Synopsis: The incomparable Toshiro Mifune stars in Akira Kurosawa’s visually stunning and darkly comic Yojimbo. To rid a terror-stricken village of corruption, wily masterless samurai Sanjuro turns a range war between two evil clans to his own advantage. Remade twice, by Sergio Leone and Walter Hill, this exhilarating genre-twister remains one of the most influential and entertaining films ever produced.
eyelights: Toshiro Mifune. the plot. the cinematography.
eyesores: the slightly anachronistic score.
By 1961, Akira Kurosawa had already made his name. ‘Rashomon’ and ‘Shichinin no Samurai’, in particular, were highly regarded and have influenced countless films since – either directly or by a few degrees of separation. Kurosawa helped open up the West to Japanese cinema and put Toshiro Mifune on the map with ‘Yoidore tenshi’.
‘Yôjinbô’ would become one of his most referenced works.
It can also be credited for Clint Eastwood’s career on the big screen. ‘Per un pugno di dollari’, his first lead role, was entirely based on ‘Yôjinbô’, using its central conceit as its own. It was so popular that it developed into the now-legendary “Man with No Name’ trilogy, culminating with ‘Il buono, il brutto, il cattivo’.
As with ‘Shichinin no Samurai’, ‘Yôjinbô’ was influenced by American Westerns, in particular John Ford films. Amusingly enough, both films returned the favour and influenced American Westerns in turn (the phenomenally successful ‘The Magnificent Seven’ series is based on ‘Shichinin no Samurai’), giving it an edge unseen before.
‘Yôjinbô’ still holds up today. It’s a period piece, taking place in the 19th century, in a small village infested by two warring gangs. The villagers are subservient to these gangsters, divided in their loyalties to one clan or the other. That’s when a wandering ronin, played here by Mifune, comes in, stirring the pot and playing both sides against each other.
It’s a simple film, plot-wise, but it’s brilliantly executed. Watching Mifune’s eyes light up when he sees the opportunities available to him in this town was pure delight. The audience doesn’t know exactly what he is planning, but we know that he is going to find ways to manipulate the clans so that he can come out of it a winner. And, based on his confidence and skill, we believe him.
From the onset, he displays his ability to fend for himself: in killing a few armed gangsters with ease, we realize that he has the balance of power; not only can he sword fight better than anyone else, but he is likely more clever than the lot. He anticipates counter-moves and danger rapidly and, in little time, instigates a massive melee between the two gangs, watching with satisfaction from a roof as they ready to clash.
I must admit that I have a penchant for clever individuals who use psychology to overcome their opponents (especially when they could easily use force), so perhaps not everyone would share my fascination with ‘Yôjinbô’. It’s hardly my favourite film, but every time that I watch it I find it particularly rewarding; I might even enjoy it more than ‘Per un pugno di dollari’, of which I’m a big fan.
What probably helps is the ferocious performance by Mifune. The guy is a force of nature. I can’t explain it, but his samurai characters are such powerhouses that you can’t help but be impressed with them. Mifune made this character, in particular, as wily as he is a honed weapon. Confident, defiant, self-reliant, and carefree, he treads where no other man would dare – and leave a giant’s footsteps.
Mifune is a brilliant actor, as evidenced by the many iconic roles he collected in his long career. But if anyone had any doubts at all by 1961 (as unlikely as that is), ‘Yôjinbô’ would have shaken them all off permanently. No one else could have played this part with the same credibility, or even a similar intelligence and energy. It’s a bravura performance, and it is perhaps a career best.
Aside of Mifune and the plot, one must make mention of the cinematography. I don’t have the technical knowledge to understand and relate how masterful it is, but from all accounts Miyagawa and Saitô did some brilliant work here. Still, even from a layperson’s perspective, it’s clear that the look of the film is distinctive; even though it looks and feels like a Western stylistically, there’s a depth to the photography, a sharpness to the image that really captures the eye, that sets it apart from most Westerns. It’s a lovely film to look at.
One would be loathe to discuss ‘Yôjinbô’ further for fear of stripping away its surprises; simplistic as it may seem, there are a few twists and turns that need to remain unsaid to retain their power. So let me finish by saying that ‘Yôjinbô’ is undoubtedly a must-see film: its profound cultural impact alone is enough to warrant a viewing, and Akira Kurosawa and Toshiro Mifune are legends that need to be discovered and explored.
But, most of all, it’s an exceptionally entertaining film; it features a gripping story, superb performances and lots of terrific samurai action. ‘Yôjinbô’ delivers on all counts.
Date of viewing: May 5, 2013