1960s, 4/4, Action, Adventure, Akira Kurosawa, Review

Yojimbo

#5 in my ranking of Akira Kurosawa’s filmography.

Akira Kurosawa’s most purely fun film, Yojimbo is the work of a master simply out to give his audience a good time. With a light and playful tone that gives way to an earned feeling of peril, Kurosawa’s seemingly frothy ronin tale ends up one of the most thoroughly entertaining films of his entire career. Anchored by a wonderful score by Masaru Sato and a pitch-perfect central performance by Kurosawa’s main star Toshiro Mifune, Yojimbo is a pure delight.

A masterless samurai who calls himself Sanjuro Kuwabatake (Mifune), which means “Thirty-year old Mulberry Field” (“though I’m nearly 40 now,” he informs someone) wanders randomly into a town torn apart by conflict between two warring factions of gamblers, thieves, and brutes. He survey’s the situation, receiving key background from Gonji (Eijiro Tono), the owner of a tavern. When the local boss Seibei (Seizaburo Kawazu) decided to grant ownership of the organization to his son Yoichiro (Hiroshi Tachikawa) instead of his righthand man Ushitora (Kyu Sazanka). Ushitora was so enraged, he took half of Yoichiro’s men, and the two have been recruiting drifters and criminals ever since in an endless war of attrition over control of the silk manufacturing town. Out of either a sense of justice or just to entertain himself, Sanjuro decides that he’s going to destroy both factions, but how? After thinking it over with some sake, he goes over to Ushitora’s men, kills three of them with his sword effortlessly, and then walks right over to Seibei’s to demand payment for his services as bodyguard. The idea is to get the two factions at a fever pitch as quickly as possible so they slaughter each other with Seibei using the opportunity of Sanjuro’s presence and earned reputation as a killer to strike while the iron is hot.

He uses the scheming of Seibei’s wife Orin (Isuzu Yamada) to kill Sanjuro right after the battle as an excuse to return the thirty ryo they paid him to work for Seibei and sit out the fight, climbing a tower in the middle of town to gleefully watch the slaughter happen, having reached a pitch that almost nothing could temper. Well, except the visit of a Shogun inspector from Edo. His arrival prompts a ten-day period of an uncomfortable peace where everything must look normal while Sanjuro hangs out in the tavern, wondering when and which side will offer him money first to come and work for them. They both show up, represented by Orin on one side and Ushitora’s halfwit younger brother Inokichi (Daisuke Kato).

Things begin to go in the wrong direction when a magistrate dozens of miles away gets murdered, forcing the inspector to leave. The peace is going to continue for a time, though, with an important silk festival coming up, they need the town clean in order to bring in more money. Sanjuro won’t allow this, allowing them to restrengthen themselves, so when he overhears the grumbling of two Ushitora men about how they risked their lives for seemingly nothing, Sanjuro knows that it was them who killed the magistrate, and he sets a new plan into immediate action, capturing them and giving them to Seibei. With the prospect of destroying Ushitora completely, the idea of peace falls away from Seibei and the scheming begins anew.

Another complication arises with the arrival of Ushitora’s other brother Unosuke (Tatsuya Nakadai), a psychopath who has somehow managed to pick up a revolver on his year long travels. It’s a way to up the stakes, threat, and tension as Sanjuro has to adapt quickly. Mifune really is one of the joys of the film, but he’s helped a lot by the fact that the character he’s playing is so well written. He’s smart, inventive, and adaptive while Mifune provides him a marvelously dismissive attitude to it all. When a barrier comes up in his plan, he figures a way around it. When the knowledge of the taken lackeys reaches Ushitora, a pair of kidnappings happen in quick order. This gives us a late introduction to a pair of characters, and I immediately felt a bit annoyed. Tokuemon (Takashi Shimura) is a figurehead mayor put in place by Ushitora, and he stole Nui (Yoko Tsukasa), the wife of Kohei (Yoshio Tsuchiya) when he couldn’t pay back gambling debts. They also have a son. Upon its introduction, this feels like it’s going to drive the narrative for a while, and the late introduction irked me. However, as it played out the decision made more sense.

Up until this point, Sanjuro has been a disconnected troll, essentially. He’s just been driving the two to destroy each other for opaque motives, and the sudden investment in actual people caught in the crossfire adds a new dimension to his character. It’s about him, not them. His efforts to free them show that his motive is more altruistic than they might have been, but they also form the basis of his dramatic downturn when Unosuke (no dummy himself), figures out that it was Sanjuro who helped them escape, not Seibei’s men like Sanjuro insisted. This brings Sanjuro into real peril and sets up the final, nearly apocalyptic conflict.

What’s interesting to me about the movement of the plot is how it goes from playful and almost irreverent to serious in terms of its sense of danger around out main character. Sanjuro might be my favorite Mifune character. As previously stated, it’s both how he’s written and performed. Mifune brings a subtle wit to the character in addition to the intelligence of how he’s written. It’s a surprisingly subtle and almost comic performance from the man, and I think it shows how much he’d grown as an actor in the decade or so since he had started working with Kurosawa. He really was a movie star in the fullest sense of the word, and he takes a strong script and helps to elevate it.

Kurosawa himself brings his A-game again as well, filming in beautiful Tohoscope and filling each frame fully and intelligently. Compositions are fantastic from beginning to end, completely taking advantage of the large outdoor set and the placement of his actors to make wonderful looking frames from beginning to end, all while managing the whole cast, helping to give this light story surprising emotional heft and impact.

Yojimbo is primo entertainment, up with Seven Samurai in Kurosawa’s body of work. It’s also an hour and a half shorter, which makes for easier watching.

Rating: 4/4

7 thoughts on “Yojimbo”

  1. Another good review, I have a few more thoughts to pile on with:

    This is ANOTHER Kurosawa adaptation of Western culture, this time the moody ‘Red Harvest’ by Daishell Hammett, though there are additional plot and thematic changes from the book, making it a true adaptation…albeit one Kurosawa did not acknowledge. (one of Kurosawa’s point points was in suing Sergio Leone over ‘A Fist Full of Dollars’, despite Kurosawa taking his plot from Hammett)

    That aside, this is an amazing film and I found the tonal shift shocking when I first saw it. The hero just “doesn’t” get captured and tortured in a normal action movie. That level of suffering really raised the stakes in a way I don’t think I’d ever seen before.

    We have a nice clash of East vs West with the introduction of the revolver. Skill suddenly isn’t enough, especially in the hands of a madman.

    I love the beginning where Sanjuro throws a straw into the air to see which fork of a road to take. He is literally a ‘leaf on the wind’, a masterless man, a ronin in the most literal sense.

    I love watching him play both gangs against each other.

    And of course I love Mifune in this. Clint Eastwood did a great job re-telling this story but Mifune had more layers to Sanjuro, whom will be seeing again in an even less-serious role, soon enough.

    Liked by 1 person

    1. Kurosawa was really good at the whole, “entertain the masses” part of filmmaking, and Mifune was great at the whole, “acting appropriately” thing, including comedic timing.

      And part of that is the sense of danger that comes with real threat and menace to Sanjuro. It’s not just fun happenings. There are real stakes to be had, and considering Kurosawa’s past body of work, it was always a possibility that Sanjuro could die. I guess it’s the difference between menace and peril.

      Liked by 1 person

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