Yojimbo (1961)

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Directed by Akira Kurosawa
Written by Akira Kurosawa and Ryûsô Kikushima
1961/Japan
Kurosawa Production Company/Toho Company
Repeat viewing/Criterion Collection DVD

 

Sanjuro: You idiot, I’m not giving up yet. There’s a bunch of guys I have to kill first!

This is certainly the most fun film Kurasawa ever made. For all the violence, it just makes me smile.

A ronin (masterless samurai) wanders down a dusty trail when he gets to an intersection. He throws a stick to show him in which direction to walk.  On his walk, he meets a silk maker who fills him in on the situation in the local town.  It seems the town has divided into two warring families headed by the owners of the town’s gambling ring and brothel.  The town has been unable to hold its silk market ever since.  When he hits town, he hears more bad news from the innkeeper.  The coffin maker has been doing a booming business.  He also hears there is money to be made as bodyguard to one of the families. The ronin decides the place needs a thorough clean-up and plans accordingly.

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When asked his name, the ronin spots a mulberry field and adopts it as his moniker. Sanjuro (Toshiro Mofune) is thus born.  Sanjuro starts out by taking on three hired thugs and dispatching them in about 10 seconds with his mighty sword.  His street cred established, he announces he will work for the highest bidder, thus escalating the friction between the two sides.  But he has no intention of working for either.  The younger brother (Tatsuya Nakadai)  of one of the gang leaders shows up with a gun in his hands, a real novelty in these parts (it is 1860), and starts swaggering around like he owned the place.

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An county inspector shows up in town and the gangs must put their feud on hold.  The inspector finally leaves to investigate the murder of another official in a neighboring town, arranged courtesy of one of the families in our town.  Sanjuro gets wind of this and is able to stir up even more trouble when a family kidnaps the hired killers and a series of prisoner exchanges ensues.  One of the prisoners is the wife of a man who lost her to an old silk merchant (Takashi Shimura) in a sake game.  Sanjuro uses his cunning and his sword to free the woman.  His deed is discovered and it looks like his number might finally be up.

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My brother is here for Thanksgiving, so time for another mini classic film festival.  We watched Yojimbo with my husband and it was a big hit all around.

If the story sounds familiar, it is because it was remade by Sergio Leone as A Fistful of Dollars in 1964.  Very little adaptation would be required because all the Western tropes are present in the original.  We get a damsel in distress, a strong silent hero, hired thugs, and a climactic face-off on main street.  But for the lack of horses, the costumes and the scenery, this could be a Western.  The music also helps with the effect.

Spaghetti Westerns also make me smile but not as much as this movie.  I love the goofy brothel women and the sad-sack army of degenerates on both side.  That giant with the hammer slays me.  Mifune is at his prime.  Much more restrained than in most of his previous roles, a sense of humor underlies everything he does.  And yet this is very much a Kurosawa film, complete with torrential downpour.  I had a hard time selecting stills for this review because all of them were just framed so brilliantly.  I guess there were too many Kurosawa films on the 1001 Movies List.  See it anyway, preferably long before you die.

 

Trailer

2 thoughts on “Yojimbo (1961)

    • I love this movie so much that I might just watch it again for 1961 even though I’ve already reviewed it. It is actually in strong contention for my favorite movie of the year.

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