Essential Cinema #3: Yojimbo

Akira Kurosawa, a legendary filmmaker, has never conjured up an image more intriguing than that which is shown at the beginning of Yojimbo.  As a wandering samurai wanders into a seemingly deserted town, he passes a dog that is grasping a human hand between its teeth.  That is how the samurai, Sanjuro, is welcomed into the film’s central location.  The image implies that there is violence in the town, maybe even evil.  Indeed, parts of the film are rather sinister, but there are a few comical moments as well.  Cowards are made fun of in a scene where two rival gangs slowly advance on each other with swords drawn, both parties afraid to start the bloodshed.  Floating between two rival gangs without really pledging allegiance to either side, the samurai works to completely annihilate the gangs and give the town a fresh start.  The plot of the film is simple but the movie is nevertheless, a very exciting picture; one that seems no more dull today than the year it was released.

What the film seems to depict, accident or not, are the differences between old school and new school as well as the interactions the two have.  Consider the opening scene where Sanjuro stumbles upon a father and son quarreling.  The sequence has little relevance to the main narrative, but as the father rants on and on about his son to Sanjuro, Kurosawa seems to be feeding us his message right out of the gate.  The audience just doesn’t notice because the story is still in development.  The movie all throughout, however, shows us several instances of misunderstandings between generations:  A father urges his son to stay at home, while the son urges his father to let him go off to war.  A mother mocks and scolds her son for being a coward.  A gang member reveals a revolver and Sanjuro, a master of the sword, doesn’t seem to know what it is.

In addition to its underlying theme, Yojimbo offers some of the most beautiful camerawork of any samurai film.  The way the camera frames the village’s main street is superb and the way that it follows a character in action is captivating.  There are many shots where a character appears in the foreground while the main action is occurring in the background behind them.  Since words cannot really do the images justice, I have included a few screenshots below:

The music of by Masaru Sato consists of varied arrangements of a thunderous theme piece.  It provides just the right accompaniment to an almost perfect film.  But as entertaining as the movie is, it is just as influential.  Out of all Kurosawa’s films (Ikiru, Rashomon, and Seven Samurai to name a few) Yojimbo was his biggest hit in Japan.  It was remade three years later into Serge Leone’s A Fistful of Dollars, which was the beginning of the director’s classic Western trilogy that also includes For A Few Dollars More and The Good, The Bad, and The Ugly.  In those movies, Clint Eastwood’s character is obviously modeled after Toshiro Mifune’s Sanjuro.  Yojimbo was quickly followed by Sanjuro, a sequel which is a good film, but it lacks the flawless balance of the dark and the comical present in its predecessor.  Even in Sanjuro, Kurosawa seems to explore relationships between generations when he depicts Sanjuro, the experienced ronin, and a band of young wannabe samurai fighting corruption in the form of a clan’s elders.

Kurosawa’s influence on American cinema is vast.  Not only did he make great movies that are epic and ambitious, but he also had a large impact on the Hollywood movies we watch today.  In addition to the great success of Yojimbo, Seven Samurai was remade into The Magnificent Seven, Rashomon was one of the very first Japanese pictures to ever attract international attention, and his The Hidden Fortress was acknowledged by George Lucas as a template for Star Wars.  All that influence on artists of the future, it comes as little surprise that Kurosawa had his own influences as well.  Several of his films are adaptations of Shakespeare.  Such a film is Ran which tells of a king who retires his kingdom to his three sons only to find that two of them plan to take all he has.  The interaction of generations must have been an attractive subject to an artist who has left his mark on many filmmakers since.

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