The history of film is a fascinating thing. This project has really given me an appreciation for the odd ebb and flow of film, and the strange fact that some years seem absolutely overflowing with amazing stories, while others are a little dire. The last few weeks I’ve had the difficulty of dealing with incredibly difficult choices here on Cinematic Century. I’ve been having to choose between a litany of spectacular films, racking my mind to chose a favorite out of several imminently qualified options. And then, other times, I have the opposite problem. Such as 1961. I don’t really know what it was about 1961, but for whatever reason there’s a serious lack of films that are in my wheelhouse released that year. When I was first building this list I was forced to put Disney’s One Hundred and One Dalmatians as my favorite film of the year, primarily because it was the only film from 1961 I’d seen that I didn’t actively dislike. And, no disrespect to One Hundred and One Dalmatians, but it’s not quite the caliber of film that I like to talk about on this project. And I think the issue was primarily revolving around the fact that I really just didn’t have much experience with films from 1961. The only big-name film from that year that I’ve seen, and what’s usually considered the most obvious choice for most iconic or loved film of 1961, is Breakfast at Tiffany’s. And I cant stand that film. There’s just something about it that has always rubbed me the wrong way, and it’s become a film that I genuinely cant understand the affection directed towards it. I think it falls into a similar bafflement at the love given to the films of Noah Baumbach, full of shitty characters being shitty and not caring that they’re shitty. I understand that people love it, and I’m glad they have a story that connects with them, but it’s just not my thing. Which left me in a bit of a bad spot. I could finally give West Side Story a shot after having passed up any chance to ever see it before, but my wife can’t stand that film and has insisted that I wouldn’t like it. So, I decided to check out two films for the first time, hoping that one of them would trigger something in me. The first one was the Hustler, a really engaging and dark flick about the world of pool hustling and the devastation of obsession. And I really liked it. But then I put in Akira Kurosawa’s film Yojimbo, and couldn’t take my eyes away from it. I’ve never had the biggest familiarity with Kurosawa’s films, and while there have been some I’ve liked before (Seven Samurai and Rashomon come to mind), but this was the first one that I genuinely loved.
Akira Kurosawa’s career is a truly fascinating one. For a significant portion of his career it seems like he was alternating between telling modern stories and large scale epics set in Japan’s past. I feel like generally his more historical films are the ones that the public has remembered, and labeled his best work, and it’s hard to deny the flair that he brings to the world of samurai, shoguns, and the far-gone traditional history of Japan. This film was yet another dip into the world of the past of Kurosawa, and made with his usual stable of collaborators, especially his most prevalent leading man, the great Toshiro Mifune. The film isn’t necessarily based on anything in particular, except for some somewhat vague and unsubstantiated claims that it’s inspired by the hardboiled novels of Dashiell Hammett, and did it’s best to tell a very mythic and mysterious story. The film kind of becomes difficult to classify, straddling several different genres and sort of inventing some of its own. But it’s a story that clearly had a lot going for it. It wasn’t exactly popular in America, but the film’s legacy is undeniable. And, after unofficially remaking it into a more Americanly palatable format with Fistfull of Dollars, it was proven that there was something universal about this film, finally getting it the respect that it deserves.
Yojimbo opens up with a ronin, a master-less samurai, wandering around the Japanese countryside before coming across some depressed farmers. He stops by their farm for some water and starts chatting with them, finding that there’s a local town that’s going through some serious problems. Two warring crime families have set up shop in the town and are slowly destroying it and all the neighboring community. The ronin becomes interested in this town and heads there immediately where he comes across an old man named Gonji who owns the local pub. The ronin quickly befriends the curmudgeonly Gonji, who fills him in on all the drama of the town. Things were once ran by a crime boss called Seibei who uses the mayor and chief producer of silk to maintain control of everything in the town. But, when Seibei announced he was giving control of his gang to his son instead of his right-hand man Ushitora, things got ugly. Ushitora broke off from Seibei and joined forces with the local sake brewer to form his own gang. The two then entered into a massive gang war, drawing in veritable armies of criminals to help fight their war, devastating the town in the process. And, once hearing all of this, the ronin decides that it’s now his official mission to destroy both of these gangs, bringing peace to the town.
Instead of just attacking the gangs head on, one solitary man, the ronin decides to be a little more duplicitous. He starts a fight with some of Ushitora’s men, earning him an audience with Seibei, who wants to hire him. The ronin then says that his name is Kuwabatake Sanjuro, which literally translates to thirty-year old mulberry field, and announces that he’s going to need quite a bit of money from Seibei to retain his services. Seibei agrees to the proposal and then begins planning a massive assault on Ushitora and his men with Sanjuro as his secret weapon. Unfortunately, Sanjuro overhears Seibei and his wife discussing how after Sanjuro kills Ushitora, they’re just going to kill him so they don’t have to pay him. So, right before the two gangs start their big battle, Sanjuro announces he’s going to give up and become a free agent again, confusing everyone. And, to make things even more confusing, a governmental official arrives just before the brawl for a routine inspection of the town, and things have to calm down a bit. Seibei and Ushitora are forced into a bit of detente while the official is there, until the official is called away on pressing business after a different official is murdered in a nearby town. Which seems suspicious to Sanjuro. And those suspicions are confirmed when he overhears two assassins explain that Ushitora hired them to kill the man to draw the official from their town.
Looking to keep stirring things up, Sanjuro then abducts the two assassins, and sells them to Seibei as evidence. He then also tells Ushitora that Seibei kidnapped the assassins, heating their little cold war right back up. And, after finding this tactic successful, Sanjuro keeps playing the two men against themselves. He finds out that Ushitora gave the sake brewer a kidnapped woman to keep him loyal, so Sanjuro rescues the woman and then frames Seibei for the rescue, putting pressure on both men and rattling the relationship between Ushitora and the sake brewer. And it works really well. The gang war becomes incredibly violent and destructive, and things seem to be reaching a fever pitch. Which is when things start to get a little rough for Sanjuro, because the only other competent person in the movie arrives. Unosake, Ushitora’s insane brother, has been incredibly suspicious of Sanjuro the entire time he’s been in the film, and he finally gets proof that Sanjuro is scamming them all. Unosake and his men beat Sanjuro within an inch of his life, and leave him for dead. He’s saved by Gonji, who takes him out of the town to a hidden shack, letting him heal in peace while the town continues to fall apart, leading to Seibei’s death. However, after a bit of time, Sanjuro learns that the Ushitora has kidnapped Gonji, realizing that he’s been helping him. So, Sanjuro returns to the town, not quite healed, and prepares to destroy everyone. Sanjuro then spars against Ushitora, Unosake, and the entire gang on his own. And he wins. He kills them all and then leaves town, content that he ended the chaos in the town.
This movie is an absolute masterpiece. I know that you’ll usually see Seven Samurai hailed as Kurosawa’s best film, but to me this film beats it hands down. They’ve both excellent films, but there’s something about Yojimbo that grabs me and doesn’t let go the entire run-time. So many of Kurosawa’s films are massive epics, telling grand stories of almost mythic proportions. And this film is very different. It’s a more grounded, intimate tale, just showing a mysterious stranger arrive in a small town and decide to kill all the terrible rich people that are ruining everyone’s lives. And that’s a story I can get behind. There’s a lot to love about this film, but I think what is perhaps the strongest draw of the entire film is the central performance from Toshiro Mifune. I’ve seen a few of his films before, and I’ve always felt like he was a solid actor. But Sanjuro is just an amazing role, giving us a fascinatingly simple character, a man of deep principles who decides that his judgement is all that matters and is willing to practically burn an entire town down to “save” it. Most of the other acting in the film is terrific as well, although the portrayal of the mentally disabled brother is incredibly broad, but it’s Mifune who really steals the show. But, aside from the acting, the film is just gorgeous. Kurosawa has a wonderful sense of direction, giving us a beautifully structured film that moves like an expertly crafted chess game that’s immensely followable. It’s shot spectacularly by Kurosawa’s frequent collaborator Kazuo Miyagawa who is able to find the weird beauty in the ugliness of this town. And it’s all scored by Masaru Sato, who gives the film a wonderful theme that ends up becoming a harbinger of the thing I find most fascinating about the film, one that seems to straddle cultural, historical, and aesthetic styles.
Because one of the things that absolutely fascinated me about this movie is the fact that it’s a film that is deeply indebted to the history and cultural aesthetics of Japan, while also being a remarkably universal story. It’s said that the story was inspired by noir fiction, but at it’s base it’s a fable about a mysterious hero arriving and saving the day from the forces of evil. It’s practically some Joseph Campbell-level stuff, giving us a basic premise that is almost instantly understandable and relateable. It makes sense that it was able to transition so perfectly to the Western genre when Sergio Leone more or less stole it to create A Fistfull of Dollars. Because we have a story about a mysterious outlaw with no backstory who shows up in a town full of archetypes and is able to be a hero before riding off into the sunset. It’s so simple, it’s so cathartic, and it’s just an absolute joy to watch. It can sometimes be hard to get into foreign cinema, especially when it’s a movie that is so intrinsically connected to the culture it came from. There are plenty of films that are produced in America that probably do absolutely no business around the world, because it’s a film that’s too specific to the American condition, we just can’t realize that because it’s our culture. But, occasionally, you can come across films from any culture that are so pure, so universal that they can reach across the barriers or language, time, and culture, and tell a story that anyone can enjoy. And Yojimbo is such a film. If you have any interest in Japanese cinema and have never been able to find a film to get a foothold, I highly recommend seeing if this film can latch onto you.
Yojimbo was written by Ryuzo Kikushima, Akira Kurosawa, and Hideo Oguni, directed by Akira Kurosawa, and released by Toho, 1961.
Categories: Cinematic Century