Tuesday, February 6, 2007

Yojimbo (1961)

The movie opens. A lone warrior stands in the foreground, his back to the camera. The mountains in the background seem positively diminutive, telling us the man we're about walk into danger with is larger than life, and in the next 2 hours he's going to prove that perception correct. He walks with the casual stride of someone who's been places, who's lived and can handle himself without show, without dramatics. His largest concern are the fleas in his clothing, and he gait is half swagger, half twitch as he scratches for relief. The music swells with a jarring Western-driven fanfare recalling the work Ennio Morricione would later do for Sergio Leone as we follow this ronin to a fork in the road. Which direction to take? A stick tossed in the air points determines his destination, and our own.

Akira Kurosawa's YOJIMBO, filmed in 1961, is a changing of the guard. It's the end of the samurai as dedicated hero as seen in SEVEN SAMURAI, and the beginning of the samurai as both super- and anti-hero: a larger than life character, flawed and thriving on his own sense of justice. Toshiro Mifune stars as Sanjuro, broke, hungry, and looking to make some easy cash with his sword. The random stick toss leads him to a shabby town that appears perfectly suited to satisfy those needs - a run-down corrupt pile of loose boards and quick thieving, where the sound of caskets being made echo along the sandy strip of road running through town and dividing the factions within: Seibei, the silk merchant who runs the brothel and owns the town's mayor, and Ushitora, Seibei's former right-hand man who split off after learning he was being passed over for the old man's son.

Kurosawa encapsulates the desperation and wickedness of the town in a perfect scene: a dog, happily trotting down the street with a severed human hand in its maw:

The scene is emphasized even more by the music playing: a percussive, brassy modern piece by composer Masaru Sato that serves to reinforce the bizarre events that occur in the movie. Not enough is really said about how effective the music in YOJIMBO is - it's hard to pinpoint another Kurosawa film where the music (and sound design overall) stands out as much.

The "dog" scene is just one of dozens of great shots in the film, a film where Kurosawa breaks away from the conventions of his earlier films, employing extensive use of telephoto lenses, utilizing pan and deep-focus shots to achieve crystal clear images along with a visual palette that emphasized the stark contrasts of light and dark. Choices in wardrobe and props for his characters also reflect this "release" from the constraints of his more serious film endeavors - one of the henchman is a giant carrying not a sword but an enormous hammer. Another henchman, the diabolical Unosake (played by SEVEN SAMURAI extra Tatsuya Nakadai) wears a scarf around his neck and seems to have the cleanest robes in the town, belying the fact he's probably the most ruthless and sadistic one in the movie.

Another technique Kurosawa uses to enforce the nature of the townspeople in the beginning is to introduce them as cowering behind bars or wooden slats - the feeling of caged, vicious animals is hard to ignore:

Sanjuro settles in with the only two seemingly honest people left in the town - an old tavern keep and the even older casket maker - and proceeds to play each side off against the other until everyone who needs to die is dead - essentially the whole town, as Sanjuro explains to the tavern keep. Soon he see the one real adversary in the town isn't either of the two bosses, but the aforementioned Unosuke, who complements his modern attire with a deadly accessory: a revolver hidden inside his robes:

In the end justice - Sanjuro's own gleeful and cynical view of it - prevails. Via double-crosses worthy of a Shakespearean drama, Sanjuro plays both sides against the other, is captured and beaten, only to escape and come back to settle all scores in a fast, bloody battle to the death against one of the ugliest gangs caught on celluloid:

I swear that's the Japanese equivalent of Jaws from the James Bond movies back there.

Both Kurosawa and Mifune take pains to ensure that no matter how much Sanjuro enjoys killing, no matter how much he shakes and twitches, that his core is one of honor. He refuses the services of Seibei's geisha when he (briefly) joins their side. He saves a woman being kept as a whore for payment of a gambling debt and reunites her with her family, giving then the money he took as his own "payment." He's the lovable rascal - sure he's bad, and can cut down 10 people in 10 seconds (Mifune was supposedly exceptional with a katana, and did the whole scene where he indeed kills a person per second while holding his breath), but his violent tendencies and cold, uncaring shell is tempered by a sense of right.

Shorter, quicker paced, and more visceral than his prior films, YOJIMBO is a master director loosening his tie and having some fun at the expense of his more serious, thematic films (prior to this he did the much more somber THE BAD SLEEP WELL, a twist on Shakespeare's Hamlet). For the remainder of their partnership Kurosawa used Mifune as the towering figure seen during the opening credits - an icon rather than a character. Gone is the subtlety, and in its stead is the prototype for many the modern action stars celebrated in the 80's and 90's.

Special mention again needs to be made concerning his use of deep focus in may of his shots, where both the foreground and background are seen in sharp focus. The following shot, right before the climax, is an excellent example of this, and the one image that stuck in my mind more than any other in the film:

A great film, typically overlooked when considering the outstanding oeuvre of Akira Kurosawa, but for an incredible Toshiro Mifune performance, sly humor and bursts of gleeful action, YOJIMBO (ideally paired with its equally wonderful companion film SANJURO) makes for a great watch. The new release by Criterion is even more cleaned up than it's predecessor, and boasts a commentary by Kurosawa scholar Stephen Prince and a 40-minute documentary taken from the series Akira Kurosawa: It's Wonderful to Create.

*special thanks to Matthew over at Criterion Contraption, who kindly walked me through what he uses to capture his screenshots. I know this review is picture-heavy, but when you have a new toy you play!

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