Review: Yojimbo [1961]

a review by the Crow.

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OPENING THOUGHTS

Akira Kurosawa was inspired to make Yojimbo after watching a film noir picture called The Glass Key (1942; based on a Dashiell Hammett novel published in 1931).

Despite that being the official story, some people have pointed out similarities between the plot of Yojimbo, and that of another work by the same author, titled Red Harvest.

In 1964, Sergio Leone directed A Fistful of Dollars, starting Clint Eastwood’s long career as the iconic Man With No Name, as an almost sequence-for-sequence (and very unofficial) remake of Yojimbo, thinking that he was only bringing the story home (by way of Spain). Kurosawa promptly filed a copyright infringement lawsuit against the purported remake, and eventually, Leone’s movie was delayed release by a whole three years in North America, and Kurosawa laid the case to rest with that. Eventually, in 1996, Last Man Standing, starring Bruce Willis, was released as the United States as the official remake of Kurosawa’s classic.

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It’s also important to note that Leone didn’t see a penny from A Fistful of Dollars. Pretty much all of it went to Kurosawa, who later joked that he made more money from the lawsuit than he did from the film itself.

To be fair to Leone (a visionary director in his own right), while Yojimbo’s sequel – Sanjuro – turned out to be less than subpar, A Fistful spawned better progeny, leading to For a Few Dollars More, and of course: The Good, The Bad, and The Ugly.

All that said, though, Yojimbo could very likely be one of my favourite movies when it comes to easy viewing. It’s shot excellently, the dialogue (via subtitles, of course) is spot on, and the performances have that tacky charm Kurosawa films are rife with. The comedy works, and the action is as perfect as perfect action can be (read: incredibly realistic). Toshiro Mifune is – as always – boss-like in the role of the nameless hero. The dynamics of the two rival gangs are interesting enough to cement the samurai/rōnin’s motivation to stay and wait out the trouble he’s causing, and interesting enough to make us want to know what happens to them in the end, too.

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VIEWS OF A MULBERRY FIELD

WARNING: THIS REVIEW CONTAINS CONSIDERABLE SPOILERS

The movie begins with Mifune (playing Mifune) walking into a town divided between two gangs, each of whom are looking for a way to one-up the other. Our hero essentially offers himself up in the role of a “yojimbo” (i.e.: bodyguard) for one of the two camps, after teasing each of the groups with his peerless swordsmanship; and promptly switches to the other gang within the space of a few minutes.

He continues to go back and forth between the two groups, driving the two bosses to their wits’ end in the quest to secure his services, unleashing small doses of carnage in his wake. But he doesn’t seem interested in the gold they offer him, and much less in the women one of the camps parades in front of him. And then, at the height of his mischief, the travelling son of one of our antagonists walks into town with a handgun, and things quickly take a turn for the serious.

The conflict between the two bosses reaches fever pitch when one steals the other’s “woman”, at the height of their fiddling with the others’ business (which kicks off a new escalation between the two bosses). After a prisoner exchange, which allows our rougeish hero to learn more about the abusive arrangement between the woman and the boss whose clutches she’s fallen into, he makes the mistake of showing his true colours.

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His deception is found out soon after, and the two baddies finally butt heads in a final conflict while he makes his escape after being detained and being kicked around quite a bit. The movie boils down to one final action sequence: the rōnin vs the gang who’s come out on top. And oh my, is it ever a battle for the ages.

The gang, thinking themselves the victors, are surprised at the appearance of the rōnin, whereas what the rōnin has going through his head is what he’d originally stated would be best for the town: with both gangs dead and buried.

Now, I usually don’t do massive spoilers, but with a tale this classic, I don’t see the point in not glossing over the overall structure. I’ve obviously left out key details here and there to not affect your viewing of the movie.

This movie comes highly recommended from pretty much every reviewer I’m aware of, and it’s obvious why. It’s a movie that should be watched. It’s a movie that sets the stage for so much of the action movies that’ve come since it.


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THE ART OF KNIFETHROWING

There’s isn’t much else to be said about Yojimbo apart from the fact that it’s a seminal work in the field of action cinema (a fact I feel like I must repeat). We watch our hero, Kuwabatake Sanjuro (mulberry-field, thirty-year old, although he’s really closer to forty), go between camps with brash confidence, and watch how he sets about the undoing of the two bosses of the town.

The final action sequence is so amazing that A Fistful of Dollars had to tone it down to make it seem a bit more realistic (although it’s not thanks to one specific scene, but Clint Eastwood’s skill set doesn’t include Mifune’s awesomeness with sharp things), but Yojimbo pulls off this incredible sequence with snappy realism. Things move quick when they have to, and drop dead when they drop.

The movie’s very Hollywood in its execution, but carries the sort of sensibility that creeps in only if a movie isn’t made within that system. Kurosawa has never really let me down apart from in a few minor instances following his transition to colour cinema. And this movie is a proper example of what the man and his team were capable of.


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CLOSING THOUGHTS

All in all, Yojimbo is a classic movie. Humorous at times, ridiculous at others, but it never shies away from the action. This is undeniably one of the top 5 action movies of all time, no question. This might be the perfect movie to start with if aliens show up and demand we show them our best action movies or else.

It feels weird, writing about a movie when everything to be said about it has already been said before, but when it comes to the classics, this crow shall not shy away.

Totally recommended for any fan of movies. Watch it at lunchtime with some nice comfort food at hand. Trust me: you won’t be disappointed.

Abayo.

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Final rating: 8/10

(An earlier version of this review appeared on a previous blog of mine. This is a new and improved version. It was also originally meant to go up on the 16th of September, 2016; what can I say? I’ve been lazy with this one. I have zero excuses.)


SEE ALSO: 

Seven Samurai, by the Crow

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