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22 April, 2004

Review: Yojimbo (1961)

In my account of the key incident, I mentioned I was on my way to the cinema.  The film was 'Yojimbo', shown at the Dukes.  A subtitled Japanese black & white film made in 1961, it's unsurprising that I went alone, but to those who have heard of Akira Kurosawa, it's considered one of his best films, so the cinema was about half full; pretty good for a Tuesday evening.

This is possibly the most westernised of Kurosawa's films (feel free to contradict; I'm interested in his work, but have limited knowledge of it, so I'm a little uncomfortable about that sweeping statement!), and is particularly accessible. However, there were elements of the production which seemed stylised, implying that a peculiarly Japanese visual shorthand was being used which might give a greater (or more immediate) insight into characterisation for those familiar with it.
Apart from the 'samurai-with no-name' himself (Toshirô Mifune), everyone seemed slightly caricatured: the obsequious town guard, the old innkeeper despairing about lost values, the grotesque gamblers/henchmen, the giant (literally; the actor had acromegaly) bodyguard, the bestial gang lieutenant, the well-groomed, pistol-armed chief adversary (who had lived away from the town and therefore represented the introduction of alien values into the closed little world), and the two near-identical gang lords.

A primary reason for the Western aspects is that the story is an adaptation of Dashiell Hammett's novel 'Red Harvest' and deliberately borrows stylistic elements from US films of the 'wild west' genre. Kurosawa plainly made a convincing attempt to capture that feel, as 'Yojimbo' was itself borrowed (aka plagiarised; there was a court case) by Sergio Leone and remade as the immensely famous 'A Fistful Of Dollars' (1964; released 1967 because of Kurosawa's copyright litigation), launching Clint Eastwood's film career, defining the 'spaghetti western' genre and giving the world the iconic 'man with no name'.

I've read a few reviews of 'Yojimbo', plainly written by fans who rate it as 'a masterpiece' and even 'one of the most important films of the second half of the 20th Century'. Watching it myself, I thought it very good, but not overwhelmingly so - it wouldn't appear on my personal list of all-time greats (if I was the sort of person to think in lists), and I haven't rushed to Amazon to buy the DVD. I don't mean it has dated, but I suspect some of it's impact has been blunted for an audience who has seen the films derived from its influences before seeing the original film itself. I felt the same way about 'Alien' (1979). Having watched several low-budget, low-creativity clones in the mid-eighties before seeing 'Alien' itself in about 1990, that film didn't seem so revolutionary as it might had I seen it first.

One of the most important influences of 'Yojimbo', which I'm proud to say I noted for myself before having it confirmed by reviews, was the amorality of the story. Previously, the western (i.e. 'wild west') genre had been defined by strong and absolute morality, 'good' versus 'bad'. In Kurosawa's town, both warring gangs are equally grotesque, so the audience has no guidance about taking a moral view.
Likewise the samurai's motivation is self-interest; he doesn't mind killing, so long as he's paid, and makes no judgement on which side has greater moral justification. This is no wandering knight administering justice to the needy; he's happy to maim, kill and provoke further conflict merely to drive up the price of employing him in an eventual battle. Crucially, the audience is made complicit in his actions from the very first scene, in which the viewpoint is that of the samurai (ronin, to be pedantic) himself.
Whilst remaining amoral, he stands above the conflict and is safe, but the samurai's one act against injustice (freeing a woman and reuniting her with her child and husband) is almost his downfall, triggering the climactic showdown, itself an act of personal revenge rather than someone doing the 'right' thing.

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