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Only Swords Can Settle Things Now

July 25th, 2010 · 2 Comments

Yojimbo 1961 Toshiro Mifune

In the month of July, I take a look at films released in my very favorite film stock and aspect ratio: black & white in anamorphic. Unless they’re being financed with credit cards, movies are rarely shot like this anymore because they’re impossible to sell to television. Yet these dreams sneak onto Turner Classic Movies every now and again …

Yojimbo 1961 poster A Yojimbo dvd

Yojimbo (1961)
Directed by Akira Kurosawa
Screenplay by Akira Kurosawa & Ryûzô Kikushima, story by Akira Kurosawa
Produced by Akira Kurosawa
110 minutes

To watch a samurai picture by Akira Kurosawa is to read a book adapted by Hollywood in the ‘70s and ‘80s for what we take for granted as the modern action movie. Inspired by the idea of a helpless citizenry trapped between two factions who were equally despicable and corrupt, Kurosawa authored a script with frequent writing collaborator Ryûzô Kikushima that was financed by Toho Studios, home of Godzilla and the company which kept Kurosawa under contract. A blockbuster back home — where it became one of the biggest grossing movies ever in Japan — Yojimbo would be ripped off by Sergio Leone as the basis for the spaghetti western A Fistful of Dollars (1964) and remade by Walter Hill as Last Man Standing (1996), with Bruce Willis battling Depression Era gangsters. Neither comes close to eclipsing the majesty of Yojimbo.

Defining any one aspect that makes Yojimbo a classic is an exercise in futility. Toshirô Mifune anchors the film with a rough charisma and physicality that western action heroes like Eastwood, Stallone and Willis would become celebrated for. Composer Masaru Satô gives the film a medieval swing with a sensational musical score. Cinematographer Kazuo Miyagawa and assistant cameraman Takao Saitô collaborated with Kurosawa to give Yojimbo an eye popping visual sheen and depth, respectively. The trend to play graphic violence for the occasional laugh would outrage critics when it started showing up in American movies like Bonnie and Clyde, but executed so fluidly, broke new ground in terms of style. Beyond exploiting violence to sell popcorn, Kurosawa’s moral bearing is felt throughout Yojimbo, which mocks greed and actually condemns violence.

Yojimbo 1961 title card

Somewhere in Japan of the 1860s, a samurai who offers the name “Sanjuro Kuwabatake” (Toshirô Mifune) wanders into a town held hostage by a war between two gambling houses.  Taking shelter with an old tavern owner named Gonji (Eijirô Tôno), Sanjuro learns that the trouble started when Seibei (Seizaburô Kawazu) promised his territory to his cowardly son. Seibei’s lieutenant Ushitora (Kyu Sazanka) took half the boss’s men and allying himself with the sake merchant appears likely to topple Seibei. The local constable greets mercenaries arriving in town and receives a commission for selling their services as a “yojimbo”, or bodyguard, to the highest bidder. War has also been good business for a coffin maker (Atsushi Watanabe) whose hammering has Gonji at the end of his rope.

Seeing an opportunity to rid the town of its twin evils, Sanjuro challenges three hoodlums in Ushitora’s employ and dispatches them with his sword. Seibei agrees to pay Sanjuro the sum of 60 ryo to work for him. Seibei’s wife Orin (Isuzu Yamada) advises that it will be cheaper just to kill Sanjuro once the war is won. As the factions gather for battle, Sanjuro abandons his employer, climbing a watchtower to enjoy both sides killing each other. The carnage is postponed when an inspector from Edo arrives. During the ceasefire, Ushitora’s brutal but stupid brother Inokichi (Daisuke Katô) bids against Orin for Sanjuro’s sword. As the samurai plays both houses against each other, Ushitora’s shrewder and much deadlier brother Unosuke (Tatsuya Nakadai) returns to town with a revolver and a healthy suspicion of the interloper.

Yojimbo 1961 Toshiro Mifune Eijirô Tôno

Yojimbo 1961 Toshiro Mifune

Yojimbo 1961 Toshiro Mifune

Yojimbo 1961 Isuzu Yamada Toshiro Mifune

Yojimbo 1961

Yojimbo 1961 Daisuke Katô Eijirô Tôno Toshiro Mifune Isuzu Yamada

Yojimbo 1961 Tatsuya Nakadai

Yojimbo 1961 Toshiro Mifune Tatsuya Nakadai Kyu Sazanka Eijirô Tôno

Yojimbo 1961 Toshiro Mifune

Yojimbo 1961

Rotten Tomatoes “Tomatometer” average 10,518 users: 96% for Yojimbo

Metacritic “Metascore” average among leading critics: Not available

What do you say?

Tags: Black comedy · Crooked officer · Gangsters and hoodlums · Interrogation · Prostitute · Small town · Sword fight

2 responses so far ↓

  • 1 Tommy Salami // Jul 28, 2010 at 11:55 am

    Excellent capsule review, and a great opening line. This is one of my favorite movies, but give credit where credit is due- Kurosawa took the tale from Dashiell Hammett’s “Red Harvest” which had been adapted to the screen before. But the story isn’t what matters here, it’s the execution, and that is so original that the film is still somewhat shocking to watch today.

  • 2 Joe Valdez // Jul 28, 2010 at 12:25 pm

    Tommy: Thanks for keeping me on my toes and filling in the blanks on this film’s inspiration. If Akira Kurosawa or Sergio Leone for that matter were making movies today, they’d probably be derided as “hacks” somewhere in geekdom. And I agree with you about the execution of Yojimbo — it still has that pitch black edge today.

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