Saturday, June 25, 2011

Yojimbo (1961)

Title: Yojimbo (1961)

Director: Akira Kurosawa

Cast: Toshiro Mifune

In Yojimbo, we meet a nameless ‘Ronin’ (a masterless Samurai) who stumbles upon a town that is being ravaged by the animosity between to warring factions. These two factions have taken over the businesses of the town, and have driven it to fear and extreme poverty. Nobody walks the streets, everybody stays in their homes, and young men are running away to live their lives somewhere else, leaving everything behind, including family. When the Ronin arrives at this town he is greeted by a dog carrying a decaying human hand! A small yet poignant sign of how bad things are in this town. The Ronin immediately notices that there is something wrong and that things need to be made right again. When the Ronin is asked to leave this cursed town by a frightened restaurant owner, the Ronin replies “I’ll get paid for killing, and this town is full of people who deserve to die” Ladies and gents, welcome to the bleak world of Akira Kurosawa’s Yojimbo.

Akira Kurosawa was a master filmmaker, one of the best in the world. His films had a certain feeling to them, a certain sincerity which sticks with you long after you’ve watched them. His characters aren’t paper thin, they live and breathe and feel. Akira Kurosawa’s films never go by at a fast pace, in fact, he was a filmmaker that took his time in telling his stories, always mindful of the audience. He was of the mind that in order for a film to be successful, it had to be entertaining and easy for the audience to understand. If you’ve never experienced an Akira Kurosawa film, I recommend Rashomon (1950), Dreams (1990), or Seven Samurai (1954). These three films are just a small token of this esteemed directors filmography; a filmography that has gone on to influence many filmmakers from around the world.

For example, when Sergio Leone went on to make A Fist Full of Dollars (1964) he really set out to make a remake of Yojimbo. Leone confronted one problem after completing his film: he had not secured the rights to making the Yojimbo remake, so when Leone released A Fist Full of Dollars in Europe , Kurosawa sued. They settled for 100,000 for Kurosawa and a percentage of the films earnings and that was the end of that legal debacle. But when you watch A Fist Full of Dollars, what you are basically looking at is a western version of Yojimbo. Clint Eastwood plays the scruffy nameless loner who walks into a town at war with itself. He comes to make things right, by getting both sides to kill each other. A Fist Full of Dollars being a remake of Yojimbo makes perfect sense because when you look at it, Yojimbo plays out a lot like a western. Right down to the spooky ghost town where the wind is blowing non stop and there are showdowns in the middle of the street. This had a lot to do with the fact that Akira Kurosawa was very influenced by American Westerns.

For Yojimbo, Kurosawa was inspired by various elements, among them Dashiell Hammett’s novel Red Harvest. But Kurosawa was also influenced by a film that was also based on another one of Hammett’s novels, the film was The Glass Key (1942). In fact, Japanese film critics often criticized Kurosawa for being influenced by American films, a fact that he never denied. Yojimbo is a film that is filled with many trademark images that come straight out of American cowboy films. That shot of the lonely hero standing in the middle of the dusty road. The shot from behind the hero, as he faces off against his enemy, they all come from cowboy films. So what we got here is a sort of cinematic Ouroboros. Kurosawa fed off of John Ford films, Leone was inspired by Kurosawa; George Lucas, Quentin Tarantino, Robert Rodriguez and Takashi Miike all fed from Kurosawa and so on and so on…ad infinitum through out time. Films are like that, they have a way of continually influencing each other, Yojimbo being a good example of just that. Even Walter Hill made his own Yojimbo remake in 1999, he called his film Last Man Standing, which starred Bruce Willis and Christopher Walken. Last Man Standing had the same plot as Yojimbo, but set the story in a prohibition era Texas with gangsters and guns instead of samurais and swords. Recently, Takashi Miike’s Sukiyaki Western Django (2007) borrowed heavily from Yojimbo, and I haven’t seen Miike’s 13 Assassins (2011), but I’m willing to bet it has a lot of Kurosawa in it. Just goes to show what in influential filmmaker Kurosawa was, Yojimbo being one of his most influential masterpieces.

Yojimbo has so many good things going for it. For example, I loved the dreadful mood that Kurosawa cast over the town. It feels as if death just walked through it, starting with the dog holding the human hand in its mouth. The black and white cinematography adds to the whole dreadful look. Kurosawa continued setting the dreadful atmosphere by starting the picture in a ghost town, with empty streets, and the constant  howl of the wind. Honest, good characters are scarce on this picture; most of the characters are despicable ones, caring only about their own personal interest. Always looking for a way to backstab and benefit from the other. In contrast to all that is the Ronin, a nameless vigilante who struts in the town and notices that things just aren’t right. Toshiro Mifune’s presence in this film is incredible, undeniable. At first glance he seems like a blood thirsty Samurai looking to make a couple of dollars, but then we realize he is much more then that. He is a character that wants to set things right in this town so that people can once again live in peace and harmony without all the bad elements hanging about. When a restaurant owner realizes the Ronin’s modus operandi, he smiles and tells him “you are not bad, you just act that way”. The Ronin is a character that you grow to like, he doesn’t look like a good guy, but his actions let you know otherwise.

Personally, I really loved Yojimbo. What held me on to it was Kurosawa’s storytelling style and Mifune’s strong performance. The way Kurosawa wrote the character, you feel like the Ronin is a character who has a genuine sense of what is right and wrong in this world. He’s on the side of ‘the people’, the good guys. The Kurosawa/Mifune combo came back for a sequel made just one year after Yojimbo, the sequel was called Sanjuro (1962). I’ll be reviewing that one in the next couple of days, look forward to that review. 

Rating: 5 out of 5


Univarn said...

I really think it's funny watching Fistful of Dollars. In essence you're watching a Western remake of a Samurai film which is a Samurai re-imagining of the Western genre.

This film is really full just a great experience all around. You make a good point about the lack of good characters in the film. Among the cast, pretty much the restaurant owner is as close to a 'proper' hero one might find. The Ronin has all the markers, but I think the second film does a good job highlighting why he can never be a real hero.

Franco Macabro said...

Agreed, the restaurant owner is the only one to come off as a good person, and also the family that gets reunited thanks to the help of the Ronin, that scene was so touching, when they start to thank him for getting them back together and the Ronin is like "stop! I hate weaklings! Go before I kill you!" still trying to come off as a tough guy even though he just did a really good thing.

Im dying to see Sanjuro, I'll probably be seeing it tonite, expect a review up for it next week! But Im looking forward to seeing what you're talking about. Why cant he be a real hero? Hmm...I guess I'll find out tonite. Thanks for commenting Univarn!

A hero never dies said...

Yojimbo is an amazing movie in so many ways, not least in shot selection and framing. Hope you enjoy Sanjuro as much, it's a fantastic movie too!

Franco Macabro said...

Agree A hero never dies, the way the film was shot and framed is beautiful, not surprising coming from Kurosawa. I will be watching Sanjuro in a couple of minutes, expect my review sometime next week.

Im taking my Japanese Themed Summer as a way of catching up with some Kurosawa films I had not seen, as well as some other Japanese filmmakers, I'm having a blast so far, Japan has really had some awesome filmmakers through the years!

Movies on my Mind said...

Never seen it. However, I did see SANSHO DAYU which is one of my all time favourites.


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