Though possessing neither the Shakespearean sweep of Seven Samurai, the moral probing of Ikiru, or the narrative audacity of Rashômon, Akira Kurosawa's seminal gangster/samurai fable Yojimbo is just as important a landmark in the director's career—if not for its devilish hybrid of styles, inversion of genre conventions, and sly political commentary, then certainly for sheer entertainment value. Something of a textbook example of the perfect crowd-pleaser, Kurosawa's tale is sociopolitical wish fulfillment via archetypal samurai drama, albeit with a twist or three. The primary character, the ronin Sanjuro (Toshirô Mifune), is a surrogate orchestrator of events—the director, if you will—who, discovering a 19th-century town overtaken by two feuding gangs, each as unsavory as the next, decides to utilize the situation to his advantage like a bored child who has just stumbled upon an unspoiled playground. Presenting himself as a bodyguard for hire to the increasingly desperate sides, Sanjuro manipulates events so as to channel these forces into mutual self-destruction, utilizing both mind and sword in whatever manner necessary to accomplish these ends. The mind reels at what he could accomplish in a week's time in our current Washington, D.C.
A deceptively simple opening credit sequence first posits Sanjuro as a force equal to the mountainous skyline, then grounds him in his earthy, modest roots; this prolonged take establishes his binary nature and the difficultly of penetrating the carefully constructed outward mask he shows to the world. Toshirô Mifune's intensely physical performance is the proverbial lightning in a bottle around which the film is built, his goofy mannerisms the quirks of a mind clearly operating on a level above and beyond the easily manipulated values of the common man (we first see him scratching his ear oafishly and wriggling his back as if warding off fleas, while the altogether strange rhythm of his stride is but one of countless savory touches). His prodigious skill with the blade makes for great action, captured in ravishing widescreen frames host to many an ingenious viewing device and a breathtaking use of deep focus, while his equally sharp wit lends the film no shortage of unlikely comedic scenarios. First exemplified during the infamous dog trot scene, Kurosawa's tonal balance is a balancing act for the ages; though the antagonists are often little more than personified evil, their violent dispatches altogether hurt to watch. Their loss of life bears genuine heft, giving life meaning and death resonance; bloodshed cleanses their sins, and their humanity, though twisted, remains.
Yojimbo's narrative symmetry seems effortless, and points to Kurosawa's renowned Western manner of storytelling, here manifest both as a hemispherical and genre trait, but while the framework echoes, say, John Ford, the sum of Yojimbo's iconic subversions are Kurosawa's own. The rivaling gangs, respectively backing the town's sake and silk merchants, are capitalist competition manifest, a thinly-veiled economic warfare metaphor that contrasts the honest brutality of Sanjuro's mercenary prowess with the systematized, culturally-approved violence utilized by the competing gangs and corrupt townsfolk they've won to their cause (in a heartbreaking, yet funny moment of peripheral drama, a mother scolds her son for not committing suicide, shaming his family as a result).
Sanjuro's amoral facade suggests the difficult decisions required in a money-driven world drunk on greed, but even this antihero isn't exempt from the occasional moment of poignant regret, such as when the innocent find themselves caught between the disparaging sides; in this manner does Yojimbo scrutinize the morality of both action and inaction. Human and yet superhuman, Sanjuro rises above the madness (literally, in one key scene that humorously foreshadows the water hole sequences of 2001: A Space Odyssey), and through his sly coercions gives hope to the notion that we can yet still put an end to the evil that men do.
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This orgiastic transfer more than simply blows away the previous DVD release of the film (not even needing comparison to point out its flaws, the 1999 disc looks like a semi-decent bootleg copy at best). Blacks are rich, dirt and particles are practically nonexistent, grain levels are impeccably balanced, combing is nil, and details shine through as if the image being shown was nothing less than an original, barely-dry print displayed with a fresh projector bulb. Kurosawa's widescreen frame, insane levels of period detail, and use of deep focus has doubtfully looked this good since the film was first distributed. Two audio tracks—one mono, one DTS stereo—are both excellent experiences, though my entertainment setup isn't equipped to make full use of the latter. I can, however, say that, from the dialogue to the windswept streets to the incessant hammering of the town's coffin maker, they're both organic, crisp, dazzling, and ready to rock your film-junkie house. In short: I haven't been this satisfied with a home viewing experience since I popped my first DVD into a player nine years ago.
Typical bang for your buck from Criterion. A booklet features an essay by film scholar Alexander Sesonske, as well as translated comments from Kurosawa and his cast and crew. Kurosawa scholar and film historian Stephen Prince provides the disc's altogether exhausting audio commentary, chockablock full of facts, anecdotes, and personal observations, the sum illumination of which more than offsets what some might see as an off-putting, overly-academic approach. Rounding out the disc is a compulsively watchable 45-minute making-of documentary entitled "Akira Kurosawa: It Is Wonderful to Create," the film's original theatrical teaser and trailer, and a photo gallery of behind-the-scenes images. Not listed as an extra but nothing less than a cause for celebration are the newly translated subtitles, which elevate the film's prose from the distinctly awkward to the sublimely poetic.
Reasons to love Yojimbo: "Ask the horny old sake brewer what he says to that!"