Tuesday, May 18, 2010

"Yojimbo" (1961)

"Yojimbo" (1961)
Starring Toshiro Mifune, Daisuke Kato, and Tikashi Shimura
Written and directed by Akira Kurosawa

If there's one name synonymous with Japanese cinema, it's Akira Kurosawa.  Here, he presents his 1961 classic, "Yojimbo" about a nameless, masterless Samurai who comes across a town torn apart by gangs.  With each gang struggling to recruit every thug and drifter to their side, the townsfolk live in fear and their businesses suffer.

Surveying the situation after taking refuge in a small, rundown restaurant, the Samurai decides on a plan: he'll play both sides, decimating the gangs and allowing the town a chance to break free and start over.  After proving his worth in a fight, he is courted by both sides, and eventually begins to play them against each other.  He'll lie, and set one gang's men against the others, then sit back and watch the fireworks, all the while asking for money in advance for his unique services. 

Eventually, though, his plan begins to backfire.  When he's eventually found out, events are set in motion leading to a final showdown in the streets that will finally decide the fate of this small country town.

"Yojimbo" is a fairly interesting construct - it's modeled after the Western genre, only set in Japan and starring a Samurai, and yet it proved infinitely influential on all the Westerns that came after it.  It was remade by Sergio Leone as "A Fistful of Dollars" starring Clint Eastwood.  That film became the first of Leone and Eastwood's "Man With No Name" trilogy, which stand today as classics of the Western genre, the standards by which other Westerns are judged.

Despite the seriousness of the premise, the tone of the film is somewhat comical, though darkly so.  The jokes are often at the expense of downtrodden characters.  Several of the characters are outright caricatures, like the town Constable who greets the Samurai by offering to sell his services and informing him about the local brothel.   

Mifune plays the Man With No Name here, and having seen Eastwood's version first, it's interesting for me to watch Mifune.  He doesn't speak much, probably even less than Eastwood does.  But when he does, his delivery is gold.  His scene in which he reveals his plan to the old man at the restaurant is hilarious.  Mifune's character often seems heartless, playing with peoples' lives for money, but eventually shows an honorable side.

Kurosawa's direction is as excellent as his script.  The fights are quick and brutal, and the movie moves at a good clip.   The acting is top-notch, the comedic bits are hilarious, and the whole thing looks utterly gorgeous in black and white.  The presentation on the blu-ray is pretty great, too.  Even with a movie this old, the film shows remarkable detail especially in costume textures and hair.  It's  even better looking than Kurosawa's "Ran," which is kind of unfortunate considering how much newer and more colorful that film is. 

The film spawned a sequel, "Sanjuro" in addition to being the template for any number of Westerns and other Samurai films to follow.  Kurosawa is a legend in Japanese cinema, and "Yojimbo" is a fine, fine example of this ultra-talent at work.