Review by David Macdonald|
3 stars out of 4
Akira Kurosawa is well known as being one of the great directors in
history, but he's also known simply as a director of samurai dramas.
The Seven Samurai is certainly his most famous film, and Yojimbo
is pretty close in stature as well. However, it is fair to say that
Yojimbo is the anti-Seven Samurai; while that epic depicted a group
of unlikely heroes out to protect a war-torn village, Yojimbo merely
depicts varying levels of greed, hatred and cynicism.
The famous Toshiro Mifune stars as the Man with No Name (later used
by Clint Eastwood in the remake A Fistful of Dollars), who used to
be a soldier for the royal army but is now a loner, wandering about
the land, apparently with no home and no identity. He finds himself
in a town ravaged by petty in-fighting, between two gangs who both
deal in gambling and other vices, and who are killing each other in
hopes of taking over the other's territory, thereby gaining a monopoly in the village.
The man happens to hear the whole story from a merchant who lives
next door to the undertaker, who naturally enjoys the extra business.
The merchant, unlike most of the village, apparently, stands outside
the rivalries of the two gangs, and laments the pain and suffering
he has to see every day. He is the only one who seems to have some
moral balance, although he's the type of guy who just wants to be
left alone. The warrior hears this story and gets an idea -- a rather
nasty idea of ensuring that somehow the two gangs will quickly and
brutally wipe each other out. He says bluntly, and with some amusement,
that it would be good to see all of them dead.
The first thing he does is to go to one of the gang's leaders, Seibei,
under the pretence of offering his services (this is around the point
in which the warrior introduces himself as "Sanjuro"). Both gangs
have already witnessed the warrior's ability earlier on, in a scene
where he taunts the other gang's hired bandits, and so of course this
gang is more than willing to hire such a strong man to help them kill
that dastardly opposition. The warrior, however, demands a steep
price, knowing that there will be some heated discussion in private.
Well, not really in private, because the warrior sneaks around and
overhears the leader and his wife and son discussing the possibility
of killing him after the battle so they won't have to pay.
The leader, now having such a great warrior on his side, at least
until he's no longer needed, is now so bold that he plans on having
a battle in broad daylight. The other gang hears of this, and soon
the two gangs are out in full force in the main street. But then,
the warrior turns around to his "employer" and says he quits; he doesn't
want to be killed afterwards. He dumps his pay on the dirt, and walks
off to tell the other gang, led by Yosi-Tora that he has quit, and
that's all he has to say -- so he climbs up the observation pole and
laughs at the sight of these two groups of bloodthirsty people trying
to start a fight. But then a villager rides in and says that the
government official (or whatever he is) is arriving in town, so of
course everybody has to behave as if nothing has happened. Yet behind
the scenes, representatives of the two gangs do their best to convince
the warrior to help one of them out. The warrior bides his time,
knowing that the bidding w!
ar will be fierce, and he also performs a few secret sneak attacks
which tightens the tensions between the two gangs. But another element
rides in to town which raises the stakes a little bit higher.
A another relative of Yosi-Tora arrives in town, and carries a gun
-- unlike in a traditional Western, where everybody carries guns,
a samurai movie is mostly about swords and other sharp objects, so
when somebody rides in with a gun, he is very noticeable, and dangerous.
The movie implies that the owner of a gun is possibly a little more
sophisticated, more of a loose cannon , and certainly more of a threat
-- and that's exactly the case with this individual. At first, it
works to the warrior's advantage, because of a few instances where
the trigger finger unknowingly finishes off the work that the warrior
started. But the warrior soon makes a few seemingly minor but crucial
errors which come to involve the gun-toting relative, and soon he
is fighting for his very life on top of trying to carry out his plan.
Sanjuro is clearly a very misanthropic person; he doesn't give away
any feelings of concern or sorrow, only cynicism. He just does what
he does, often with sick amusement, even if that means the deaths
of many people, even if all of them are bad. He never lets himself
reveal any warmth, even during a scene in which he rescues a woman
kidnapped by one of the gangs. He returns her to her husband and
child, but Sanjuro's behaviour borders on frustration if not belittlement,
as he tells them to get out of town (naturally, since they are in
danger), and tells them to shut up and stop crying and thanking him
and all that other crap. All this makes Sanjuro a little hard to
follow -- he has no connection to this town, has no reason to be here,
doesn't seem to really care about people, and is obviously not doing
this for the money (he's as poor at the end as he was before he entered
the town) -- so why does he do this? There doesn't seem to be any
motive for his acts, unless p!
lain old cynicism is his motive. Maybe he's just seen too much, and
wants to do something about it, even if there is no glory in it. I don't know..
The violence in this movie is a lot stronger than in The Seven Samurai,
and is certainly surprising to those raised on old Hollywood pictures.
The first few minutes have a couple of jolting shots, like the amusing
sight of a dog casually strolling the street, carrying a severed hand
in its mouth, and a few minutes later, our "hero" does a bit of nasty
business when he slices the arm off of one of the bandits whom he
taunts. There are a few other somewhat bloody moments, but it's not
all that hard to take -- the violence is pretty stylized, and all
in black and white, which makes it appear less disturbing, as a rule.
Kurosawa's action scenes are, nevertheless, quite intense just because
we're dealing with swords and other sharp objects usually, and so
everybody is at close range hacking each other to death.
Overall, I didn't really enjoy Yojimbo as much as I did The Seven
Samurai. The action is good, there's a lot of sick humour, and Sanjuro's
cunning plan is pretty good. But the enigma that is Sanjuro stopped
me, at least at this first viewing, from being able to go all the
way with this movie. Nevertheless, it is a good movie, and is a good
idea for anyone who wants to see a Japanese version of a Western.
Sure, the culture and references are totally different, but once
Sanjuro has a showdown with the bad guys at the end, it looks just
like any classic Western showdown. Except only one guy has a gun.
Copyright © 2001 David Macdonald