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.