A western from the east
With Yojimbo Akira Kurosawa takes a classic western, transports it to 1860 Japan and transforms the gunslinger into a sword wielding Ronin (a master less samurai), taking the genre to unparalleled heights. At the same time he does not lose focus from the primary purpose of a movie; that is to tell a good story.
The movie starts off like any other western you might have seen. The dust blowing through what seems like a ghost town, the long road which seems to run right through the length of the road and the audience’s view of the lone stranger entering the town all reminds you of a western. The only difference is that instead of cowboy attire the protagonist wears a kimono.
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The protagonist’s real name is never known to us. He takes the name of the first plant he lays his eyes on in the town. He says his surname is Sanjuro which means thirty. What hits you in this movie though is its dark humor and violence. During the opening sequence itself we see a dog running across Sanjuro with a human hand, while he is just about to enter the town. This shot gives both Sanjuro and us a foreboding sense of violence in this quiet town. And for all the humor in this movie, Kurosawa doesn’t shy away from showing the violence in very vivid detail for the time it was shot in.
Sanjuro enters the town and quickly learns that the town is controlled by two rival gangs. One of the gangs is led by the local silk merchant while the other is controlled by a sake merchant. The gangs are often involved in bloody fights against one another. And the town is in ruins. The only person making a good living here is the undertaker. The gangsters are aided by corrupt officials. One of them, a constable, actually convinces Sanjuro that the only way to survive in this town is to join forces with either of the two gangs. He even goes on to introduce Sanjuro to one of the gangs and collects a commission for his efforts too.
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But Sanjuro is a crafty fellow and is more intelligent than the towns people realize. He decides to play both sides and gets himself employed in the services of the both gangs. Things go on fine until the fighting escalates between the rival gangs. Even the undertaker is jobless now, because he says that when there are so many dead no one bothers with a coffin anymore. This line is typical of the dark humor that is prevalent throughout the movie.
Sanjuro’s contentment however doesn’t last long. He is not able to suppress his sympathy for a woman kidnapped by one of the gangs. The humaneness in his heart takes over when he decides to free the woman and reunite her with her child and husband. From then on Sanjuro’s faces a battle of survival and how he ultimately succeeds in wiping out both the gangs forms the rest of the movie.
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Toshiro Mifune is unparalleled as the lone Ronin. His swagger and his toothpick chewing in your face attitude give life to a character that could so easily have been played as an unconvincing superman. His subtlety and restrain is superb, and makes the character easy to identify with, even though it is in no way related to us. His silences and glances speak volumes and gives us an insight into what the character is going through at the moment. Although Clint Eastwood patented the same style in “Fistful of dollars” and other westerns, Mifune took the style to another level altogether.
Sanjuro is not your typical hero either. His motives, almost throughout the movie, are purely selfish. He is a hired sword or mercenary, willing to give his services to the highest bidder; whoever they might be. In the initial sequence he kills of a few gang members with utter nonchalance just to demonstrate his skills. Later on when he sets about to destroy the gang members, it is mostly out of revenge rather than out of a desire to save the town from their grasps. He was brutally assaulted and tortured by the gang members after he had freed the kidnapped woman, the only time he does a selfless act. Kurosawa’s hero is as grey as any you could find and still you end up rooting for him.
That Kurosawa is a master of fight and action sequences was proven beyond doubt in “Seven Samurai”. In Yojimbo though he brings about a ballatic effect to the action sequences amidst its chaos. It leads to the climatic showdown between Sanjuro and the main gang member who has the advantage of a gun on that very long stretch of road right in the middle of the town. Kurasowa’s mastery of filmmaking is further illustrated when we see Sanjuro practicing with a knife by throwing it and pinning down a fluttering leaf. In reality that sequence is shown in reverse. The effect was created by first pinning down the leaf with a knife and then pulling it out with a string.
Yojimbo is not considered as great as some of the master’s other works. It doesn’t appeal to the intellect as Rashomon does nor does it enchant you like Seven Samurai. But still it is one of the best action movies I have seen. Kurosawa does not preach about the moral values and the wit in the movie compliments the violence and vice versa. Yojimbo is in fact more western than many other western movies from Hollywood. I believe it showed Hollywood how a western should be made.
Reviews of Akira Kurosawa's Major works
Rhapsody In August (1991)