Criterion Project #20: YOJIMBO (1961)

Author’s note: Once again I come to you with an apology (and some good news). I began last week with every intention of getting this article done in time to be posted by last Monday but, alas, the time got out of hand. Prepping for the Christmas season, writing this article, and launching a podcast have been occupying most of my time, but the major news that derailed last week’s article was actually positive – I finally had my surgery. Back surgery, to be exact. The days since have been the usual mixture of misery and discomfort while I heal up. However, I’m soldiering through it this week and *fingers crossed* the rest of the way is smooth sailing. Thank you for understanding.

Yojimbo

Spine #52

Year: 1961

Director: Akira Kurosawa

Well, this is an about-face. My last several posts have followed a timely pattern – November was packed with noirs and the first film of December (Metropolitan) was about a group of rich college kids on Christmas break. It showed incredible prescience on the part of my randomizer, but that all changed when a venerable titan of international cinema popped up next on my list.

So, how do you pivot from seedy noirs and privileged New York city snobs to a 19th century samurai tale? Simple – you wait for the “Directed by Akira Kurosawa” credit and you prepare for one of the most influential films of all-time. To be honest, it’s been a long time since I’ve revisited any Kurosawa film. I spent much of my early cinephilia worshipping AK cinema, devouring any of his movies I could find and building a strong mental conception of Japanese film. Around the time I had decided he was the greatest director who ever lived (it didn’t take long), I started watching other Japanese films from other esteemed directors. Before I knew it my vocabulary of filmmakers expanded to include more of the greats: Ozu, Immamura, Obayashi, Kurahara, Oshima, Ichikawa, Kobayashi, Mizoguchi, etc. But Kurosawa was always there.

Part of branching out is finding what particular flavor suits you best. I recently came to the realization that I’m deeply fascinated by structure and form, something I wouldn’t have discovered without watching so many diverse film styles. The construction and order of the story is always bouncing around in my head when I’m watching a film. Mizoguchi’s films, in particular, speak to my stylistic proclivities and pique my artistic sensibilities above all. As such, I’ve watched several of his films more recently than Kurosawa. But watching Yojimbo again was an eye-opener, and a filmic experience I had forgotten about since I’d last seen it.

This is essentially a long-winded way of saying that I moved on from Kurosawa, in a sense, but he’s still the king.

The plot from IMDB:

A crafty ronin comes to a town divided by two criminal gangs and decides to play them against each other to free the town

If you know your spaghetti Westerns then that probably sounds incredibly familiar because Sergio Leone’s A Fistful of Dollars (1964) is practically a beat-for-beat remake. They simply swapped samurais for cowboys and switched out the mysterious, enigmatic ronin with no name (the legendary Toshiro Mifune) for the quiet, mysterious bounty hunter with no name (Clint Eastwood). Both films are classics of their respective genres, and for good reason.

I want to start this by saying I had forgotten how playful Yojimbo is. There’s a boyish side of Kurosawa on display here and much of this film is pure delight. One of the most indelible images from the movie, aside from the action, is “Sanjuro” (Mifune) mischievously sticking his tongue out at a group of geishas while eavesdropping on plans to double-cross him. He routinely mocks the warring clans for their stupidity, usually laughing directly in their faces. Sanjuro’s arrival in the village is marked by the appearance of a dog wandering around with a severed human hand in its mouth, to which Sanjuro merely raises an eyebrow. Even when a worthy opponent, Unosuke (another film legend, Tatsuya Nakadai) arrives back in town, Sanjuro walks freely amidst the blundering chaos of the two warring clans, playing both sides of the coin for his (and the townspeople’s) best interest.

In true genre style, the gangs are mostly populated with cartoony characters and archetypes. Many of them man-babies. I must have brushed aside the broad characterizations because, again, the playful elements of the movie did not stick in my memory as much as the overall plot. The gangs are legitimately uneducated, dumb country folk. There’s one single constable in town and his only duty is to tell the townspeople what time of day it is, and the only business making money in town is the coffin maker. In the middle of this buffoonery walks a crafty samurai who sees opportunity in their stupidity. In short, this film is pure genre entertainment disguised as a samurai period tale.

And, contrary to popular art-house misconceptions, we’re not active participants in this film. It doesn’t ask us to figure anything out or think too hard. There’s no game-plan here, the plot is set in motion by a chance encounter at the very beginning of the film. It opens with the wandering samurai reaching a literal fork in the road. Not knowing which way to go, he allows the arbitrary toss of a stick to determine his next path. Before long he runs across a farmer and his son engaged in an argument, from which he learns the plight of the ill-gotten village. From that point forward we’re on Sanjuro’s ride for part of the movie, but unmistakably, we’re also on Kurosawa’s. He intentionally withholds the path from our sight, making sure our eyes never stray too far from Mifune without revealing his inner workings. Sanjuro’s purpose isn’t clearly defined and he has no emotional connection to the events (yet). For all we know he’s wingin’ it! Even when it’s apparent he does have a plan it is not revealed until after the machination has played out, which keeps the entertainment value high while also quietly revealing this mysterious character and his motivations.

What starts as a silly skirmish between two inept groups of overmatched dopes and a seasoned samurai eventually morphs into one of AK’s trademark themes: humanism. Kurosawa is to humanism what Ozu is to domestic drama and Mizoguchi is to class commentary. The entertainment value is always there – action, suspense, sword play, double-crossing – but the theme is paramount. Sanjuro isn’t undertaking this complex scheme just for fun or personal or financial glory – he sees a bad situation and goes about trying to fix it.

Of course once they find out how skilled a samurai he really is, the clans line up to offer him money for his bodyguard services. And true to form, Sanjuro routinely strikes financial deals with one clan or the other only to reject it later or flat-out give it away. It seems like he’s simply playing games with them and his outward demeanor would indicate a hardened warrior out for blood and money, but the townspeople soon learn there’s more to this samurai than a deadly sword.

The film truly is a towering achievement of both genre and international cinema. It sits near the top of samurai films while also brilliantly blending action and comedy with the perfect amount of human empathy, which hoists this film above the replicators. Leone transposed these elements into a Western classic that spawned an internationally renowned sub-genre, but he stripped the story of Kurosawa’s humanist backbone and leaned into the unforgiving, ruthless world of bounty hunters with his “Dollars Trilogy“. The distillation of the formula is what keeps A Fistful of Dollars beneath Yojimbo in my book, and that’s coming from someone whose favorite film of all time is Once Upon a Time in the West (1968).

As it turns out, revisiting a classic I hadn’t seen in 10+ years revealed even more of Kurosawa’s skill as a filmmaker to me. This is only the first of MANY in his oeuvre I will cover with this project and I can’t wait to be surprised again and again. Hail to the King.

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