Akira Kurosawa: Yojimbo (1961) - Can't Stop the Movies
Can't Stop the Movies
9Nov/120

Akira Kurosawa: Yojimbo (1961)

This is the big one.  As influential as Seven Samurai continues to be, Rashomon played with the narrative, and Ikiru gives us some hope, Yojimbo is the one Akira Kurosawa film I trust to breach the barrier of anyone resilient to foreign films.  Even more, this is an excellent way to breach classic films as well, especially since Yojimbo is fifty one years old and hasn't aged in the slightest, especially since our love of anti-heroes seems to have grown more pronounced in recent years.

Yojimbo, already an excellent gateway into classic and foreign films, is also the most concise explanation of what Kurosawa's career was about.  Watch this one film and you'll see everything - the tight pacing, the exquisitely violent (yet brief) action scenes, the bleak humor, the surprise empathy - everything that made Kurosawa such a great director.  So not only is Yojimbo the Kurosawa film to get people into foreign and classic movies, it's also the ultimate film to put them on the long road of Kurosawa.

Part of why this movie is so effective is that it's playing in the same kind of playful terrain as The Hidden Fortress.  While I wasn't as impressed with that movie as many others are, here Kurosawa takes his kid in a candystore mentality to a whole new level and focuses on one extended conflict to darkly entertaining results.  I felt the difference right away with that amazing soundtrack which rarely leaves us.  It announces Sanjuro's (Toshiro Mifune) presence before we even know how brutally efficient he is.  The trade off of strings and pipe instruments, the incessant roll of the drum, and then Mifune's frame filling the wasteland with his sudden appearance.It's a helluva opening, one that Kurosawa does not waste and leaves room for his darkest humor to date.  The incessant hum of the soundtrack also belies a plucky atmosphere that is not at play in the dusty town.  When Sanjuro arrives he sees nothing but degenerates, "...people that deserve to die," and a dog happily chewing away at whatever flesh is left for him to eat on.  I love the moment right when Sanjuro realizes the playground he's wandered into, sizing up each one of the warriors before doing a smiling double-take at the seven-foot warrior with the hammer (because, of course he has to have a hammer.)

From then on we see a ruthlessness in characterization and editing that rivals anything Kurosawa did in Seven Samurai, but to a different purpose.  Yojimbo doesn't have the surprisingly deep characterization of Seven Samurai but it's not trying for that.  This is the film where Kurosawa really let all of his demons out to play while using the toys of his success to its fullest.  You have the struggle between the younger generation and the older (represented more through technology than directly this time,) the total decay of society, all while putting two small platoons against each other in a town of his devising.

When I think of Kurosawa as playful I don't think of anything in One Wonderful Sunday.  I think of a town so overrun with violence and confusion that a man talking to a killer in a basket isn't an unusual thing anymore.  This is where we see just how far he thinks we can sink, and barely even bothers with metaphor.For me, the best thing about Yojimbo—and it's in line with what you're saying here—is the degree to which the playful, humorous tone is inextricably tied to the violence and decay. You're right—Kurosawa absolutely thinks we can sink to the depths of mere scavenging rats, but he also seems to think that's quietly hilarious. You also have the guy (I think a carryover from The Seven Samurai) who has permanent rodent-face, and he rounds out the rats metaphor. The joke seems to be on those who think their predicament is anything other than that of a pest in a ghost town, which is why the warring gangs and their henchmen seem like such fools and Sanjuro seems so reasonable and in control. The fake sense of order each group embraces in terms of their “war” and control over the town amuses him.

One could imagine Kurosawa applying this same sort of lens to the world of endlessly complicated bureaucracy in Ikiru, but there his faceless government employees are all too knowledgeable about the futility of their situations. The fact that one is able to rise above this sense of futility wrings hope from tragedy—Yojimbo operates more along the lines of wringing cynical humor from absurdity.

The best example of this for me comes early on in the film. It's one of my favorite moments: two gangs get ready to face off in the street, when mid-showdown Mifune makes up an excuse to possibly switch to the other side (he says the other gang “offended him”). The group who was just seconds before ready to kill him now jumps at the opportunity he's given them, emboldened by this sudden change. Mifune then climbs up into a guard tower high above the street, openly laughing as the two groups run a few steps at each other, then run back in fear, then, swords shaking, try to become fearsome as they charge forward again. It's like the reverse of that great side-scrolling battle in Oldboy.The punchline comes when, before they're able to actually fight, the two gangs are told an inspector is on the way from the capital, and without missing a beat cooperate with their respective teams to prepare the town to seem healthy and free from conflict. They're like children who abandon their squabbling for mutual fear of getting in trouble from their parents. There's a scene later on in which the two groups stand outside a burning warehouse and the leaders yell back and forth at each other about a woman taken from the captivity of one, assumedly by the other—the conversation could be lifted directly from two kids arguing over a toy on a playground.

I love this movie. We could talk about nearly any aspect of it and I'd be hard-pressed to find a fault—Mifune's portrayal of a cool, careless anti-hero who in the end is more than just a comic-book hero, eventually showing vulnerability and a strict set of values; Kurosawa's mastery of his own preoccupation with the gritty and unchecked parts of society (and how he always finds some way to show an escape route from them)—it's all pretty well perfect.Your comparison with the battle in Oldboy is apt and points at the great binary on display without the usual subtlety regarding the corrupting influence of the west.  Kurosawa, now creating a film at the dawn of the ‘60s, just takes it as a matter of fact now.  As much as I loved the scenes of the bubbling goo coming up from underneath the town in Drunken Angel or the wrestler in Sanshiro Sugata Part II the direct representation of that corruption is refreshing.  Really, this fits in with what we’ve seen from Westerns before and it doesn’t come as a full surprise that the eventual nemesis to Sanjuro is clad in white and carries a Winchester.

The same ends up applying to the way Kurosawa portrays the action scenes in the film.  Gone are the epic struggles and slow-motion deaths of Seven Samurai where, even if meant in a somewhat ironic fashion, the deaths of the people who fall at the samurai’s hands are immortalized.  Instead Kurosawa takes the fight scenes exactly for what they are – a brief struggle where people die, victory is wearily celebrated, and extremities are lost to the sands of oblivion.  The sword fights are treated like elegant gunshots despite the rough choreography of the fights.Along those lines is how another one of my favorite recurring jokes is how much this film seems to have a vendetta against grasping things literally and figuratively.  Sanjuro cuts off someone’s hand early on, right after a dog comes running by with a severed arm, and Sanjuro’s climactic showdown begins with eliminating Unosuke’s (Tatsuya Nakadai) gun-arm.  The bureaucracy is useless, neither cowardly gang can get a hold of the town without killing the other, and the coffin-maker is successful because of a trade whose demand is always needed but whose output he can’t control.  No one has control of the narrative, and it takes a bored stranger who randomly happens by to finally twist an ending out of everyone’s story.

I can’t say it enough, this film is dripping with darkness and Kurosawa is luxuriating in every single crevice.  Even Sanjuro’s moment of potential humanism, when he saves the farmer and his wife, is tempered by his desire to see everyone burn.  Then, at the end of the film, there is barely anyone left to celebrate his victory and off he goes to find another poor village to accidentally burn to the ground.

For the anarchists in the audience I posit this – is it better to be institutionally corrupt or to see all life crumble to the ground?  The answer is clear.  Tearing everything down with sword and fire would be the most fun, but we’ll run out of flammables eventually.Dark as it is, in light of The Bad Sleep Well, The Lower Depths, and I Live in Fear, Yojimbo strikes me as a much less cynical outing than Kurosawa has previously been occupied with at this point in the project. The movie plays almost like a self-conscious parody of his own social cynicism at times. There is no sentimentality allowed, no honor or nobility springing up at the right moment to save the day. That great scene you mention where he saves the family is punctuated by a quiet moment where Sanjuro turns to see they haven't fled as he instructed, but are instead kneeling before him in humility and thanks. Then he blows up and calls them fools — this is no time or place for kindness or decency.

Part of why I think the movie can maintain its level of contempt for the society it portrays without becoming too angry or jaded is that these people are seen in a fishbowl, and their ignorance to their own moral and political decrepitude makes them foolish enough that they can only possibly be harmful to each other. The corporate espionage of The Bad Sleep Well is rooted in real, recognizable threat — that's a world that exists all around us (or did more literally if you were living in Japan in the '50s and '60s) — but Yojimbo features characters stripped down to their most base impulses, and for once it seems like Kurosawa's enjoying showing us not only how dangerous this primalism can be, but more so how utterly ridiculous it is for people to live like this in a “civilized” society.The style of the film underscores this in a wonderfully entertaining way. From the slightly ironic musical score to the way Unosuke's sleek, pistol-carrying samurai sends up the traditional view of such characters by bringing a cocky, youthful representation to the archetype, Kurosawa is creating a moving comic book before our eyes. There's a shot that uses music and tracking to watch a man and his geishas enter a building that's got a direct line of influence to Tarantino's “ohmigodthisissocool” Lucy Liu segment in Kill Bill Vol. 1, and I'm always impressed when I see it how well Kurosawa employs a sense of attitude in his shots that by now, 50-some years later, has become the stale language of overblown action films.

Watching Yojimbo this time around, I kept thinking forward about 40 years to Takeshi Kitano's Zatoichi remake. That film sent up the samurai classic (the originals of which, fittingly, starred Toshiro Mifune) in a kind of reverent stylistic exercise, and I realize now that Kurosawa was doing the same thing even as he defined the very genre. This film has more going on underneath the surface — which, as you said, owes its debt to Kurosawa's exceedingly bleak but confident worldview — but at the same time he knows better than to set his message in a straightforward genre piece the rules for which have already been determined. The man made no small films.

Except for The Most Beautiful.

Next week: Sanshiro Sugata Part III!

Posted by Andrew

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