I'm a 31 year old man, and in those thirty one years i'd not seen Akira Kurosawa's epic samurai action flick, Yojimbo, I'd Seen A Fistful Of Dollars and Last Man Standing, one an unofficial remake, the other, official, but i'd never gotten around to actually watching the original. Now, a few years back I attended a comic convention, yeah I know, quite geeky, well yeah, that's the kind of guy I am, anyways, there was a stall selling second hand DVDs. The first one I picked up was Jakie Chan's Drunken Master, a film i've still yet to see, but next to it was the BFI DVD of Yojimbo with a price tag of £2.50, I would have been a fool to pass that up so I snagged it. That was in 2011. That film has sat in a box gathering dust for 3 years, that was until now, I finally sat down to watch Yojimbo and...well...it was as they say INCREDIBLE!.
Based somewhat on the American novel Red Harvest by pulp novelist, Dashiel Hammet and the author's other classic pulp crime novel, The Glass Key, Kurosawa took the basic premise and plopped it right into 18th century Japan, but framed the film like a western. A huge influence on the style of the film was Legendary Hollywood director John Ford, a man who gave the western genre it's sweeping vistas and perfectly framed shots. His widescreen shooting style influenced Kurosawa to the point where, if you watch Yojimbo from a technical point of view, looks and feels like a western, the immaculately framed widescreen shots, the action sequences, the way the sand whips along the streets and star Toshiro Mifune's, gruff, almost John Wayne like presence is what makes this more a Western than a Samurai film. But while the film it's self is influenced by American Pulp crime novels, future American films where equally influenced by Yojimbo. Star Wars is a great example of the influence Yojimbo had. The scene at the beginning of Star Wars where Obi Wan slices the arm off in the Canteena is a direct copy or homage to the same scene where Mifune removes an arm. It's also an influence on more modern films such as the Josh Hartnet film, Lucky Number Slevin, which sees Hartnet playing two rival mobsters against each other. The most obvious Influence is of course Sergio Leone's classic Spaghetti western, A Fistful Of Dollars. A film which the producers of Yojimbo successfully sued for copying the entire plot. But where as A Fistful of Dollars became a huge hit and part of popular culture, Yojimbo hasn't, it's a definite best films ever made lister, but you ask anyone on the street if they've heard of A Fistful Of Dollars and Yojimbo, Leone's Western will always be the one people recognize. It also influenced other spaghetti western directors, Sergio Corbucci's 1966 film, Django, starring Franco Nero also follows a wandering gunman playing two rival gangs against each other in a small dusty western town. A film that wasn't sued was Walter Hill's Last Man Standing which credits the screenplay being based on Yojimbo. Even though the action scenes in LMS are impeccably staged, the film is actually rather empty. It's pretty brutal but it loses all the fun of Yojimbo.
Now i'm not going to go indepth into the plot because we all know the plot, a wandering Ronin (masterless Samurai) enters a small dusty town, where he begins to pit two rival clans against each other, each clan offering the Ronin women, wealth or food for his expertise. While the clans are fighting between themselves, the Ronin watches from the safety of an Inn until the clans catch on to what the ronin is doing and decide to kill him which leads to an inevitable showdown.
Taking lead point as the wandering Ronin named Sanjuro is Kurosawa's regular, Toshiro Mifune, a man that has the mannerisms and cool of John Wayne, Charles Bronson, Lee Marvin, Steve McQueen and Clint Eastwood all rolled up in one bad ass samurai. Mifune is a presence on screen, someone mentioned he was like a wrecking ball and that's not so far from the truth. He was such a great physical actor, the speed he has with his Samurai sword, his charisma, his grit and his cool laid back side all made him stand out as an imposing screen presence and it's his performance that really makes the film stand out even more than it all ready did. I can think of only three other Japanese actors who just come close to Mifune's star power, Shintaro Katsu who famously played Zatoichi, the blind swordsman before Takeshi Kitano took the role for his update, Sonny Chiba and Tomisaburo Wakayama who played Lone Wolf Orgami Itto in the Lone Wolf and Cub series of films. Now I’m not a Japanese cinema expert so I'm not familiar with the majority of classic Japanese actors but those three men all stick out in my mind for the roles they've played and the performances they've committed to screen.
The film was shot by legendary cinematographer, Kazuo Miyagowa, who had previously shot Kurosawa's Rashomon in 1950, Sansho The Bailiff and Lone Wolf and Cub: Baby-cart In Peril in 1972, but those are just three of his 81 credits as a cinematographer for which he won 14 awards throughout his career. His gorgeous black and white photography and the way he lit his shots in Yojimbo are nothing short of stunning.
My biggest issue with the film, and to be honest, it's my only issue, is the music. Yojimbo feature an odd jazzy score with jangly guitars and trumpets and it seemed a little out of place for me but this was a first time watch and I guess after multiple viewings, the score will eventually feel right.
Like I said, I'm not an expert on Japanese cinema, I've seen my fair share of course and I did come late to the game with Asian cinema in general, but if this is the kind of stuff that i've been missing, more fool me. While writing this essay, which wasn't supposed to be this long, i've been researching Kurosawa, Mifune and the crew and every now and then i'll jump onto Amazon to see if these films are available and how much. One film that popped up was a film called Stray Dog, a film noir, which I’m now eager to see. This is what spurs me on as film fan, the discoveries, the new knowledge gained from watching and researching these films. This is what cinema is supposed to do, this isn't what cinema today is doing, these films are rich in subtext and themes, they have plots that don't rely on quick cuts and CGI battles to stretch a 90 minute film to 120 minutes. This is why I love cinema. This is why I buy so many films, so that one day I can pass classic films onto someone who isn't aware of them. Yes this site is comprised mainly of action movies and horror, why?, because they're easy to watch, they can be reviewed easily. This was going to be a single page review, as I write these words I've just hit page 3, this is the reason why I originally got into writing reviews. When you watch a film like Yojimbo or The Searchers or even a film like Singing In The Rain, it reignites a passion in you, for some people it's sport, others are into music, for me and a lot of people, film, the art of visual story telling is what drives us and when you think you've seriously lost hope in modern cinema, you watch a film which totally revitalises that passion inside of you and you can't help but express that. For me it's this review/essay.
I had the thought that maybe i'll see a film that will spur me on to write again, to get that passion back. Well I did, it was this film. If you didn't get this far, I don't blame you, this turned from a quick one page review into something much more personal and i'm not usually in the habit of going so deep but I just went with it, I let my fingers do the typing and 2 hours later, I'm still here, typing away. This film really made an impression on, this very rarely ever happens, but something struck a cord, made me fall in love with cinema again after being so let down by it in the last few years. Yojimbo is a great film, it did something for me which I never thought would ever happen again. For that I'm grateful.
I know I've waffled on for a good few paragraphs and I know I totally went off course with what started as a review, but if you did make it this far, thank you, thank you for listening to what I have to say and if you too are fed up with where modern cinema is heading, I hope you discover a film that does for you what Yojimbo did for me.
I'm not going to rate Yojimbo because I think this piece of writing speaks for it's self. I will leave you with this though. Cinema allows you to escape, you may like films like SAW or The Avengers, you may like Bergman or Fassbinder films, you may enjoy Disney films. What we all have in common is a love of something special, we all have a love for film, for visual story telling, be it animated, science fiction, huge multi-million dollar blockbusters, exploitation, horror, action, romance or crime thrillers, everyone has their own personal tastes, but if like me you find your self losing faith in modern cinema, remember this, we have millions of films and over a hundred years of cinema history to fall back on.