EMPIRE ESSAY: Yojimbo Review

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Yojimbo, a wandering samurai enters a rural town in nineteenth century Japan. After learning from the innkeeper that the town is divided between two gangsters, he plays one side off against the other. His efforts are complicated by the arrival of the wily Unosuke, the son of one of the gangsters, who owns a revolver. Unosuke has Yojimbo beaten after he reunites an abducted woman with her husband and son, then massacres his father's opponents. During the slaughter, the samurai escapes with the he


To many, Akira Kurosawa's reputation rests on his samurai epics. But he was, in fact, a supremely versatile director. He started out in martial arts before tackling period dramas, social realism, hard-boiled crime and literary adaptations. But, before Yojimbo, he had never attempted a comedy. At first glance, this tale of a rnicrocosmic civil war may not seem all that amusing.

Its setting is bleak, its scenario pitiful and its violence shocking. But set it against the films it influenced — including Sergio Leone's Dollars trilogy and the yakuza thrillers of Takeshi Kitano — and it's clear what kind of comedy we're dealing with. Since the discovery of his 1950 masterpiece, Rashomon, Kurosawa had been considered Japan's most Western filmmaker. Indeed, such was his accessibility that John Sturges had aleady remade Seven Samurai as The Magnificent Seven while Kurosawa was developing Yojimbo. Yet the most distinctive influence on his visual style and his handling of storyline and theme was John Ford. Kurosawa even used Toshiro Mifune in much the same way that Ford used John Wayne.

It's ironic, therefore, that the film which brought Kurosawa his greatest domestic success owed so little to his mentor. Yojimbo is intimate to the point of claustrophobia. Its wit is wry, its characters flawed and its world-view uncompromisingly cynical. There was no room, therefore, for the grand sweep, broad humour and manly sentimentality that characterised Ford's work. Instead, Kurosawa drew on two of the new breed of Hollywood westerns, High Noon (1952) and Shane (1953), to produce what is essentially a psychological samurai flick. An itinerant swordslinger, Sanjuro (Mifune) goes where fate sends him.

Following the promptings of a stick cast upon the wind, he enters a fortified village where the first thing he sees is a dog padding down the main street with a human hand in its mouth. The tone is set and it never wavers. Although he arrives like Shane (and, like Shane, will later deliver a worthy couple and their son from tyranny), Sanjuro's task is more like that facing Marshal Will Kane in High Noon. Courted by both sides in a feud between a silk merchant and his sake counterpart, he will be forced to risk his own life to save unworthy citizens from a crisis they've largely brought on themselves. But, unlike Kane, Sanjuro's motives are less than pure. No longer owing allegiance to a master, he's able to select from the bushido code at his convenience. Thus, he'll fight for money but he'll never take more than his due. Still, his amorality is nothing compared to the grotesque failings of his adversaries, several of whom have physical abnormalities to match their poisonous personalities.

Kurosawa had frequently explored the notion that the world was an irredeemable place. But Yojimbo's comic detachment enabled him to despair of the villagers without judging them. What he's condemning is the capitalist impulse that causes them to stake (and lose) everything in order to gain that little bit more. It may seem ironic that a wandering warrior should abjure a life of adventure. But his advice to the farmer's son he spares at the end of the climactic slaughter — to stay at home and make the best of what you've got — is the message Kurosawa hoped to impart to restlessly rebellious Japanese youth by slipping it in under the violence they'd paid to see.

Compared to latter genre outings like Shogun Assassin (1980), the bloodshed quotient may seem low. As much a thinker as a fighter, Sanjuro uses his knowledge of human nature to set the rivals against each other, thus decimating their numbers without undue risk to himself. Yet, when he does rouse himself, the ruthless efficiency of his swordsmanship ensures that the short, swift action sequences are utterly devastating.
Confronted, early on, with a trio of hired thugs, each keen to show off their tattoos and prison records, he requires just three swiping blows to conquer them — one completely severing an arm, which falls to the ground still clutching its barely unsheathed sword. Thanks to this display of awesome power, Sanjuro will only need to fight once more: at the film's conclusion he mops up the handful of ne'er-do-wells who survive the onslaught that lays waste to the village.

Sanjuro watches from inside a sake barrel where he is recovering from the beating inflicted by the pistol-touting Unosuke (Tatsuya Nakadai) for returning a reluctant concubine to her family. How typical that an act of charity should result in brutality. Maybe Kurosawa was admitting, after all, that you have to be bad to be the best.

Less visceral than the battle scene in Seven Samurai, this is more of a free-for-all, with brute force leaving no room for skill.