#21 - Yojimbo (Akira Kurosawa)

Substance in Style

Some film directors and their stars are like a match made in heaven, or at least that rings true for the dynamic duo of Akira Kurosawa and Toshiro Mifune. The two worked together on 16 films and one of the highlights of their creative relationship is undoubtedly “Yojimbo”.

The film follows a nameless samurai (the great Mifune) who finds himself in a village that is being torn between two warring gangs. Refusing to listen to warnings the samurai decides to stay and attempt to rid the village of these gangs, and hopefully earn a few coins while doing so. He starts pitting one side against the other as he flip-flops his allegiance between the two gangs and with that slowly but steadily decimating their numbers.

Now if that set-up sounds familiar then do not be alarmed, it is so because it’s a frequent one in fiction. “Yojimbo” is loosely (and unofficially) based on “Red Harvest”, a novel by Dashiell Hammett and the film itself was remade twice with “A Fistful of Dollars” by Sergio Leone and “Last Man Standing” by Walter Hill. And I am slightly ashamed to say that I have seen both remakes long before I ever came to “Yojimbo”; which is a shame because, despite my undying love for Leone’s film, this is in my opinion the slightly better version of the story.

Mostly it’s because of the setting and how it naturally melds in to the aesthetics of the “western” genre, providing a very refreshing contrast between that genre stylization and the Japanese iconography. For me it’s also the inherent exoticism of this iconography that makes it immediately alluring to my west-European sensibilities. The feudal Japan of these movies is fascinatingly alien, beyond just being a different time and a different place, the cultural divide makes it almost impenetrable at a certain level and that just makes it even more intriguing.  

And the film is irrefutably inspired by the western, one does not even have to look for the genre tropes in this film (of which there are quite plenty; I mean Tatsuya Nakadai* is wielding a freakin' gun throughout the film) but just at the way Kurosawa frames his characters and how he builds tension. The swordfights are quick and explosive, by design more akin to gunfights than long choreographed sword fighting scenes that everyone is used to, and built up by long walks and steely-eyed gazes. Of course Leone took this scene dynamic and aesthetic to almost pornographic levels, God bless him, but it is certainly clear that apart from the basic set-up he picked up a few other tricks straight from this film.

So while Leone indulges in his stylized vision of the Wild West, Kurosawa here is almost methodically restrained. His frames are stylized, but he is never overindulgent. He very much adheres to the basics of the cinematic language he creates in “Yojimbo” and never steps over that line of excess that Leone so joyfully played hopscotch with. This gives his film a spellbinding aesthetic that is both universal and appealing to the eye. In other words it provides good padding for the more esoteric aspects of the Japanese feudal culture, while still getting the full benefit from its exoticisms.

“Yojimbo” is also an interesting film to watch right after “Spartacus”. Primarily in the sense that, while that film is unquestionably marked by the place and time in which it was made, “Yojimbo” seems completely timeless. The illusion it weaves is impeccable and the style that it secretes out of every pore is uniquely its own. It’s both an absolute work of art and a thrilling and entertaining cinematic experience from start to finish.


*and yes, that parenthetical is just a shameless excuse to namedrop the awesome Tatsuya Nakadai, as is this notation.

Original title: Yôjinbô


Toshiro Mifune - Sanjuro
Tatsuya Nakadai - Unosuke
Daisuke Kato - Inokichi
Takashi Shimura - Tokuemon 

Original language: Japanese


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