When talking about Japanese cinema, the era of its golden age dominates most discourse on the subject. Writers often discuss “the big three”- the three defining directors of the era that put Japan on the cinematic map as well as influence a large amount of creative’s outside of Japan. Yasujirō Ozu and Kenji Mizoguchi are both experts in maverick filmmaking but approaching this canon of cinema, the most assessable of the three is the work of Akira Kurosawa.
He’s, sometimes unfairly, described as the most western of the three directors but, akin to Pauline Kael, that view is not always shared. Brought up on the films of John Ford, Kurosawa is clearly in some debt to the early westerns of Hollywood but this is not to say his style isn’t distinctive or original. His Samurai films show a mixing of both western and eastern values; proof if ever that transnationalism within the arts isn’t always the bad thing it’s made out to be.
Yojimbo, like many of his other Samurai films, is often overshadowed by Seven Samurai, the film that can ward off the Dark Knights and Inceptions on IMDB even fifty years after its release and without a CG effect or super hero in sight. This explains the overshadowing of his other Samurai films but doesn’t justify it.
Yojimbo (which roughly translates to The Bodyguard) opens with a beautiful take of the mountainous regions of Japan. A tracking shot follows the back of a samurai warrior as he walks through this gorgeous vista to the sound of a masculine, thumping score by Masaru Sato. Like many cowboys of the west, the east is strife with lone but dangerous samurai wandering the wilderness for paid work. Sanjuro is our friendly neighbourhood samurai played with cool and ease by Toshiro Mifune. Mifune is in a lot of Kurosawa’s work and their relationship is one of the best examples of auteur/actor synergy.
Sanjuro enters a town where he finds two rival families destroying the town through violence spawned from the hatred of each other. Playing the families off against each other, he succeeds in eventually ridding the small village of the two with some crafty workings and excellent sword skills. The drama really comes from the tension built from Sanjuro’s lying. The suspicions of both families are raised and this leads to some brilliantly choreographed fight sequences that are impressive through realism rather than Crouching Tiger style fantasy.
Yojimbo questions the role of loyalty and power in society, making it clear that the two are not necessarily comfortable hand in hand. It has much more political allegory than first appears and behind the samurai action there is most definitely a message of corruption and the willingness to resort to betrayal in return for power. This however doesn’t distract from the narrative and the balance between what it wants to say and what it wants to show is cathartic and refreshing in its execution.
The release of Yojimbo was originally as a single disc from the BFI but these days the most cost effective way is to get the Kurosawa samurai box set which contains restoration of all his samurai films plus lots of lovely extras and mini essays on the DVD sleeves.
For those familiar with the work of Sergio Leone, A Fistful of Dollars will be a popular and enjoyable title. Being a remake of Yojimbo, it’s surprising that it’s given more kudos than the original which delivers a far more beautiful and compositionally mature film. However when compared to the spaghetti western, Yojimbo stands out for its sharp editing, shadowy mise en scène and will always have the upper hand over most western comparisons anyway.