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!”
Yojimbo is available of Blu-ray and DVD.
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.
Sukiyaki Western Django is now available on Blu-ray and DVD.
by Steve Habrat
With the western genre beginning to loose steam in America during the 1960s, new interest in the genre was sparked with the emergence of Sergio Leone’s dusty A Fistful of Dollars, a rock-n-roll reinvention of the fatigued western genre. A Fistful of Dollars was the first spaghetti western to land in America and introduce audiences to the rising star Clint Eastwood and his iconic Man with No Name, arguably the best western character ever created. The spaghetti westerns that were coming from Italy were rougher and tougher than the ones America was churning out, westerns where the line between right and wrong were blurred and the violence was cranked up to the max. A Fistful of Dollars is one of my favorite westerns and perhaps one of the most influential, boldly breaking new ground and embracing a dark edge inspired by Akira Kurosawa’s Yojimbo. This is the first film that introduced many to the genius of Ennio Morricone and his whistling scores.
A Fistful of Dollars follows the Man with No Name (Played by Eastwood) as he arrives in a small town on the Mexican border. Once he arrives, the local innkeeper Silvanito (Played by José Calvo) informs him that the small town is caught in a deadly feud between two families—the Rojo brothers and the Baxters. The Man with No Name sees this feud as an opportunity to begin playing the two families against each other and make some large sums of cash in the process. The Man with No Name uses a group of Mexican soldiers mosey into town with a large shipment of gold as a chance to spark up a conflict. As the feud grows deadlier and deadlier, The Man with No Name pushes the malicious and clever Ramón (Played by Gian Maria Volonté), one of the leaders of the Rojo gang, a bit too far and puts his life in danger.
What is instantaneously atypical about A Fistful of Dollars is the fact that the film refuses to allow us to root for the sheriff of the small town, the ones who stand for law and order. It breaks the mold laid by the American westerns where you root for the honest, ethical, and steadfast. Here we root for a man who operates in a gray zone, someone only looking to benefit himself and no one else. He is better than the Rojo gang but the Man with No Name still operates outside the law. He is interested in personal gain and wealth, seeing the dispute as a game of chess, his squinty eyes carefully plotting his next move. He is shrouded in mystery, hidden in a poncho and always chewing on a cigar. What is his story? We find ourselves drawn to those we do not know and we actually like someone we know nothing about more than when we learn about their past, present, and future. This is precisely why the Man with No Name possesses a magnetism that in my eyes can’t be matched.
Leone’s portrayal of the west is another standout of A Fistful of Dollars, giving us a vision that is the furthest thing from romanticized. Much like the morals at their heart, the American western was concerned with presenting a glossed over version of the Wild West, a place where love stories flourished along with the good old boy heroes. Leone’s west wasn’t a place where the good guys wore white and flashed a badge and the mean old outlaw was dressed in rebellious black. Just like the fine line our hero walks, this west is shifty, deadly, and often repulsive. Here cowboys and outlaws chug whiskey, womanize, kill for entertainment, and pick gunfights out of boredom. For such a depraved place, Leone mirrors it in the run down builds that dot the town. Everything just seems like it is rotting away into the blowing sand right down to the sweaty close-ups that Leone loves to shove our faces in. Faces are weather worn, wrinkled, crack, toothless, and broken. It is a place where even the viewer keeps an eye on the gunslinger at the bar in the background, a place where apprehension rules every move we make. Leone, it appears, wouldn’t have it any other way.
Leone also finds beauty in silence and glances, a touch that would become increasingly popular in his work. In A Fistful of Dollars, the Man with No Name talks more than he does in For A Few Dollars More and The Good, The Bad, and The Ugly. Yet when dialogue is spoken, it is cynical and pessimistic, no one ever truly offering a word of hope that things will get better. Leone ties silence with tension, allowing faces and eyes to do all the talking and squinting to signal it was time to draw your pistol. These silences usually build up to explosive gun fights that last five seconds at their longest. This approach would go on to inspire Quentin Tarantino, who is very vocal about his love of Leone’s work. It is this approach that separates the loyal fans of Leone from the one’s who prefer films that are talkative. And yet the anti-social personality of his work mirrors the anti-social behavior of the characters he photographs.
In film school, one of my professors praised Sam Peckinpah’s 1969 epic The Wild Bunch as the film that captured the dramatic shifts in American society in the 1960s. He claimed that the film acknowledged the death of the conservative values and the beginning of a new era. I’ve always wondered where that left Sergio Leone’s work, especially his Dollars trilogy. Leone’s A Fistful of Dollars was one of the first to truly acknowledge the violent shift in American during the 1960s. Leone presented a west that would run John Wayne out of the town the film took place in and gave us a hero with distorted morals. The film was made in 1964 but was released in America in 1967, right smack dab in the middle of an angry America that was facing an unpopular war in Vietnam, the Civil Rights Movement, riots, protests, assassinations, the rising counterculture, and more. While I agree that Peckinpah’s film has a lot on its mind, I don’t believe that he was the first one to use the western to mirror the times and make a statement about the evolution of America. For a film genre that was American made, one where the good guys always prevail and the bad guys always loose, Leone was among the first to rip those black and white ethics to shreds, magnify our underlying violence, and in the process, created a classic film that is just as nasty today as it was back then.
A Fistful of Dollars is now available on Blu-ray.