(Japan - 1961)

by Vanes Naldi & Mike Lorefice
8/25/05 (Vanes 7/15/01)

Cast: Toshiro Mifune, Tatsuya Nakadai, Yoko Tsukasa, Isuzu Yamada
Genre: Samurai/Comedy
Director: Akira Kurosawa
Screenplay: Ryuzo Kikushima & Akira Kurosawa
Cinematography: Kazuo Miyagawa
Composer: Masaru Sato
Runtime: 110 minutes

"My impression is that through Kurosawa's films all of us can experience the soul of Japan, the inner strength of the Japanese people" - Zhang Yimou, TIME Asia Magazine.

VN: There's a reason Akira Kurosawa is probably the most accepted and acclaimed eastern filmmaker of all time, even in the western world where people like Hsiao-hsien Hou, Wong Kar-Wai, Edward Yang, Mikio Naruse, Im Kwon-taek, Yasuzo Masumura, & Yasujiro Ozu are virtually unknown. His approach to filmmaking, his epic stories, portraying the life of Japan and making it something that transcends nationality, that is understandable to everybody, made most of his acclaimed masterpieces accessible to a western audience, at least at first glance. He borrowed ideas and themes from westerns, from John Ford's vision. He once explained his influences as follows. "Good Westerns are liked by everyone. Since humans are weak, they want to see good people and great heroes. Westerns have been done over and over again, and in the process a kind of grammar has evolved. I have learned from this grammar of the Western." In addition, he took from his own culture, from the old, strict formula of Jidai-geki (samurai-age films) or more particularly from the Chanbara films, the same that are called "wuxia" films in China, swordplay. He took the best out of the two and recreated a genre, evolved from a formula whose strictness was limiting the creativity of most of the filmmakers of the time, since so many Chanbara films looked the same in the 40-50 & 60s.

The reason directors like Ozu or Mizoguchi never got the fame of Kurosawa was they were "too Japanese", their message wasn't easy to understand for western cultures. Their approach to filmmaking was too "regional" to appeal to people who weren't informed of the social, historical and cultural background of Japan. While these two are some of the best directors of all time, Kurosawa is better for that simple reason, because he's timeless, because he's able to showcase the soul of Japan in a way that can be accessible to everybody. He can develop a film from a pretty straightforward plot, and portray stories, give messages that everybody can understand.

ML: Kurosawa lifted the story for Yojimbo from the great American mystery writer Dashiell Hammett's Red Harvest, so it's not that foreign to being with. The challenge for Kurosawa tended to be making great writers Japanese (Dostoyevsky, Shakespeare, Gorky, etc). In any case, genre films tend to play well in any language, which is one of the reasons Hollyplastic seemingly makes nothing but action and comedy. Transcending nationality and understandable to everyone are greatly at odds, at least to me.

Transcending nationality is what Mizoguchi did. He was a feminist director whose work generally centered contrasting the benevolence and strength of women with the cruelty and frailty of men, with the later often tragically crushing the former. That's a universal theme, though one with a more limited audience than Kurosawa's genre films. Certainly, it's not one that "the only audience that matters", testosterone driven teens is going to be flocking to. Understandable to everyone, on the other hand, is what has destroyed writing in every form. Local or regional writing are no more because the corporate product is packaged to be sold throughout the world, because it's one vapid dud culture for all and all stuck with that one. Even on Broadway 2/3 of the audience are outsiders, tourists, so the old New York stories are a thing of the past. Instead of comedy that requires something from the audience, we are stuck with the kind of things Beavis and Butthead laugh at, "He said lesbian, huh huh huh." We are stuck with escapism, but we are never allowed to escape because everything looks more and more like America.

Ozu's stories provide the kind of escape that excites me. They were regional stories that taught you something about a far off land rather than using genre to make everything familiar. In fact, what Ozu depicted in his films, though they never related to the cinema, is what has made the world so much less interesting. His films were about that sameness, the devolution of Japan through the various ways their unique customs and traditions were obliterated by outside (usually Yankee since our post war regulations amounted to our shoving all our products down the throat of friend and foe) forces. While Kurosawa's films will play better to your average Star Wars fan, Ozu's are far more worthwhile because he was the time capsule of his nation.

VN: While average moviegoers might appreciate Kurosawa films for the beautiful, epic stories, for the visually stunning cinematography, for the fast and furious action of films like this or Seven Samurai, I'm more interested in the way he subtly narrates the history of Japan, with simple themes, with hints that make you think about the disintegration of a way of life, that totally changed the landscape of Japan.

ML: I agree that's the more interesting portion. One can easily see the allusions to the modern disintegration in Yojimbo, either reading the two gangs as rival corporations or the sides of the political spectrum. In either case, Kurosawa shows them all to be greedy fools, a rich leader who isn't content no matter how much money he has and all the followers grasping at straws while the leader risks their life. This serves no one, and two sides constantly at war become more or less one in the same, thus the only way to improve society is to stand apart from both groups. But if you are using words like nuance, subtle, sublime, you should be putting Mizoguchi over Kurosawa, and if you are using disintegration of a way of life, that's the heart of Ozu. I've seen so many more Kurosawa I have a hard time rating him in comparison to his Japanese counterparts, you have to throw his peer Kon Ichikawa in there also and then there's Shohei Imamura. In any case, if you want to put Kurosawa over the bunch, I believe you do have to talk about the things the "average moviegoers" are interested in or his ability to mix and rework genres. You touched on the later already, but I think what's most important about Yojimbo is not the combination of western with swordplay, but of western with black comedy. True, any samurai film is going to have some dueling, but the fighting in this film is purposely absurd, as are all the gangsters. In fact, the gangsters are such absurd caricatures that Toshiro Mifune, who is essentially a traditional superhero, becomes a credible character.

Though Kurosawa was one of the best at blending genres, and I believe the mixture with it's lack of pretension is the predominant reason Yojimbo is the finest of his films I've seen, I'd easily rate Ozu ahead of him because he created a style almost unique to anything in cinema. In a world that seems to strive to create clones and at best derivatives, the true originals like F.W. Murnau, Carl Dreyer, Robert Bresson, Jean-Luc Godard, Alain Resnais, Andrei Tarkovsky & Michelangelo Antonioni seem to only grow in stature. Well, actually they disappear into obscurity, but critically we need to value them more, to break free from the conform to be special brainwashing that the corporations have been so successful with.

VN: In a way, Kurosawa was like Sergio Leone, or better, Leone was the western Kurosawa. With his three jidai-geki films (Seven Samurai, Yojimbo and Sanjuro) Kurosawa explored the change from the Japan of the feudal age in the 16th century, based on team work, on the collective, based on the honor and pride of the samurai, to the Japan of the 19th century, totally changed by the disintegration of the feudal era. Like Kurosawa, Leone did the same thing for America with his "Once Upon a Time" trilogy, telling the story of America's evolution from the West to the gangsters' era. Thematically, the two directors are close, and that is probably why they're two of my favorites. Leone took inspiration from Yojimbo to do his "A Fistful of Dollars". One can't help but remember Toshiro Mifune and his beautiful portrayal of Sanjuro, the nameless samurai (remember the scene where he picks a name watching outside the window) when looking at Clint Eastwood and his "man with no name", though obviously in comparison Eastwood's comes off as severely lacking. Both are characters that defy the strict rules of the "hero" in their worlds.

ML: I should prefer Kurosawa because he's a lot more of a naturalist, moralist, and humanist. I prefer Leone, even if he's colder, more hopeless and nihilistic, a lot of what I hate about many of Eastwood's grimly nihilistic creations (especially the supposedly artistic Unforgiven & Mystic River). Kurosawa had a lot more to say, and made you care about things like the lives of the poor, the earth, generally a healthy way of life that, while requiring work, seemed more fulfilling and satisfying. However, he often became too sentimental, especially in his most overrated film Rashomon, whereas Mizoguchi was able to transcend because he was subtler and Leone didn't seem to care until the Once Upon a Time trilogy where he grew and grew into the epic tragedy of Once Upon a Time in America. Leone was the most limited of the three, but he had the gift of knowing exactly how to put it together for maximum cinematic effect. As a pure filmmaker, Leone is hard to top because everything he did worked within what he was trying to do, within his context, even if the scope of his stories was often narrow and dehumanizing.

Comparing Yojimbo with Fistful, one can see the bend of the two directors. Kurosawa's film is almost all strategy. It's the clever hero outsmarting the greedy bastards in humorous ways. Leone's film is all style, all action. Though the scenario is more or less the same, it's far flashier the strategy downplayed to mere plot points and the humor totally eliminated. Actually, the humor is there in a different way, the violence is made comic not by the absurdity of the perpetrators like Kurosawa but the total unbelievability because it's so overly stylized. While Kurosawa mocks the gangs, Leone demystifies the hero with utter cynicism but winds up making mythic violence because people enjoy the crazy ridiculous feats.

It's not even worth comparing either to Walter Hill's witless hack job Last Man Standing. Though supposedly a remake of Yojimbo, it appears to be a higher budget version of Fistful because it's constant over the top violence. Once again, Hill loads up on Peckinpah flourishes he did a lot more convincingly in The Long Riders. Similarly, his Melville fixation on the iconography of the main character was portrayed far more convincingly in his best film, The Driver. Adding, if that's the word, to his usual mix we get some Cimino dust storms that were completely pretentious in this setting (Cimino's had purpose but got annoying because he got so carried away with them, as he had the tendency to do) since they aren't used to demystify the west, or for any purpose other than the supposed interest of constant dust storms. Recommended only to those who will sit through anything to witness the beauty of Karina Lombard.

VN: With this innovation, this influential change to the old formula, Kurosawa's "trilogy" evolved from jidai-geki to something more, to something like a western in Asia, an "Eastern" because it both portrayed the life of a world, of an era, of a belief or tradition, and made it accessible with the use of techniques and messages that could appeal to everybody.

ML: I don't think there was that much difference between the western and the samurai film to begin with. The story tends to be the lone benevolent hero showing up, ridding the area of the no goods, and then roaming to the next place in need of salvation. The idea is the same, the culture and time period breeds certain differences, but the basic story and its arch are identical. Kurosawa generally told it deeper, better, truer, with more love and cynicism. The cynicism is important in Yojimbo, as it helps the audience realize Sanjuro isn't a hero in the true sense of the word, but rather a cold-blooded killer who may be willing to help us by doing his job, which is to kill people who are a threat to his boss. Leone's adaptation brought Kurosawa's hero as a mercenary capable of being helpful by killing the greedier and more corrupt to the western, again setting the genres up to largely mirror one another. Of course, Kurosawa didn't start this trend, we can see it in the westerns of Anthony Mann and Budd Boetticher, but they sped up the deevolution, as their character doesn't really aspire to nobility and isn't really conflicted by the morality of their actions. They aren't inhuman and value a brand of honesty and integrity, so they may assist someone they decide is worthy even to their own potential detriment, but they wouldn't be afraid not to. What separates the Kurosawa did and Leone trilogies is Leone maintained a tone throughout, while Kurosawa moved from seriousness to comedy.

VN: Toshiro Mifune is Sanjuro, one of the many samurai who are looking for work in a world devastated by feudal wars, where gangs of samurai had been fighting each other for their lords supremacy, where the collective doesn't mean as much as it used to be. He comes to a crossroads, and decides to let a stick decide his fate for him. He approaches a small village, in the midst of a war between two clans, lead respectively by Seibei (Seizaburo Kawazu) and Ushi-Tora (Kyu Sazanka). Sanjuro instantly proves his craft killing three men, and he suddenly becomes a hot commodity in the village. He gets requests from both clans, eager to find the right element to win against the opponents.

ML: Sanjuro knows he has to prove himself to create a market, but it's the only time he fights until the very end. He is a mercenary and not above killing, but Kurosawa's vision of him makes him come across far more right minded than Leone's by simply supressing Sanjuro's emotions. His actions seem bad, but the one time he tried to act compassionately he barely escaped with his life. Leone crushes the old myths, and his film is probably more truthful of the type he is depicting, but his glorification of grimness and nihilism isn't exactly an improvement. I don't think a character needs to be likable by any means, that was commercial manipulation until the commercial manipulation did a 180 and made the loud mouth degenerate self promoting punks into the heroes to coincide with the corporate marketing scheme of packaged rebellion, but let's just say Kurosawa's character is more respectable than Leone's.

VN: Sanjuro decides to accept Sebei's offer, and take his 25 ryu (plus 25 after the "victory") to attack Ushi-Tora's clan. He eavesdrops on Sebei's wife, hearing her say waste of money he was, and that they could kill him after the battle. After Sanjuro, or more likely the audience since Sanjuro's actions already seemed calculated, realizes that greed, eagerness and egoism equally blind both clans. Sanjuro decides to let them kill each other, and watches from the tower of the village. This is an important image, showcasing the clans trying to scare off the other. Both are afraid of the consequences of their actions, and don't want to strike first; they'd rather insult each other and try to scare them off than boldly attack. Luckily for them, an inspector comes to town, and in the most hypocritical way, they try to hide their rivalry making everything look like nothing happened. The plot focuses on how Sanjuro alone, with the help of deception, can lead both clans to destruction. He'd rather see them all die, since nobody is worthy of his time, or his life. He instead befriends the weak, those who don't want to fight and instead long for peace, for tranquillity.

One of the samurai's best friends is Gonji, the bar owner. He's against fights, because they do nothing but harm to him, while they are better for his neighbor, who keeps annoying him building coffins for his victims. Other than showing the power of his main character, Kurosawa focuses on several different characters and their weaknesses. He shows how one man can defeat an army that is not united. While this is a more lighthearted film than Seven Samurai, he portrays his themes and delivers his message with the same strength and believability.

ML: Kurosawa points out the weakness of those who are overly determined is their focus tends to beam in on one thing to the point they lose sight of everything else. Sanjuro is largely invisible when he isn't standing with a side or being actively petitioned by a side, so their numbers don't overwhelm them like they should. Of course, the help of Gonji is invaluable, and Kurosawa is able to do enough in this regard to show how much help people who wouldn't have the courage to act in any way could be to a strong leader. He keeps a modicum of realism by showing the danger of putting yourself out on a limb, I'm talking about the scene where the coffin maker runs for his life hanging the samurai out to dry, but that points out the shortcoming of this superhero film because there's still no tension, no feeling that the samurai is in significant danger.

VN: The cinematography is obviously stunning, especially the fights, that would become so influential in many other films. This is some of the best action you'll ever see, being stylistic, harmonic and realistic relative to the way the samurai used to fight.

ML: The fights were quite unimpressive in a traditional sense. They more or less come off as what they are untrained actors playing around with toy swords because those who kill themselves for someone else's greed are absurd. Kagemusha & Ran show the kind of breathtakingly beautiful battle scenes Kurosawa is capable of filming, but those battle scenes tend to be or at least come off as a glorification because they take something so ugly, mass slaughter, and turn them into color coded poetry. Yojimbo is bloodless and awkward, it's comedy.

The scene everyone remembers is the initial scene where the samurai with no name enters the town. Kurosawa sums up the kind of town it is in one brief sequences, where a dog comes trotting by carrying a human hand in his mouth. The sets are very simplistic, very cheap, but that makes them effective in showing the stupidity of the gangs. How can one avoid laughing when the samurai is perched on the tower - he's got the only seat in the road - watching the two gangs attempt to battle it out as he knew they would. The scene is excellently framed, almost a summation of the effect he has on them. They are fighting over him and he's in the middle of both sides as he always remains, but he's perched above, safe. Later, he watches a battle from a coffin, the kind of irony Kurosawa provides here.

VN: The reason why Kurosawa's films look so much like western (or better, vice versa) is because he gives a sense of space, he uses the camera in a way that highlights the characters, not the action. Even when Sanjuro doesn't speak, we know what he's thinking, thanks to Mifune's interpretation but also to the way Kurosawa focuses on him.

ML: Mifune has played characters of greater range, but his performance is far better than Eastwood's. He comes across as someone that is capable of humanity, but is suppressing it. He also conveys that something is going on inside his head. Eastwood is, as Leone once said probably in a more loving manner than I'd like to see it, a block. One of the things that allowed Leone to grow so much was moving away from Eastwood to actors that actually acted, that had some vitality and feeling. Rather than adding to the manipulation, it added to the life, allowing Leone to move from hopelessness to tragedy (a move Eastwood can't seem to make in his films of supposed wisdom like Unforgiven & Mystic River).

VN: This is one of the best samurai films of all time, and while it's not as famous as Seven Samurai, and not as acclaimed, probably because of the more lighthearted tone, the humor and the difference of the themes portrayed. I is an excellent, excellent work from Kurosawa, who would later do the third installment of this sort of "trilogy" on the historical evolution of Japan, Sanjuro.

ML: Yojimbo stands apart because of its absurdity. Kurosawa, at least to most people's minds, went as far as he could with complete seriousness in Seven Samurai. This time Kurosawa says it's not worth dignifying you clowns, and makes a pioneering samurai comedy. He mocks supposed tough guys in many ways. One tries to intimidate the samurai saying didn't you see my tattoo, which to me is just one of the funniest scenes ever because for once the implication, the truth behind the mutilation, is stated and then, of course, proved to a pathetic front. The funniest character though is Ushi-tora's goon with the pistol (Tatsuya Nakadai). Here his face looks like Jack Palance, but he's so effeminate. He's naked without his pistol the way you'd expect a concubine to be without his robe, and again it's funny because he actually admits it. Repeatedly, the film mocks the pettiness of the characters, their blindness to what's important, to the actuality of their pathetic existence. It might not be Dr. Strangelove, but it's probably as funny as the samurai genre gets without being frivolous silliness.


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