creates an unusual hero, in an even more unusual world. I described Sanjuro’s action as “yawning into a room.” With such a strange and old little dusty town that he’s created, I wonder if it’s possible that the entire world came to him in a dream?

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