Yojimbo

  • Akira Kurosawa
  • Japan  /  1961
  • Japanese
  • 110 min
October 30, 2010 by Mark Mesaros

Yojimbo is a spectacular interpretation of the American western, one that blithely discards the assumptions of this genre, turns its moral imperatives upside down and does so in typical Kurosawa fashion. The unlikely samurai tale, simultaneously Kurosawa’s most financially successful film and often regarded as the most memorable, remarkably also is the greatest example of the director’s uncanny editing style. This film is the apotheosis of superlative pacing and screen economy. More so than any other in his oeuvre, Yojimbo exhibits that flowing quality that we associate with the Kurosawa film; cuts are so incisively placed that it hardly seems that there are any at all with action after action issuing unabated before our eyes. The hero, an unshaven, ragged ronin, waltzes across the windblown desert landscape approaching a town divided between a silk merchant and a sake maker each armed with a coterie of goons. Mifune, as his chin-scratching kinesic will indicate throughout, immediately hatches a plan to take advantage of this feud for his own benefit. Like later Western heroes such as Django, this nameless curmudgeon is like a providential tornado come to set things right.

Kurosawa has stated that a good film must first be built around at least one interesting character and the story then will issue naturally from this. In some films, that character is the environment (The Hidden Fortress, Dersu Uzala). Here, it is the unnamed ronin acting on Kurosawa’s behalf. Toshiro Mifune would prove throughout his long career with Kurosawa in a variety of roles that he is just the man for this task. While there is much to digest with this film, no single element shines brighter than Mifune’s burning portrayal. His lines are delivered with panache but it is the language of his body that reveals most about this Sanjuro. He scratches his neck and chin, appears to sidle everywhere (but somehow very directly) and exhibits none of the trappings of a samurai, save for his impressive swordsmanship. He is no typical ‘hero’. Certainly he is clever and calculating, but not valorous or morally superior. He approaches and thinks of events as games; it is true he aims to benefit from his endeavors, but we also have the impression that anything he undertakes is more for his own amusement than for any material gain. Such is Kurosawa in the guise of Mifune.

Mifune waltzes us through the credits, then comes to an impasse. He throws a stick into the air to determine his course so we know he’s a vagabond, but more than that we learn right away that he sets his course on a whim. He plays with chance. He gambles. As soon as he starts in this direction he comes upon a father and son arguing over the son’s desire to gamble with his life for easy money. This brush up against family drama is parodied a short time later, when the family that initially hires the ronin to be their bodyguard debates in private (a conversation our hero overhears) whether or not to pay him. Sanbei the headman tells his son that he should kill the ronin after they use him to win the village feud, but before he can collect his fee. The son objects to such a scheme, but the father goads him:

“Remember, you can’t get ahead in this world unless people think you’re both a cheat and a killer.”
Son: “But I already killed one.”
Mother: “Only one! That’s a fine thing to brag about.”
Father: “One or one-hundred. You’ll hang either way.”1

By the time this conversation takes place, the tone has already been set. This is high comedy. Kurosawa insists upon it even when it seems most inopportune to do so. The battle is set for noon and the ronin is set to lead the charge for Sanbei and his army of goons. The lines are drawn, but the ronin suddenly reveals that he knows of Sanbei’s intended treachery. He throws down his advance of 25 ryo and tells the opposing faction that he’s severed ties with Sanbei. This leads to a hilarious non-battle as our hero climbs the watchtower in no-man’s land to witness the expected cowardice and buffoonery to unfold. He sports a wide grin and we grin right along with him as each side advances and retreats in turn with something like a hundred paces between them. Kurosawa cuts to and fro like a seesaw. It resembles the woodcutter’s story of the climactic battle between the bandit and the nobleman in Rashomon, each man morbidly afraid of engaging the other; in that film and this one each side quavers with sword drawn, like virginal warriors participating in some kind of craven foreplay.

It should be noted that Kurosawa’s most commercially successful films, the ones he had to make out of studio servitude, are the ones least concerned with narrative in the literary sense. Yojimbo and its periphery are none too concerned with real feelings, mystery, dread or consequence. But fortuitously they gave the master a chance to focus his zeal on less important things, such as narrative framing, composition and folded commentary. As a result, these popular films of which Yojimbo is the keystone are rich in action and metaphor, and ultimately about filmmaking. Lacking in nobler qualities they tend toward the comic, and filmmaking after all can be an amusing process.

The presentation of the world of Yojimbo is crystalline. There’s bad, there’s worse and then there’s our hero. He slices his way through a realm whose stupidity and facetiousness is obvious. This is amusing because the kind of heroes we’re accustomed to worshipping on the screen are noted for their ruth and cleverness and nobility in a sea of mystery and intrigue. Kurosawa dispenses with the mystery and presents everyone but the hero as rotten and underhanded. The hero is elevated to his status then only by his cunning (which may be regarded as ordinary outside of this film-world), for he has to be just as rotten as the others to beat them.

It’s probably more accurate to say that Yojimbo inspired the Spaghetti Western more than the Revisionist Westerns that would populate American cinemas in the 1960s. The Italian style is all exaggerated action and visual splendor, plots culled from any number of American Westerns that were set in the decades after the American Civil War. Such a focus naturally sifts away story and character in favor of discrete, grandly physic action set-pieces. Tex Avery cartoons are not far off base. Kurosawa’s set-pieces are inspired, but it may be the ability to sustain a certain mood, in this case humor, that most influenced the films of Leone or Corbucci, as well as the composers that would work with those two giants. Kurosawa uses music more in this film than any other. He fills almost every breath between scenes with it, every digression from the punctuations of movement and action. It seems to take on the progressions of a dance or a comic ballet where every character has their introduction and coda. The presence of the hero means a kind of rondeau approach, meaning the rousing theme that typifies his activity is repeated between successive victories of cunning or swordplay.

The technical flourishes too are some of the most interesting to talk about among any of Kurosawa’s films. Kazuo Miyagawa had worked with the director on Rashomon where his camera skills were amply demonstrated. He understands the director’s choreographic intentions perfectly. A great deal of action takes place inside and out of a saloon with perforated walls that may be covered with wooden slats that slide up and down. Sometimes there is foreground action inside of the structure while background action occurs outside of it and vice versa; the placement of the camera here and elsewhere is extremely important as every gesture that fills the frame has to have its weight in the visual balance, every shrug or bow has to be seen through the saloon walls and comprehended by the actors inside and the coordination involved to make this happen must have been difficult. This is the hero’s nerve center, from here he plans his next move and the one after and gleans information from the rival gangs when they are out in the open.

But Miyagawa always knows how to achieve a balance, symmetrical or not (most often not) and often with deep focus which makes things harder still. He benefitted from having a fully-formed set to prance around in, the entire village-set being constructed (supposedly) in all three dimensions from the ground up. Miyagawa goes heavy on perpendicular compositions. Often characters are seen entering a balanced shot from right and left simultaneously—whether the camera faces the ends of the town or the cross-street that cuts through it—at moments when characters are unsure of a course of action or practicing their guile. Or characters will emerge from or walk directly toward the camera when it’s necessary to move the plot forward in a substantial way. This creates a feeling of artificiality which suits an already ridiculous plot. The man who strikes the hour with his sticks is like a stagehand marking the scenes of a play. Kurosawa employs the wipe-cut between acts.

It seems the sole divergence in this anarchic script is the hero’s act of goodwill toward the family persecuted by both factions. It’s up for debate whether his gesture to free the wife to reunite her with husband and child is just an incidental justice done as part of a wider scheme, or a genuine kindness. He gives them his 30 ryo and tells them to flee. This seems like the unnecessary act of a good samaritan and maybe it is, but it could be a pay-off to keep quiet about what just transpired. And after all he has to make them flee or the wife will be confiscated again and the husband perhaps threatened with death. The temptation to expose the ronin’s treachery would be high for such a destitute, little family.

Donald Richie takes the message of the film to be the coda between our hero and the young farmer who left his family at film’s beginning to pursue a “short, exciting life” with bandits. The hero forbears his sword-slash, telling the boy: “Children shouldn’t play with swords! A long life eating rice-gruel is best.” Richie plainly misunderstands what is said and as a result gleans from it a ray of didacticism in a film-world of otherwise total social anarchy2. Clearly the swordsman is ridiculing the boy. He says a long, unexciting life is one for children. Meaning not for men of action like himself. If you’re going to gamble, you’ve got to have something to gamble with and this boy hasn’t.

This movie is just plain fun. It ranks with The Hidden Fortress on that scale. Both feel like they were made with a genuine joy for making. Also in both Kurosawa utilizes the architecture or landscapes to comment upon his craft. My personal favorite scene is where the hero has to convince his allied party that six of their men were killed by “perhaps 15 or 16 men”. Mifune has to perform like an impromptu designer here. At first he admires his work. Six slain. Then he decides it looks as if one skilled swordsman did it, so he has to rough the place up a little bit. He kicks over the tables, slashes the washi paper in the doors, cuts open bags of rice and tips the kettle all in an effort to cover his tracks. He does so on the fly having to reflect between every action taken in a limited amount of time. He’s choreographing a kind of fight that never took place in the same way he foretold his lackey of the one that did. It’s an amusing bit of reflexivity for both Kurosawa and Mifune, and the exemplary zeal that it demonstrates would thankfully carry over into the duo’s next film, Yojimbo’s sequel.

1 This estimation is re-summed several times by the coffin-maker who figures prominently in the film’s comedy and whose livelihood depends upon the number of dead (which means he immediately likes our hero). And this is yet another instance in a film where numbers seem to take on an almost cabalistic significance.

2 Richie can be forgiven for not having home-video to review this film after initially writing about it.

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