[Film Review] Yojimbo (1961)

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English Title: Yojimbo
Original Title: Yôjinbô
Year: 1961
Country: Japan
Language: Japanese
Genre: Action, Drama, Thriller
Director: Akira Kurosawa
Writers:
Akira Kurosawa
Ryûzô Kikushima
Music: Masaru Satô
Cinematography: Kazuo Miyagawa
Cast:
Toshirô Mifune
Tatsuya Nakadai
Eijirô Tôno
Kyû Sazanka
Daisuke Katô
Isuzu Yamada
Seizaburô Kawazu
Takashi Shimura
Hiroshi Tachikawa
Atsushi Watanabe
Yôko Tsukasa
Kamatari Fujiwara
Ikio Sawamura
Susumu Fujita
Tsunagorô Rashômon
Yoshi Tsuchiya
Rating: 8.3/10

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Akira Kurosawa’s enshrined masterpiece YOJIMBO, like its antecedent SEVEN SAMURAI (1954), seminally creates an archetypal world suffused with oriental chivalry and sacrosanct “kill or spare” philosophy of a macho hero, equipped with a-man-of-no-name coolness and ne plus ultra of martial arts (or samurai swordsmanship in Kurosawa’s cases), fairly inspires Sergio Leone’s A FISTFUL OF DOLLARS followed by a spate of epigones from both sides of the world.

Shot in a grandiose, monochromatic anamorphic format, YOJIMBO is presented on a studio-bound set barely big enough to contain the ongoing turf war between two equally Machiavellian gangs (lead by Seibei and his former right-hand man Ushitora, respectively) that scourges the puny unnamed village (common villagers scarcely materialize themselves among the ruckuses) by the means of gambling, prostitution and internecine slaughter. A roaming ronin Kuwabatake Sanjuro (Mifune) – the name is christened by him impromptu (which literally means: mulberry field, thirty-years-old), when he is asked by Orin (Yamada, a sinister wire-puller), the wife of Seibei (Kawazu) – becomes the townsfolk’s savior, impressing both clans with his life-taking sword skill, he leverages the bargains offered by them to buy him as a bodyguard (aka. the titular “yojimbo”) and then covertly stokes the feud between them through his cunning machination, during which he saves the live of Nui (Tsukasa), a comely wife forced into the oldest profession because of her husband’s gamble debt, an altruistic deed nearly becomes his own undoing, through the gob of Sanjuro, Kurosawa vents his disdain towards the anathema of gambling, a canker corrupts the hoi polloi, and youngsters who cannot resist its allure.

Among the manifold self-serving reprobates and buffoons, Sanjuro finds him an ally, the tavern owner Gonji (Tôno), who would risk his own life to come to his aid when he needs most after being physically compromised when his tricks are inadvertently disclosed. And it is in the name of rescuing Gonji, Sanjuro rushes to the final face-off with the riffraff on the winner side in the aftermath a bloodbath, lead by three brothers, Ushitora (Sazanka), a half-witted Inokichi (Katô), plus a cocksure and lethal gunslinger Unosuke (Nakadai), heroic atmospherics duly enhanced by rampant sand dust and smokes.

The action sequences are executed with Kurosawa’s usual if more blistering blink-and-you’ll-miss-it efficiency, who also shows up every strike’s severity through either cod severed limbs or pain-induced wails from those unlucky ones who are not succumbed to quietus instantly. Wonderful mise-en-scène gets the best of its economical set, and Kurosawa dexterously utilizes a behind-the-lattice angle and pristine split-focus composition to accompany the story’s expositional and narrative parts, resolutely holds an aloof stance towards the human vice on display, with Sanjuro simmering stock still.

Mifune is crowned a BEST ACTOR award in Venice, and save his trademark steely intent, unperturbed composure and unmitigated virility, here he knowingly ekes out a semblance of levity when he (or Kurosawa) sees fit (mostly when he juggles both sides with sufficient amount of amusement), even when Sanjuro is mercilessly beaten into a pulp, Mifune ensures viewers that his crawling-out-of-harm’s-way exit strategy is never less engaging through his strenuous body movements. A glut of one-note, contemptible characters circling around the secondary tier, but there is always the sharp-eyed Tatsuya Nakadai, chalking up the final suspense when his dying wish – to clutch his pistol before meeting his maker – believe it or not, is granted.

Masaru Satô’s unconventionally dissonant soundtrack, heightened by blaring drum beat, is another takeaway from this thoroughly entrancing theatrical lodestone, proudly boasting a high-minded ideal of bushido in a quaint 19th century Japanese hinterland.

referential entries: Sergio Leone’s A FISTFUL OF DOLLARS (1964, 7.6/10); Akira Kurosawa’s SEVEN SAMURAI (1954, 8.4/10), HIGH AND LOW (1963, 8.5/10).

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