A few weeks ago I reviewed Kurusawa’s Red Beard. Yojimbo, like Red Beard, is a strong film on a technical level. But even perfect technical execution isn’t always enough. Here, Kurosawa doesn’t falter into heavy moralizing as he does in other works, but he nevertheless falls short of providing a more relatable protagonist.
- Director: Akira Kurosawa
- Writer: Akira Kurosawa, Ryuzo Kikushima
- Cast: Toshiro Mifune, Tatsuya Nakadai, Yoko Tsukasa, Isuzu Yamada
It’s 1860 and the Tokugawa Dynasty has recently fallen. Feudalism is dead. The future for samurai appears bleak. One samurai in particular, Sanjuro (Toshiro Mifune), stumbles upon a small town torn by an ongoing feud between two gangs. One gang is funded by a silk merchant/mayor while the other is supported by a sake brewer. When Sanjuro plays starts playing the town like a chessboard, will he make it out alive?
Kurosawa was a filmmaker with complete control of his craft. With each of his films, there is simply no denying the beauty of their composition and cinematography. In one scene, for instance, Sanjuro is given an advance payment for killing some of the local rivals. Immediately, however, the group paying him is also explicitly beginning to plot Sanjura’s murder in order to accomplish their goal and not have to pay him. During this scene, Kurosawa’s composition adds a great deal of dramatic effect by using wide lens that makes us feel much closer to the plotting. This is the kind of cinematic mastery that makes you wish you could see this film on the big screen, where the aesthetic value of each frame would be accentuated. Kazuo Miyagawa’s cinematography is so effective at emphasizing the fearful existence of the townspeople, oftentimes pulling in for tight shots of faces hidden behind doors and windows. The sense of danger is eminent. From the opening shots, Masaru Sato’s score establishes a sense of anticipation, beginning with big music that appropriately sets the stage for Sanjuro’s arrival.
Kurosawa is an artist who learned his craft well and became a filmmaker of the highest regard. But I still sense that much of the praise placed on his work stems partially from the contributions he made to his country and what he meant to Japanese cinema after WWII. In some ways, what makes Yojimbo special, historically speaking, is that it presented a level of violence rarely seen previously in Japanese cinema. But even with all the subtle camera techniques and their impact on future films, we’re still being given a samurai with whom we can’t fully identify. We don’t really know his past and we don’t really know what his worldview might be. There are times when I can’t tell much of a difference between one Kurosawa film and another, most of which feature Toshiro Mifune playing characters living in previous eras of Japanese history.
Brief Words for Mr. Ebert:
Ebert’s explanation of Yojimbo‘s merits feels mostly theoretical and scholarly, as was also the case with Ebert’s review of Red Beard. He even references the works of Donald Richie, a film critic whose writings on Kurosawa Ebert considered invaluable. And while the need to provide scholarly references are welcomed, they shouldn’t feel as though they carry most of the film’s appeal. With Red Beard, Ebert’s analysis felt too heavily reliant on scholarly merits. With Yojimbo, we do get plenty of other elements to admire. I agree with Ebert that the technical achievements here do in fact create a strong dramatic sense of depth. Mainly by using composition and photography to draw our eyes to important elements within the story.
Good, Bad or Great Movie: GOOD
Do you like Yojimbo? Do you consider this film to be Good, Bad, or does it stand up as Great?
Next week’s review: Rio Bravo
Years ago, ScreenCrave contributor Jaime Lopez privately began tackling Roger Ebert’s “Greatest Films” list, a monolith of celluloid currently comprised of approximately 363 films (more if you count the trilogies, the Up docs and Decalogue). Lopez has set himself to put these remaining films’ “Greatness” to the test–reviewing both the movies themselves and Ebert’s response. By taking on Akira Kurosawa’s Yojimbo this week, he now has 353 under his belt and less than 15 films left to go.