Dec 2, 2016

[Movies] Yojimbo (1961)

There's a weird void in my film history where I realize I have not seen all or even most of Akira Kurosawa's movies. Like many other movie enthusiasts, I'm generally familiar with his work and I have a decent memory library of different clips of various movies but for one reason or another I haven't had a chance to start ticking these items off my bucket list.

Our recent efforts to play the samurai RPG Blood & Honor led to a desire to refresh our memories of various samurai movies and TV shows. To hit two birds with one stone we sort of addressed both by sitting down to watch Yojimbo. It seemed as good a place to start as any - it offered both serious samurai period drama and mix of light humor as well.

So how was my jidaigeki experience? It was totally awesome and it was everything I had hoped for and more. And this only reaffirms for me that I need to make time to watch the rest of Kurosawa's movies sooner rather than later.

Synopsis: Yojimbo is a 1961 Japanese samurai period drama movie written and directed by Akira Kurosawa together with co-screenwriter Ryūzō Kikushima. The movie has inspired many others including the Spaghetti Westerns A Fistful of Dollars and more recently Django to name a few.

It is 1860 during the last years of the Tokugawa Shogunate and we focus on a rōnin (Toshiro Mifune) wandering the countryside. He eventually finds himself at a small town in the grip of two rival gangs vying for control. One group is led by Ushitora (Kyū Sazanka), who is aligned with the town sake brewer Tokuemon (Takashi Shimura) while Seibei (Seizaburo Kawazu) and his clan are aligned with the silk merchant mayor of the town Tazaemon (Kamatari Fujiwara).

Our stranger decides to get involved in the town's affairs by orchestrating events to play both sides against one another to their hopeful destruction. But of course there are other complications along the way that appeal to his good nature and his past as a samurai, but those are the sort of complications that drive such stories.

What I Liked: There is far too much to enjoy in this movie, to be perfectly honest. Kurosawa's vision as a direct is quite evident in the movie and so much is said by how the different scenes are shot more than what dialog and even acting could achieve independently. Toshiro Mifune is a great actor who perfectly brings to life the sort of noble rōnin character that colors a lot of samurai stories.

The movie just has so much going for it, down to the very particular pacing of things and how you feel each beat of the plot and appreciate how things come to fruition. Sure, some moments may seem a tad subtle when compared to more contemporary releases, but that's part of the charm of things and part of the experience of watching these films.

What Could Have Been Better: This is a minor thing given the timing of the movie's release but you kind of wish that there were more consequences at times. Our rōnin protagonist moves quite quickly in battle and is able to slash at opponents at will. But at the time it did not seem appropriate or feasible to add more blood effects so the strikes become a little weaker in that regard. I'm not talking about Kill Bill levels of blood and gore, but something more than what we got?

But that's super minor - and that opinion probably more reflects more recent movie making methods than what Kurosawa worked with at the time.

TL;DR: Yojimbo is a brilliant film and a great demonstration of what we will always imagine samurai to be, even one without a master. And it's a great show piece in terms of storytelling told right more than anything else. Thus the movie more than deserves 5 masterful maneuvers by our rōnin to manipulate the gangs out of a possible 5.

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