It'll Hurt if I Do

There has been an interesting circular effect between American and Japanese movies. Early westerns and gangster films bled into Japan. Great directors like  Akira Kurosawa then used those themes and motifs to craft their films. These Samurai movies then influenced a new kind of western. In turn, these new westerns influenced crime films. We will talk about this at length as this series of reviews continues.

Yojimbo, or The Bodyguard, directed by Akira Kurosawa (Seven Samurai, High and Low, Sanjuro, Dreams), is a strange sort of amalgam. It seems to have grown from three genres; taking equally from the western, the gangster film, and the traditional Samurai tale.

The story begins in 1860. A new middle class has led to the fall of a dynasty, plunging the country into turmoil. A Samurai, played by Toshiro Mifune ( Samurai I: Musashi Miyamoto, High and Low) is left without employment and wanders the land. In his wandering he comes upon a town torn between two rival gangs.

After much plot exposition, provided by a local, the Samurai who gives his name as Sanjuro Kuwabatake (mulberry field), decides that there is money to be made by alternating alliances between the two gangs.

He alternates between the two for a time, upping his price each time he switches sides. Then, because of a young woman who needs his help, he allows himself to get in too deep. He finds himself badly wounded, without money or a sword, and with everyone out for his blood.

Does he triumph? Watch the movie. I’m not here to tell you everything.

If the plot sounds familiar it is probably because it has become a staple of cinema. In fact, you've probably seen at least one of the following remakes:

Per un pugno di dollari (Fist Full of Dollars) (1964)
Warrior and the Sorceress, The (1984)
Hrafninn flýgur (1984)
Last Man Standing (1996)
Coyote Moon (1999)

The first remake of Yojimbo, Sergio Leone's Fistful of Dollars, starring Clint Eastwood, created a whole new film sub genre: the "Spaghetti Western". These Italian-Spanish made westerns would gain huge popularity, and carry great influence throughout film. The effects of this genre are still being felt today.

The other attempts at aping Kurosawa's film have been less successful, but notable nonetheless. I have a particular like for Last Man Standing, which even manages to preserve some of the lovely dialogue from the original. Bruce Willis, however, does not have the depth that Mifune brought to the role. He lacks even the sardonic humor that Eastwood was able to convey with his eyes in the Dollars trilogy.

Kurosawa was known for his skill at creating perfect compositions, and it is interesting to watch this film frame by frame; each frame is a separate work of art. Kurosawa seems to have placed the actors perfectly within the frame, like a painter. He is always aware of perspective, framing, and other aspects of composition that most directors overlook completely.

The cinematography is stunning, the level of contrast creates a depth and a reality that has not often been matched on film. The empty streets become almost characters in their own right. The light plays in ways that are hard to describe. Every frame of this film is extraordinary to look at. It has a visual style that is rare in movies today.

The score is lovely, and a fine compliment to the director's vision. It is exactly the type of music that audiences would, in later years, come to associate with westerns. The subtle development of Leit Motifs throughout helps to enhance the characters. We come to think of Sanjuro more in relation to the music that follows him, than in relation to the words he speaks.

The real standout of this film is its star, Toshiro Mifune. Kurosawa and Mifune had a longstanding partnership, and it's easy to see why. Mifune was one of the most talented and versatile actors ever to grace the screen. He had the ability to perfectly portray nearly any role.

Mifune was often compared to John Wayne. Mifune himself disregarded this comparison, feeling that Wayne’s stature as an actor eclipsed his own. I disagree. I think it goes the other way around. Wayne was, after all, a one trick pony. Mifune, on the other hand, was a chameleon. Although we have come to recognize him as the quintessential samurai, he could play any role with equal skill. For a great example of Mifune playing a non-samurai role see High and Low.

Mifune conveys more with a tilt of the head, or a scratch of the chin than most actors can with a Shakespearean soliloquy.

One aspect of Yojimbo that is missed by most viewers is its humor. This may be due to the habit of seeing anything in a foreign language as very serious (see El Mariachi for another funny film that people took too seriously).

This film’s influence and effect can not be over estimated. Those who chose to copy (or pay homage) created entirely new genres. This film has influenced several generations of film makers. It has changed forever the face of Westerns, Crime films, and the character that we have come to know as the man of few words. Every time a quiet anti-hero lets his actions speak for him, every time a tough guy lets a pretty girl get the best of him, every time streets are filled with men in mortal combat the influence of Yojimbo can be seen.

Overall this is a great movie, and requisite viewing for all film lovers.

I recommend the Criterion Collection DVD. It has the best picture quality currently available as well as some interesting features.



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