Having recently reviewed The Seven Samurai, an earlier Kurosawa vehicle I could barely wait to get into this one made seven years later in 1961. Kurosawaís style has softened slightly, edging more pace into the story and being a little more subtle in his character explorations. The result is cinematic dynamite. Honestly. This has just as much appeal as a hefty chunk of todayís action films and decidedly more than a majority.
The story here is a simple one; a stranger named Sanjuro enters town, a wandering Samurai mercenary - a Ronin. He immediately learns that this village (chosen at will by the way a stick points as it falls) is in the middle of a war by two clans, each as weak-willed as the other. Liking the action the town promises, he decides to stir the hornetís nest and get the factions either settling their differences or getting on with the war. Expertly playing one side against another with the supreme confidence of the very fast, he soon has the town in chaos as he attempts to remove the criminal elements of the town for the remaining older folks and those not interested in fighting.
|"Fool! Iím not dying yetÖ Iíve got quite a few to kill first!"|
However, he is eventually outwitted by the leader of the Ďrealí baddies, Ushi-Toru, who has an imported pistol (which even a Samurai canít dodge), and is beaten to within an inch of his life. While he is held captive and near death, the battle rages on and before too much longer has passed, Sanjuro realises thereís only one way to ensure this war is ended for good.
And this time, itís personal.
Receiving an honourary Oscar at 80 years old, Kurosawa, who passed away in 1998, had a true gift in framing his shots, which wasnít entirely common in the 1950s and Ď60s. Even working in black and white (and sometimes, because of it) he creates an incredible balance of contrasts that turn what could have been an average production into a true work of art. He can direct an actorís subtle movements into detailed statements about characters and it is this unique gift (often emulated but rarely convincingly copied) that helped his work open up Japanese culture to the West. Often scorned at home for giving this Western appeal to his films, Kurosawa was the first of many since with this universal appeal.
Yojimbo is a classic Western that indeed was among the first of the spaghetti western inspirations. Set around the mid 19th century, this is a simple story of one manís whimsy disguising a deep-seated respect for the common people of his country and his anti-war feelings. Yojimbo, while quite violent in parts, is still a pretty clean production with only occasional pools of black blood - but being in black and white only garners itself a PG rating. Highly recommended for lovers of the martial arts and sword-fighting films of Asia in any era, or for anyone who loves A Fistful of Dollars and wants to see where it came from.
A monster 2.35:1 cinema aspect ratio with 16:9 enhancement brings this beautifully crafted film to us in all its former glory. This is definitely the best this film has looked since it graced big screens over 40 years ago with barely an artefact to ruin the picture. There are a few older original print woes, but these are truly minor and barely worth a mention (a simple missing frame at 18:08 or distortion due to a burn at 47:37 for example). Otherwise everything looks great here in a well-contrasted black and white image that features excellent shadow detail and true blacks.
Two tracks, both alike in dignity. One Dolby Digital 5.1 surround and the other DD mono. The 5.1 setup basically splits the track up and shifts it around a little, but in general itís a mono track spread out to be in all the speakers without much separation. It does filter out a little of the original static hissing behind the track that the mono canít seem to shake unfortunately. Still, this does lend it a little charm, believe it or not, and doesnít distract as much as I thought it would. Still, itís a shame it couldnít be rescued from this hissing.
The musical score here is a curious fusion of both East and West with traditional instruments running through a very Ď60s sounding jazz style of clarinet and soft trumpets. Excellent work from Masaru Sato that will remind people of the action scenes of practically every Asian fight film made since (especially that most recent tribute album Kill Bill). And dialogue is all in Japanese, of course, with subtitles doing a fine job throughout.
Akira Kurosawa knew how to stick a film together and good. Yojimbo both captures the laziness of the lead character, the ronin Sanjuro and his passion for right. The fight scenes are superb, although I would have liked to see more with some heftier choreography, but that could just be my 21st century eye letting me down.
If you loved Seven Samurai as I did, this is just a good and just as much fun as Sanjuro uses his wits and lightning fast skills to outwit two armies led by feuding warlords. Plus he seriously carves shit up, thatís the best part. Itís awesome.