Movie Journal – 4/24/2012

Yojimbo (1961)     5/5

Directed by Akira Kurosawa (Toho)

After bringing the samurai genre to unprecedented popularity in 1950s Japan, Akira Kurosawa completely transfixed his own conventions in Yojimbo, a film that remains one of his greatest achievements. Taking elements from American westerns, such as High Noon and those by John Ford, it is especially ironic that Yojimbo created new elements of the Western genre that would remain ever since. Sergio Leone’s first spaghetti western, A Fistful of Dollars, is an almost identical remake, in addition to establishing Clint Eastwood’s “Man With No Name” character, a clear inspiration of the deadly loner played by Toshiro Mifune.

Sanjuro (Mifune) is a samurai-for-hire, a wanderer who upturns every notion that Kurosawa previously established for the “noble” profession. Finding himself in a seemingly desolate town, the samurai soon becomes involved in the rival factions of a rice and sake merchant. Hiring himself to each without the other’s knowledge, he soon drives them closer to their own destruction.

In Yojimbo, the samurai era has basically come to an end. Mifune’s samurai is no longer loyal or honorable; he has no master or interest in serving society. Yet these pitiful gang members still uphold such expectations, allowing him to thoroughly take advantage of them. The film is also a surprising, theoretical example for the destruction of capitalism. Sanjuro interjects himself between these two competing firms, and once he has his way, only those who have aided him remain.

Kurosawa was a master of the moving camera; tracking shots are dynamic and involving, occasionally subsiding for still shots of remarkably deep focus. The cinematography, by Rashomon veteran Kazuo Miyagawa, is simply remarkable. In fact, the climax of Yojimbo is possibly one of his most exciting, a samurai duel commenced by a shot of incredible composition and depth, featuring nearly three levels of focus.

The script is also darkly hilarious, Monty Python-like slapstick contrasting with moments of strikingly hard violence. The era of Rashomon and Seven Samurai is over, and a new one has begun. One of the primary symbols in Yojimbo is a handgun, one that represents the end of a time when a man could be judged by his skill with a sword. There is a moment late in the film when Sanjuro willingly faces that gun, not knowing whether or not it is loaded. Like Sanjuro, Kurosawa’s film ventures into such unknown territory, examining the past with both reverence and ingenuity, but most importantly, awaiting the future with ample curiosity.

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