Yojimbo

Akira Kurosawa, Japan 1961, 110 minutes

One of Akira Kurosawa's many jidai geki - period films set in samurai-era Japan - Yojimbo is undoubtedly one of the directors' minor works. But, while Yojimbo may lack the depth of Rashomon or The Seven Samurai, it is still clearly the work of a master film-maker, the level of care apparent in every shot being enough to lift Yojimbo out of the generic morass.

An itinerant masterless samurai (played by Toshiro Mifune, who is to Kurosawa what De Niro is to Scorsese), comes to a fork in the road. He throws a stick in the air to determine which path he will take, the one leading, as it turns out, to a town. The place is deserted and nightmarish - the first thing the samurai sees is a dog carrying a severed arm in its mouth! Going to a tavern, he is advised by the inn-keeper that he should leave ASAP, before he gets himself killed. Two gangs are fighting for control of the town and all the ordinary folks have been driven out. But the samurai declines the inn-keepers advice, and is confronted by three gang toughs. A very brief fight ensues, the samurai dispatching the three gangsters with a few flashes of his blade. This display of his skill intrigues the gang bosses, both of whom decide they want to hire the samurai as a yojimbo or bodyguard. This, naturally, puts the samurai in a tricky position, both morally and practically. How he deals with the situation makes for a thoroughly entertaining film.

If Yojimbo now sounds faintly familiar, then it's probably because it is. Sergio Leone remade Yojimbo as A Fistful of Dollars, and more recently Walter Hill remade it as Last Man Standing. Mifune's samurai was the original "man with no name" before Clint Eastwood.

It is somewhat ironic that Kurosawa is the best known representative of Japanese cinema in the West, over countrymen like Ozu and Mizoguchi. Kurosawa is now acknowledged as the most atypical and western influenced of the great Japanese directors, with rapid cutting and mobile camerawork rather than static framings and extravagantly long takes.

Thematically, Kurosawa's jidai geki owe a considerable debt to the westerns generally and to John Ford's films in particular. This in turn helps explain how Kurosawa's jidai geki were often readily remade into westerns - Rashomon as The Outrage and The Seven Samurai as The Magnificent Seven.

So, tonights double bill of Yojimbo and Lone Star is really a double bill of displaced westerns. Both take the genre away from "the west, the 1870s" to "Japan, the end of the feudal era" and "Texas, 1995" respectively.

Another connection between the two films is that their directors, Kurosawa and John Sayles, are among the great humanist film-makers. Both men always manage to keep a sense of perspective and refuse to let human dramas be dwarfed by empty spectacle. It cannot be a coincidence that Sayles has acknowledged Yojimbo as his personal favourite film.

Review by Keith H Brown
Taken from EUFS Programme 1997-98