Akira Kurosawa made the best samurai movies in cinematic history, since he mixed in other elements (spaghetti westerns!) and crafted the action around the stories. And the two-movie pack of "Yojimbo" and "Sanjuro" is deeply satisfying -- vivid, compelling, often humorous and they star the fantastic Toshiro Mifune.
"Yojimbo" was an adaptation of Dashiell Hammett's "Red Harvest," the story of a detective who cleans up a city. But Kurosawa yanks the action across the world, to a grizzled samurai (Mifune) who wanders into an impoverished town, after hearing a farmer talking about the corruption there.
He wasn't kidding -- the nearby town is a battleground for two warring clans and the corrupt police. The samurai knows that he's smarter than anyone else in the town, so he starts playing the two clans against one another, while deftly sidestepping the inevitable clashes.
If "Yojimbo" is a dark comedy, "Sanjuro" is more of a straight-out comedy, with the return of Mifune's scruffy, wily hero. This time, he rescues nine naive, inept young noblemen from the Superintendent's thugs, and after figuring out the conspiracy that is forming in a nearby town, he decides to rescue the Superintendant, his wife and daughter.
Unfortunately, the samurai (now going by the name of Sanjuro Tsubaki) soon finds that the noblemen aren't very bright, and they also have a bad habit of disobeying him, since he is of lower rank than they are. He concocts a plan to thwart the Superintendant and his deadly lieutenant... assuming his army of nine doesn't botch it.
Kurosawa was a lover of American cowboy flicks, and at times this shows, especially in the rugged hero, who acts like a medieval Japanese gunslinger (he even has the piercing eyes for it). But first and foremost, these are solid stories -- no more and no less. And Kurosawa's storytelling ability is laced with drama, humor, and rapid-fire action. Not to mention great dialogue ("Get back in the cupboard!").
Mifune is the ideal rogue samurai -- he's gritty, unpretentious, and laughs openly when he sees a bunch of bullies who are too afraid to actually fight. Kurosawa gives him more dimension in the second movie, where he is compared to an "unsheathed blade" and compares himself to one of the villains, because they are the same kind of person.
For any rabid cinephile, Kurosawa's films are a must. Epic action movies with plenty of swords, comedy and grizzled heroes don't come any better than these.
on 10 May 2012
Brought this for my other half as a gift, as the director is an all time favourite of his.
Spent a lot of time researching which of the many variations of release of these movies to buy, and this was justified by the quality of the transfer, and being able to see the scenes as the director intended (not with bits of the edges chopped off as in some of the earlier releases).
The visuals were superb and, never having seen these films before, I found myself completely wrapped up in the stories. The comic touches that lighten the heavy moments are deftly dealt. It's easy to see why his reputation is so well deserved.
Highly recommended not just for fans, but for those new to his work.
Since Amazon has mixed up the separate reviews of these two films, this is my review of Yojimbo only.
So says Ejiro Tono’s restaurant owner, Gonji, to Toshiro Mifune’s lone ronin ('unattached samurai’), Sanjuro Kuwabatake in Akira Kurosawa’s 1961 film Yojimbo ('bodyguard’), as the latter trades off the small, late 20th century town’s two gangs against one another, superficially for financial gain, but with some undercurrent of latent humanity. Yojimbo was, of course, another Kurosawa film (following Seven Samurai) that was the inspiration for a western genre film, this time Sergio Leone’s A Fistful Of Dollars (made in 1964). Indeed, not only was Kurosawa and Ryuzo Kikushima’s tale the inspiration for Leone’s film but the look of Yojimbo also appears to have influenced Leone’s (and regular cinematographer Tonino Delli Colli’s) visual sense – a great example of this is (for me) Yojimbo’s most stunning shot, that near the end as the samurai is framed in the distance, across the wind-swept town, with (recently tortured) ally Gonji suspended by his wrists in the foreground (a panoramic shot revealed as Kazuo Miyagawa’s camera draws back).
As was Kuroswa’s wont in relation to his 'samurai films’, Yojimbo is not all flailing swords and severed limbs – far from it, it is more a study of social manners and human idiosyncrasies. And Mifune’s ronin is hardly an 'action hero’ in the mould of the traditional 'professional’ samurai, more a phlegmatic and conflicted opportunist with an undercurrent of dark humour and cynicism (repeatedly fooling the 'tough guys’ and sticking out his tongue in jest). Indeed, even when Sanjuro reveals his more human sympathetic side by rescuing Yoko Tsukasa’s farmer’s wife, Nui, from Ushi-Tora’s (Kyu Sazanka) gang, specifically from (an underused) Takashi Shimura’s Tokuemon who has 'acquired’ the desperate spouse, the samurai recoils in disgust at Nui (and family’s) grovelling thank-you with, 'Stop it. I hate pathetic people’. This sequence, involving Nui is (for me) one of the film’s highlights, as Kurosawa (plus Masaru Sato’s intoxicating music) creates a truly spine-tingling spectacle, packed with emotion.
Character-wise, Kurosawa’s film is also endlessly intriguing, from cynical restaurant philosopher Gunji, bemoaning the town coffin-maker’s success ('It’ll be a corpse fair, not a silk fair’) to 'gang boss’ Ushi-Tora’s brothers, the scheming, perennially suspicious Unosuke (a brilliantly sinister Tatsuya Nakadai), forever brandishing his 'invincible weapon’, a handgun, and his bumbling, rotund sibling, Daisuke Kato’s gullible Inokichi. And, of course, these character idiosyncrasies are mirrored by Kurosawa’s unique eye for visual detail, as a dog strolls through town with a severed hand in its mouth and when Yojimbo builds to what is a brilliant climactic showdown scene, with Sanjuro 'banishing’ the last of his opponents with the killer put-down, 'A long life eating mush is best’.