Tuesday, November 6, 2012

Yojimbo (1961) Review

Yojimbo poster
Director: Akira Kurosawa
Stars: Toshiro Mifune, Eijiro Tono, Tatsuya Nakadai
Genre: Chambara, Drama

Another chambara film from the great Akira Kurosawa, this time a Jidaigeki (period drama) set in Japan during the late Edo period (or maybe early Meiji period?).

We follow a ronin (masterless samurai) played by a Kurosawa regular, Toshiro Mifune. This nameless ronin stumbles upon a small town plagued by two opposing criminal leaders engaged in a long term gang war. The ronin arrives an plans to put an end to them both, ridding the town of their evil. How does he do this? Well, by tricking each gang into thinking that he's actually helping them and by killing a lot of people in the process.

If you've watched Sergio Leone's A Fistful of Dollars (1964) starring Clint Eastwood then you know the plot to this. In fact, A Fistful of Dollars was an unofficial remake of Yojimbo, which actually led to legal problems for Sergio Leone. A Fistful of Dollars really was just a re-skin of this film.

But Yojimbo is not without its influences either. Its characters and cinematography (which I should say are both very good) are clearly inspired by, and essentially mimic, American western films, mostly those directed by John Ford. Yojimbo's plot also borrowed heavily from The Glass Key (1942) and Red Harvest (1929). But, to be fair, though not exactly one itself, Yojimbo played a pretty big role in forming the Spaghetti Western genre, setting many of the conventions for future films.

Toshiro Mifune does an awesome job here as usual, playing a badass samurai and he looks cool as hell in every frame. I understand why Kurosawa kept recasting him in his films. He's a totally unstoppable one-man army going around slaughtering groups of armed men without a sweat. Not even guns could stop his skilled swordsmanship. I think he could have walked into that town and killed them all at once right from the start, though that wouldn't make for much of a film.

Killing numerous men at once with a sword in Yojimbo

At first it seems as if the main character is only in it for the money, but throughout the film more dimensions are revealed of his character, though he still remains, in a good way, a mysterious and unknown man with virtually no back story.

I mean, we're talking about a character who was the inspiration for future film characters like The Man With No Name, Han Solo, Indiana Jones, and countless others.

The soundtrack here is awesome. Composed by Masaru Sato, who worked on many other Kurosawa films, it has that odd blend of a western sound and a typical Japanese period piece score. It works well though and is very suiting.

Toshiro Mifune in Yojimbo

I do have a few complaints with this film actually. I thought the fight choreography could have been improved. It basically only consists of mindless hacking and clubbing, and it would have been nice to see some cool sword fighting. It suffices though.

Also I disagree with the film's logic or message or whatever it was. The film basically says that you can eradicate crime by murdering all the criminals. Unfortunately it's not that simple. The protagonist at the end says that order is now restored to the town, but in actuality it's very probable that the remaining low-end criminals would start gangs of their own which they would build-up. This isn't really a mere nitpick for me, being that I hold film logic pretty high for the most part. I just don't feel that crime can eliminate crime, not permanently at least. Ah, whatever.

The mysterious ronin approaches from the distance in Yojimbo

Yojimbo is still a great film, perhaps not Akira Kurosawa's best, but definitely up there. It's inspired tons of films since and is a fantastically enjoyable film in itself. 

4.5/5 stars
+Cool characters
+Good soundtrack
+Great plot
+Stunning cinematography
+Memorable scenes and dialogue
-Questionable moral/logic
-Could be better choreography

Purchase Yojimbo on Amazon: Blu-Ray - DVD - Stream

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