Sunday, June 10, 2012

Yojimbo

The lone gunman rides into a bad town and sets things right. That plot has served as inspiration for hundreds of Hollywood Westerns, and yet, one of the best examples of this trope was done by the master Japanese filmmaker Akira Kurosawa in his 1961 samurai piece Yojimbo. Instead of the dust filled open-prairies, saloons, and gunslingers of the Old West, Kurosawa gives us swordsmen, sake shops, and the countryside of post-feudal Japan. The resulting hybrid of Western and Samurai themes and images proves amazingly fertile and remains one of Kurosawa's best and accessible films.

Toshirio Mifune plays a masterless and nameless samurai wandering the countryside in 19th century Japan. As fate would have it, he comes across a town paralyzed by the blood feud between gangs, one for silk merchant and the other a sake dealer. Looking for work, the samurai (who when asked his name only replies Sanjuro Kuwabatke, which is translated as 30-year-old mulberry field) plays both sides off each other, hiring himself to one gang as a bodyguard (or a Yojimbo) then the other and in the process killing a lot of people in a town "filled with a lot of people who deserved to be killed."


Newcomers to Japanese cinema will likely find modern and western sensibilities in Yojimbo. Sanjuro is such an intriguing character. Clearly, he's the best swordsman in the movie, whether up against one opponent or 10. Yet, the movie is not him mindlessly hacking through bad guys. He's more like a chess player, striking at the most strategic moments. We learn practically nothing about his background, where he comes from, or what his beliefs are; everything about him is revealed through his actions and his plotting. Not only is he a mystery to the gangs and villagers, he's ambiguous to us. The purpose behind his actions only apparent after he's performed them. At times, he seems just as cruel or immoral as the criminals he encounters before his true nature is revealed.

At the same time, Mifune plays him very calmly and collectedly. While everyone else in the cast is busy being chest-beating thugs, hysterical villagers, corrupt officials, despondent observers, or self-important crime bosses, he's at the center stroking his beard, betraying little emotion, offering droll insights, and casually dismissing anyone else's ideas. Yojimbo has a nice streak of sardonic humor mainly because so many of the low-lifes try to act tough or smart only to be put down, outsmarted, or killed by Sanjuro. In a funny little framing device, the young farm boy who ran away from home at the start of the picture is confronted by a rampaging Sanjuro in the climax, begins crying "Mommy!" and is told  "children shouldn't play with swords."

The action scenes are quick and to the point. Like a Western, the men have showdowns in the street and stare each other down until someone makes a move. The image of the lone, dark warrior standing tall and proud against numerous adversaries remains as impressive and potent in a samurai picture as it does a Western.The samurai is so skilled with a sword only one person offers him any true threat: Unosuke (Tatsuya Nakadai), the brother of one of the crime lords and the only person in the movie with a gun, in this case a revolver. Unosuke is also the only criminal smart enough to realize the Samurai is up to something.

In a way, Yojimbo is about the approaching change of modernity. Sanjuro does not fit the traditional image and expectations of his class - i.e. loyalty to his employers - and his cynicism is a lethal counter to everyone locked in their old roles and way of thinking. They cannot fathom that once they pay this samurai for his services he would sabotage them behind their backs. This samurai is willing to adapt to survive. Meanwhile, Unosuke and his gun are the harbingers of new technology that will completely outclass and render obsolete the balance of power. It is the end of an era.

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