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Yojimbo (1961)

by Steve Habrat

If you find yourself being the type of person that can’t force yourself to sit down and watch a foreign art house film, you should really make an effort to start with and see Japanese director Akira Kurosawa’s 1961 film Yojimbo (The Bodyguard). Yes, there are subtitles in the film, so you will have to do a small bit of reading, but Yojimbo, which was the film that influenced Italian filmmaker Sergio Leone’s groundbreaking spaghetti western A Fistful of Dollars, is such an entertaining film that you will find yourself forgetting that there are subtitles on the screen. Devoid of any off-putting pretension, Kurosawa puts more emphasis on limb-severing action and hearty comedy that will appeal to both average movie viewers and the art house crowd. A highly influential film, Yojimbo has been widely considered to be a true classic that finds its own influence in western cinema, creating a slightly surreal Japanese western that is ripe with dazzling black and white cinematography, packed camera shots, and some truly breathtaking showdowns that will leave you gasping.

Yojimbo follows a wandering, masterless samurai (Played by Toshiro Mifune) who happens upon a 19th century town that is caught in the middle of a war between two rival gangs. After dropping in to the local tavern, the elderly owner, Gonji (Played by Eijiro Tono), gives the samurai all the information about the rival crime bosses, Seibei (Played by Seizaburo Kawazu) and Ushitora (Played by Kyu Sazanka). Gonji warns the samurai that he should leave the town before one of the gangs confront and kill him but seeing an opportunity to make a hefty chunk of change and a way to clean up the town, the samurai decides to stick around and devise a way to trick the gangs in to destroying each other. After infiltrating one of the gangs by displaying how skilled he is with a samurai sword, he sets his plan in motion but certain members of both gangs begin to suspect that he is not simply interested in aligning himself with one specific gang.

For the individuals out there who are fond of cinematography, the resplendent whites and the charcoal blacks from cinematographers Kazuo Miyagawa and Takao Saito are an absolute must-see and perhaps my favorite aspect of Yojimbo. The film, which was made in 1961, has such a sharp, luminous picture that I absolutely couldn’t believe my eyes. For any film fan, the picture here will certainly have you dying to go out and pick up the Bu-ray for maximum picture quality. Complimenting this masterful cinematography is hack-and-slash action that sends a severed arm flying here and buckets of flowing blood there. The best “ewww” moment comes when a mangy dog trots through the streets up to the samurai carrying a severed hand in his dingy mouth. It comes as such a shock to the viewer that it becomes a combination of funny and appalling. The fight scenes in Yojimbo suddenly explode across the screen—a technique that catches the viewer off guard at first and then is suddenly over just as quickly as it began. This is a method that Leone would apply in his slow building gunfights that would begin and end in a loud crack in each and every one of his sweaty westerns.

While Yojimbo is impressive with its camerawork and white-knuckle action, Kurosawa doesn’t ever forget to keep you laughing and rallying behind our masterless samurai, who consistently toys with each gang. Yojimbo is a highly comical film, especially when the two gangs decide to go head to head in the deserted streets. Each gang has members who brag about how fearless they are and how feared they should be. When our hero approaches one gang, three young gang members approach him and boast how dangerous they are. Our hero chuckles in their faces and calls them cute, enraging them enough to have them draw their swords and lunge at the cool, calm, and collected hero. In a flurry of gore, the dangerous criminals are reduced to blubbering babies crying for their mothers. Yojimbo plays with this constantly, offering the audience hot-headed tough guys who are quickly revealed to be cowards who run off to their stern and commanding mothers (I think the women in Yojimbo are scarier than the men are!). It is a gag that constantly grabs a few belly laughs, especially the scene where the two gangs charge each other in the streets and then retreat back to their lines only to charge again and then flee. While all the charging and fleeing is going on, Mifune represents the audience, sitting back and howling at all the cowardice that has been revealed.

Mifune is an actor who is in complete control of each and every scene, playing the levelheaded hero who never seems to break a sweat, almost like all of this is second nature to him. Mifune’s samurai, who tells one gang leader that his name is Sanjuro Kuwabatake, is clearly the inspiration for Clint Eastwood’s cigar chomping Man with No Name. Hell, at times, Sanjuro is seen chewing on what appears to be a cigar, further highlighting the impact. Another standout is Daisuke Kato as the vile Inokichi, Ushitora’s dim, overweight brother who adds a few more laughs to all the action scurrying about the town and speaking through bucked teeth. Tono’s Gonji is another lovable character as the elderly tavern owner who doesn’t want trouble and reluctantly aids Sanjuro in his quest to clean up the streets. Isuzu Yamada is a nasty piece of work as Orin, Seibei’s wife who hovers over her husband’s brothel and takes control when Seibei is too afraid to. Tatsuya Nakadai shows up as Unosuke, Ushitora’s youngest sibling who carries a pistol and nabs the film’s coolest battle with Sanjuro, who attacks the gunfighter with nothing but a sword and dagger.

While Yojimbo’s plot gets a little too thin at times, there is never a tedious moment to be found in Kurosawa’s western. There is something for everyone in Yojimbo, from the people who are looking for a love-reunited story all the way to those who just want to see a fearless hero cut his way through countless bad guys. Yojimbo has been caught in the shadow of Leone’s equally entertaining spaghetti western A Fistful of Dollars but I think both films are equal in their eminence. As far as I’m concerned, both films are classics in their own right and their impact on cinema is quite clear. Overall, Yojimbo is a flawless action film that will keep the audience on its toes from beginning to end and one hell of a significant action hero. A must-see foreign classic with incredibly wide reach and appeal. How can you deny a film that contains the line “I’m not dying yet! There’s a bunch of guys I have to kill first!”

Grade: A+

Yojimbo is available of Blu-ray and DVD.

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Sukiyaki Western Django (2007)

by Steve Habrat

When you first hear about Japanese auteur Takashi Miike’s samurai/spaghetti western mash-up Sukiyaki Western Django, you can’t help but be intrigued if you are a fan of either genre. Any unlikely genre mash-up is going to grab the interest of cinema fanatics and when you say the unpredictable Miike is behind the camera, it becomes a must-see film. But, like most genre mash-ups/hybrids, Sukiyaki Western Django is immensely disappointing. Way back in 1964, Italian filmmaker Sergio Leone was inspired by Akira Kurosawa’s samurai film Yojimbo and he loosely based his first spaghetti western A Fistful of Dollars off of Kurosawa’s film and ended up reinventing the genre. The east was the inspiration for the new vision of the west that was emerging out of Italy. With Sukiyaki Western Django, Miike pays tribute to the two classics and fuses the spaghetti western to the samurai film then attempts to conceal the line where he connected them. The result is a surreal and often times cartoonish vision that also attempts to weave in some traces of Japanese history. Unfortunately, Sukiyaki Western Django, which is named after a popular Japanese one-pot beef dish and Italian filmmaker Sergio Corbucci’s legendary spaghetti western Django, has a flavor that is tasty on the first bite but quickly begins droning on the viewer until Miike dumps a whole bucket of salt and pepper on the feisty gunfight at the climax.

Sukiyaki Western Django picks up in the small town of Yuta, Nevata, where two warring gangs, the Heikes (reds) and the Genjis (whites), are waging a battle for control of the town. One day, an unnamed gunman (Played by Hideaki Ito) wanders into Yuta and offers up his service to whichever gang will pay more. After demonstrating his skills, both make generous offers to this mysterious gunman but he isn’t entirely interested in their offers. The gangs are after gold that is buried somewhere near the town and one gang is importing a weapon that can give them the upper hand in their battle. The gunman begins playing to two gangs against each other in an attempt to wipe both of them out  and make off with the gold for himself. As the war grows more and more violent and the body count racks up, the gunman finds an ally in a legendary gunslinger that has been hiding in plain sight of the gangs. Her name is the Bloody Benton (Played by Kaori Momoi) and she happens to be an independent one-woman killing machine.

Sukiyaki Western Django opens with a nifty sequence that involves a lone gunslinger named Piringo (Played by Quentin Tarantino) who finds himself confronted by three cowboys who wish to kill him. Miike doesn’t make any attempt to hide the fact that his actors are on a soundstage with a painted backdrop behind them and a very visible string holding up the giant sun. The sequence is suggestive of films like The Searchers, Once Upon a Time in the West, and A Fistful of Dollars all in one breath. It is the most inspired sequence in Sukiyaki Western Django, Tarantino getting his dream role of emulating Clint Eastwood’s Man with No Name. If Miike had run with this technique throughout the entire runtime, Sukiyaki Western Django would have no doubt been a much better and cooler film. When the film travels to Yuta, he switches over to real landscapes, intense color pallets, and lots of special effects which all get worn out before they even get going. Miike finally gets things back on track during the final shoot out where he slips in references to The Good, The Bad, and the Ugly, Django, and The Great Silence. This is a sequence that will have fans of the genre erupting in applause. It  is a sequence that also single handedly saves Sukiyaki Western Django from crumbling like one of the ramshackle buildings that dot the town of Yuta.

One choice that Miike makes that is very questionable is having his Japanese actors abandon their mother tongue and speak broken English. On one hand, it is understandable why he would make this choice, approaching the western genre that finds its roots in America, but it is clear that some of his actors are having a difficult time with the English language and that they would have been more comfortable speaking their own language. In my opinion, if he would have stuck to the Japanese language, Sukiyaki Western Django would have been a much more coherent film and much easier for the viewer to follow. At times, I found myself getting lost and finally switching on the subtitles so I could understand some of the actors and keep up with the plotline. Once I did this, Sukiyaki Western Django clicked together ever so slightly. Miike also makes the mistake of not fleshing his characters out enough, turning them into silly caricatures that look like they leapt off the pages of a comic book and left their back stories in the mind of their creator. You can’t particularly care about any of them and they all just fill the screen to become moving targets for shotgun blasts. The actors seem to be having fun with their characters but no one actually inhabits their character and brings them to life.

Sukiyaki Western Django exists simply to be an in-joke to the hip cinema crowd and I must admit that I enjoyed a few of those in-jokes. I found the references to Yojimbo and the spaghetti western classics to be comical but I wish that Miike’s film had created its own world rather than just cobbling together borrowed blood-dipped chunks of other director’s cinematic worlds. The film will also appeal to those who have a strong interest in world history, as the film makes a fistful of references to historical events including England’s Wars of the Roses and Japan’s Genpei War. To me, Sukiyaki Western Django turned out to be a middling film that left me dissatisfied because I thought it was capable of so much more but it wasn’t interested in aiming higher. I tend to enjoy Miike’s depraved work even though it makes me want to loose my lunch after it ends but this particular film never comes together when it needs to, especially when it is giving clunky, vague and longwinded explanations of its plotline that are ultimately forgettable. Miike does add a bit of kick with the awesome opening sequence, the very cool Bloody Benton character (the only one given an intriguing backstory), and the outrageous climatic showdown. If you find yourself to be the fanatic of Japanese cinema and history, a guru of westerns, spaghetti westerns, Yojimbo, Quentin Tarantino, Miike, and his entire body of work, you will eat up Sukiyaki Western Django. If you are only some of those things or none of those things, you’re going to find this film to be an incredibly uneven experience and a chore to endure.

Grade: C

Sukiyaki Western Django is now available on Blu-ray and DVD.

The Great Silence (1968)

by Steve Habrat

For those who are not familiar with spaghetti westerns, a movement within the western genre during the mid 1960s, The Great Silence may not be your best introduction to the subgenre. You are probably wondering, what is a spaghetti western? A spaghetti western is an Italian made western that is usually set in a rundown frontier town and features ugly, weather worn characters. Among these characters is usually a protagonist who walks a fine line between good and bad and an antagonist who is usually beyond loathsome. And usually everyone is really, really sweaty and the violence is really, really gruesome. The best-known spaghetti westerns are Sergio Leone’s Dollars Trilogy (A Fistful of Dollars, For a Few Dollars More, and The Good, The Bad, and The Ugly) and Leone’s Once Upon a Time in the West. If I were a novice to the genre, I would begin with the four films I have just listed and if you feel the genre is for you, then immediately see The Great Silence, a spaghetti western that embraces every single attribute I listed above and replaces the sweaty, dusty setting with a snowy backdrop. This film is just as uncompromising as the environment it takes place in and, boy, is it violent.

The Great Silence follows a mute gunslinger known as Silence (Played by Jean-Louis Trintignant) on a quest to find the bounty hunters responsible for the slaying of his family and taking away his speech. Silence kills off his targets by picking fights with them and then shoots them in self-defense. He wanders into the town of Snowhill, Utah, set high in the snowy mountains and in the clutches of a brutal blizzard. The craggy, snow-caked hills are a safe haven for poor and starving refuges that the merciless bounty hunter Loco (Played Klaus Kinski) and his bloodthirsty gang have been hired to drive out. The rough weather has caused the refuges to become outlaws themselves in order to keep themselves alive. After Loco kills an African American outlaw, his wife Pauline (Played by Vonetta McGee) hires Silence to kill Loco, setting into motion a bleak and nasty showdown.

Director Sergio Corbucci frames several unforgettable moments throughout The Great Silence. One scene finds Loco dragging an outlaw through the snow while he interrogates him. The opening sequence finds Silence shooting off the thumbs of one gunfighter, making sure he can never pick up a weapon again. There is a saloon scene where a repulsive gunslinger gnawing at a greasy piece of chicken makes the mistake of picking a fight with the glaring Silence. But the reason the film gained notoriety is the climatic gun battle, which is horrific, tense, bleak, and unforgettable. Some countries were upset over the dark ending of the film and demanding Corbucci shoot an alternative ending that was much more optimistic. I prefer the grim end–the way Corbucci intended the film to be seen, as the Wild West wasn’t always a forgiving place where heroes triumphed in the face of evil.

The Great Silence also features a jangly, lingering score by spaghetti western composer Ennio Morricone, who seems to have scored every single one of these films (He must have been a busy guy!). Everyone on the face of this earth is familiar with his score for The Good, The Bad, and the Ugly (That famous whistle?). It has been said that the spaghetti western is supposed to be the rock-n-roll version of the American western and Morricone’s music was meant to exemplify that statement. With The Great Silence, the score is a bit less scruffy and more romanticized, even when paired with the soft and epic long shots of snow-covered mountaintops. The Great Silence isn’t just a party for the boys, as it features (surprisingly!) a romance between the strong Silence type and wounded Pauline. Even the new firm sheriff of Snowhill, Burnett (Played by Frank Wolff, who also shows up in Once Upon a Time in the West, another surprisingly romantic spaghetti western) seems like more of a character who stepped out of a John Wayne western than a world full of grotesque money hungry murderers.

The Great Silence doesn’t go soft on the viewer. Oh no, just get a load of Kinski’s Loco, a breathy bounty hunter who likes to play with his prey before he puts it down. He buries bodies in the snow and then returns later to claim them (No respect for the dead), hides weapons all over town, and will gun down anyone without batting an eye. He is the personification of evil and a true spaghetti western antagonist. Kinski, who was a sensational actor, enjoys going bad in this one and who can blame him. He’s a self-centered character out to only benefit himself and certainly not the residents of Snowhill. Kinski was always so good at adding multifarious emotions to his villainous turns (See Nosferatu the Vampyre to see what he does with Dracula) and Loco is no different. I got the sense that if and when he laid waste to the refuges in the hills, it would not be for the sake of law and order and the only emotion he would feel is desperation, desperation to find more outlaws with a big price tag attached to their head.

It is a shame that the DVD print of The Great Silence isn’t better than it is. It seems as if the print of the film wasn’t properly cared for, as some shots are hazy, sometimes scratchy, and crude. Yet The Great Silence provides haunting entertainment for those who wish to subject themselves to the climax (You’ll feel this one, folks) and is just as grim as the era it was released in (1968, for those interested). The drastic change in location also makes for a western of a completely different breed, making it all the more memorable and distinct. Even the gunslingers have a more flamboyant feel to them and are not simply the tough-as-nails type. If you are a person who enjoys the romanticized west, you may want to skip this one. I recommended this film to a family friend who loves westerns and he reported back with a negative reaction to the film. If you enjoy spending time with some truly revolting and morally corrupt individuals, you’ll want to head to Snowhill immediately.

Grade: A

The Great Silence is now available on DVD.