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movie reviewmovie reviewmovie review out of 4 Movie Review: Yojimbo

Starring: Toshiro Mifune, Eijiro Tono
Director: Akira Kurosawa
Rated: NR
RunTime: 110 Minutes
Release Date: October 1962
Genres: Action, Classic, Drama, Foreign

*Also starring: Isuzu Yamada, Seizaburo Kawazu, Tatsuya Nakadai, Takashi Shimura

Review by David Macdonald
3 stars out of 4

Akira Kurosawa is well known as being one of the great directors in history, but he's also known simply as a director of samurai dramas. The Seven Samurai is certainly his most famous film, and Yojimbo is pretty close in stature as well. However, it is fair to say that Yojimbo is the anti-Seven Samurai; while that epic depicted a group of unlikely heroes out to protect a war-torn village, Yojimbo merely depicts varying levels of greed, hatred and cynicism.

The famous Toshiro Mifune stars as the Man with No Name (later used by Clint Eastwood in the remake A Fistful of Dollars), who used to be a soldier for the royal army but is now a loner, wandering about the land, apparently with no home and no identity. He finds himself in a town ravaged by petty in-fighting, between two gangs who both deal in gambling and other vices, and who are killing each other in hopes of taking over the other's territory, thereby gaining a monopoly in the village.

The man happens to hear the whole story from a merchant who lives next door to the undertaker, who naturally enjoys the extra business. The merchant, unlike most of the village, apparently, stands outside the rivalries of the two gangs, and laments the pain and suffering he has to see every day. He is the only one who seems to have some moral balance, although he's the type of guy who just wants to be left alone. The warrior hears this story and gets an idea -- a rather nasty idea of ensuring that somehow the two gangs will quickly and brutally wipe each other out. He says bluntly, and with some amusement, that it would be good to see all of them dead.

The first thing he does is to go to one of the gang's leaders, Seibei, under the pretence of offering his services (this is around the point in which the warrior introduces himself as "Sanjuro"). Both gangs have already witnessed the warrior's ability earlier on, in a scene where he taunts the other gang's hired bandits, and so of course this gang is more than willing to hire such a strong man to help them kill that dastardly opposition. The warrior, however, demands a steep price, knowing that there will be some heated discussion in private. Well, not really in private, because the warrior sneaks around and overhears the leader and his wife and son discussing the possibility of killing him after the battle so they won't have to pay.

The leader, now having such a great warrior on his side, at least until he's no longer needed, is now so bold that he plans on having a battle in broad daylight. The other gang hears of this, and soon the two gangs are out in full force in the main street. But then, the warrior turns around to his "employer" and says he quits; he doesn't want to be killed afterwards. He dumps his pay on the dirt, and walks off to tell the other gang, led by Yosi-Tora that he has quit, and that's all he has to say -- so he climbs up the observation pole and laughs at the sight of these two groups of bloodthirsty people trying to start a fight. But then a villager rides in and says that the government official (or whatever he is) is arriving in town, so of course everybody has to behave as if nothing has happened. Yet behind the scenes, representatives of the two gangs do their best to convince the warrior to help one of them out. The warrior bides his time, knowing that the bidding w! ar will be fierce, and he also performs a few secret sneak attacks which tightens the tensions between the two gangs. But another element rides in to town which raises the stakes a little bit higher.

A another relative of Yosi-Tora arrives in town, and carries a gun -- unlike in a traditional Western, where everybody carries guns, a samurai movie is mostly about swords and other sharp objects, so when somebody rides in with a gun, he is very noticeable, and dangerous. The movie implies that the owner of a gun is possibly a little more sophisticated, more of a loose cannon , and certainly more of a threat -- and that's exactly the case with this individual. At first, it works to the warrior's advantage, because of a few instances where the trigger finger unknowingly finishes off the work that the warrior started. But the warrior soon makes a few seemingly minor but crucial errors which come to involve the gun-toting relative, and soon he is fighting for his very life on top of trying to carry out his plan.

Sanjuro is clearly a very misanthropic person; he doesn't give away any feelings of concern or sorrow, only cynicism. He just does what he does, often with sick amusement, even if that means the deaths of many people, even if all of them are bad. He never lets himself reveal any warmth, even during a scene in which he rescues a woman kidnapped by one of the gangs. He returns her to her husband and child, but Sanjuro's behaviour borders on frustration if not belittlement, as he tells them to get out of town (naturally, since they are in danger), and tells them to shut up and stop crying and thanking him and all that other crap. All this makes Sanjuro a little hard to follow -- he has no connection to this town, has no reason to be here, doesn't seem to really care about people, and is obviously not doing this for the money (he's as poor at the end as he was before he entered the town) -- so why does he do this? There doesn't seem to be any motive for his acts, unless p! lain old cynicism is his motive. Maybe he's just seen too much, and wants to do something about it, even if there is no glory in it. I don't know..

The violence in this movie is a lot stronger than in The Seven Samurai, and is certainly surprising to those raised on old Hollywood pictures. The first few minutes have a couple of jolting shots, like the amusing sight of a dog casually strolling the street, carrying a severed hand in its mouth, and a few minutes later, our "hero" does a bit of nasty business when he slices the arm off of one of the bandits whom he taunts. There are a few other somewhat bloody moments, but it's not all that hard to take -- the violence is pretty stylized, and all in black and white, which makes it appear less disturbing, as a rule. Kurosawa's action scenes are, nevertheless, quite intense just because we're dealing with swords and other sharp objects usually, and so everybody is at close range hacking each other to death.

Overall, I didn't really enjoy Yojimbo as much as I did The Seven Samurai. The action is good, there's a lot of sick humour, and Sanjuro's cunning plan is pretty good. But the enigma that is Sanjuro stopped me, at least at this first viewing, from being able to go all the way with this movie. Nevertheless, it is a good movie, and is a good idea for anyone who wants to see a Japanese version of a Western. Sure, the culture and references are totally different, but once Sanjuro has a showdown with the bad guys at the end, it looks just like any classic Western showdown. Except only one guy has a gun.

Copyright 2001 David Macdonald

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