11 January 2006

100 films: Yojimbo

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starring: Toshirô Mifune, Tatsuya Nakadai, Yôko Tsukasa, and Isuzu Yamada
written by: Ryuzo Kikushima and Akira Kurosawa
directed by: Akira Kurosawa
NR, 110 min, 1961, Japan

A lone Samurai (Toshirô Mifune) wanders into a small town caught between two warring gangsters. Against the advice of his innkeeper friend, he opts to sell his services to the highest bidder, all the while working toward his ulterior motive destroying both factions (and being well-paid to do so). He plays both sides expertly, taking money from one then giving it back just as the battle is about to begin. But when a competing samurai appears with a pistol, the power dynamic changes drastically and he is forced into a dangerous game of survival.

Akira Kurosawa's Yojimbo is essentially a high-stakes game of chess--an elaborate battle of wills at a time of great upheaval, where the old world is slowly giving way to the new. Mifune's nameless[1] Samurai represents the old way, a world where a Samurai, once hired, is loyal to the death and a grand sense of honor rules all proceedings. When he decides to stay, he sagely notes that he can make a lot of money in this battle, as the side that pays him the most will buy his loyalty. But then, after overhearing the gang leader's plan to kill him once the battle is over (thus saving a significant amount of money), he does what no one expects from a Samurai: he returns the money and walks away from the battle. The men, of course, are stunned, and the opposing side delirious with joy, for now they have a chance[2]. In a great sequence he calmly walks to the middle of the battleground, declares that he has no affiliation in this fight, and climbs to the top of a tower to watch the battle he has engineered. And were this a much shorter film, his job would have been complete. Thankfully, it isn't.[3]

The two sides declare a truce, much to our hero's dismay, so he must again engineer a battle, this time killing men and assigning the blame elsewhere. Only, he isn't so lucky. Unosuke (Tatsuya Nakadai), the son of one of the gangsters, has returned to town. He sees right through the Samurai's motives. Being from the new order of things himself he doesn't automatically assume a Samurai's loyalty, as the others do. He doesn't cling to an unfailing sense of honor. And he carries a gun, which makes him the most feared man in town. Unosuke unmasks the Samurai's deception and has his father's men beat him mercilessly for information about the people he's helped in the process. Ironically, most of the Samurai's selfish actions go undetected, but the rare time he does a purely good deed is the time he gets in the most trouble. Consider it Kurosawa's odd view on karma.

Yojimbo also works as Kurosawa's odd take on the classic western. The town is structured like the classic western border town, with the one road down the middle, and a constant breeze whipping up dust in the street. The Samurai spends much of his free time in the town's saloon, drinking sake and waiting for people to come to him. It's clearly an homage to the John Ford westerns, from the disposition of the hero, to the action, to the composition of shots. Kurosawa turns what could have been a cheap gimmick into a beautiful melding of East and West. Strangely enough, when Sergio Leone remade this in 1964 as Per un pugno di dollari (A Fistful of Dollars) it signaled the re-invention of the genre. So to breathe life into this most American of genres, it took a Japanese director's homage being re-made by an Italian in a film featuring the star of Rawhide. It isn't exactly the way you'd expect it to happen, but an effective way nonetheless.

It doesn't take much to see Clint Eastwood in Toshirô Mifune's Samurai[4], a man of few words and strong, decisive actions. He lets his silence speak volumes, particularly in an early scene where he's first offering his services. The gangster offers a ridiculously low sum and the Samurai starts to get up. The number slowly moves higher until he says "Not even close", at which point the offer starts climbing dramatically. He doesn't speak again until he hears a number that he likes. This is a style of acting on which Eastwood has based an entire persona, and it's a persona that fits him perfectly, but it's a style that Toshirô Mifune created. Clint merely perfected it.

It has been said that Yojimbo is a film that could exist without the subtitles and still function effectively, and that's not far off the mark. To be sure it is a great film, but it is also one of those rare films that combines seemingly disparate cinematic elements in ways few would have imagined with results that make it seem as if they've always belonged together. To watch Yojimbo is to watch one master honoring another. This is a great film in every way imaginable.

[1] For all practical purposes.

[2] You see, in a quick demonstration he's already killed three men at once, so no one really wants to do battle with him.

[3] As much as I dislike violence (and the extension of the film leads to plenty of it), I like great cinema more. So if a few more people have to die so I can watch more Kurosawa, so be it.

[4] He was the original "Man With No Name".


johanna said...

Don't forget to re-link my new Yojimbo review, please. It took a long time to write.

Hell, it's still not finished. I'm kind of experimenting with form on some of these.

johanna said...


i'll be at your play on friday. i was going to come anyway.