Film Review Classic: Yojimbo
Director: Akira Kurosawa (1961)
I’ve received two emails praising recent films reviews, actually ‘praising’ might be a bit of an exaggeration, alright, a big exaggeration, but both did compliment the fact I was reviewing more recent, mainstream stuff, ok, maybe replace the word compliment with acknowledged. With that in mind, here’s a film review of Yojimbo, a 1960’s Japanese film about a samurai.
It’s directed Akira Kurosawa, a name invoked in film circles with the same reverence as the names Jesus/ The Prophet Mohammed/Lord Buddha receive amongst the unquestioning, John Lennon receives amongst those who either were, or wish they had been teenagers in the sixties and Joy Division amongst those who like depressing, poorly recorded music. I’ll be honest, up until Yojimbo, I’d only ever watched Seven Samurai, a film which blew me away……….not literally, but I would have let it, if it were a person. I did get given Rashomon by a former girlfriend, but the combination of said girlfriend leaving to go lay bricks somewhere in Africa, and the corporate decision to reveal the entire plot in the blurb on the back the of the DVD case meant I quickly pawned it off on my, was a teenager in the sixties, father. Sometimes heartache just gets in the way you know. Nevertheless, pretty much everything Kurosawa did is viewed as a masterpiece or ‘classic’, by some members of the film community, which gives me an excuse to do something a little different. By different, I of course mean, exactly the same as usual, but occasionally I’ll act like I’m answering a question regarding Yojimbo’s status as a classic.
So what’s good/classic about Yojimbo? Well, pretty much everything to be honest, this is just a really really good film, there’s so much that’s done right it’s gonna take a few paragraphs to explain, so I’ll get the plot summary out of the way and go from there.
Long-time Kurosawa collaborator, (until later in life, when they fell out, see, I learn things from Wikipedia too) Toshiro Mifune, plays Yojimbo (which translated means bodyguard, thanks again Wikipedia) a Samurai who, while out walking one day, sees a teenage boy ignoring the remonstrations of his father and heading off to join a gang. Not being fond of gangs or maybe just hating to see a father’s love spurned so publically, Yojimbo investigates. It turns out the boss of the local town has died, and now the dead boss’s former right hand man is locked in a vicious turf war against the dead boss’s sons for control of the town. This turf war, like the many turf wars that have blighted Japan to this day, is in fact tearing the town apart and making ‘innocent’ villagers lives hell, so, Yojimbo, armed with sword skills and a verse or two in the art of deception sets out to teach the two gangs a lesson.
I’ve already typed them once, but here again, are the two words through which all good things about this film flow, Toshiro Mifune. I already knew he was good from his role as a bat-shit crazy wannabe samurai who leaps around like a monkey in Seven Samurai, but here, as a cold calculating hero, he’s on another level. He also has that weirdly charming vibe that the likes of Paul Newman and Ryan Gosling had/have, where you just kinda like them, regardless of who they’re playing.
On top of Mifune, this is just good storytelling. I’m going to emphasise this point by revealing just a smidgeon of the first twenty minutes; The first thing Yojimbo does when he gets into town, is find out about the two gangs from the local…………….I think he may be a sheriff, but he’s basically just a dick………………..who tells him where the two gangs hang out. Luckily, some might say, the two hideouts are pretty close so Yojimbo sets about antagonising both gangs. Picking one, which I’ll name, ‘gang with a giant’, he offers his services as a bodyguard, showing them what he can do by picking a fight with the other gang, which I’ll name, ‘gang without a giant’. One of those, ‘I’ll stand here whilst you try and intimidate me, but you can’t because I’m awesome’, conversations ensues, but quickly becomes boring, resulting in Yojimbo swiftly killing two gang members then cutting the arm off a third. The ‘gang without a giant’ understandably retreat, leaving Yojimbo to walk away, stopping only to order ‘two coffins…….wait, maybe three’ from the local coffin merchant.
Imagine the above scene played out slowly, with an atmospheric background accompaniment of chimes, drum beats and brass. You have, what can only be described as a truly awesome scene. The example of storytelling comes in how this scene is executed, up until this point, we’ve not seen any of Yojimbo’s skill, and then when we do, it’s not in a contrived showdown with five or six guys that lasts ten minutes so he can bust out his patented roundhouse kick, instead, it lasts all of 3 seconds. In 3 seconds the combination of Kurosawa’s direction, Mifune’s acting and a group of guys dressed as a gang, show us just who Yojimbo is, a skilled swordsmen whose calculating and most importantly, in control of the situation.
This all serves to draw us to the character, helped along the way by thunderous facial expressions from Mifune himself, if looks could kill Yojimbo definitely wouldn’t need the sword. What I’m trying to say is that Yojimbo, the man not the film, is a cool entertaining principal character, which makes Yojimbo, the film, cool and entertaining. Everything heads to a final showdown, which is so good I’m not even going to reveal the events that build up to it. I’ve focused on Mifune, but I don’t want to take away from the rest of the cast, there’s an energy and a sense of fun to proceedings, and everyone plays their role superbly. One bad guy is described as looking meek, but owning the heart of a wolf, and that’s exactly what’s portrayed, while another is an entertainingly bumbling idiot with bad teeth. Oh, and there’s also a giant with a hand as big as a man’s skull.
Yojimbo is a very tightly executed story, one which refreshingly doesn’t have to throw a sexy lady at the hero’s feet because it thinks I’ll get more behind a hero if he’s having sex. Yojimbo’s focus is on helping the villagers, he does what he does, and that’s it, no off-message hanky-panky or bond-esque seduction going on. Call me crazy, but it’s a lot easier to get behind a hero, who, in the middle of fulfilling his heroic vow, doesn’t get distracted by his or her dick or vagina, and start fucking the first pretty guy or gal they meet, also, why are there no openly gay heroes? Do homosexual people just not make great heroes? Hmmmmmmmmm, maybe I should ask Tom Crui………….I mean, someone with better knowledge on the subject. There’s a wider issue here; STD’s, see either your hero ‘is that guy’ who walks around with a condom expecting to get laid, or they’re giving the old rubber wrap a miss. Either way, you have to wonder how many cases of chlamydia there are out there simply because the guy sent to stop a none-American blowing stuff up had to get his rocks off. Not Yojimbo though, he’s STD free, because he’s a samurai and he’s cool, and he cares and I love him, marry me Yojimbo!
Moving on, so the formula reads; Toshiro Mifune and cool dialogue combining to make a good film…………………….But what gives it claim to being a classic? Well, for me the answer’s two fold. Firstly, how Kurosawa manipulates the tempo and atmosphere is textbook; Yojimbo the man, is a man of few words, which makes Yojimbo, the film, a film of few words, so music and the weather play a huge part in proceedings. The music especially, is pitched just right, it’s like listening to Joy Division, if Joy Division hadn’t recorded half their music live, and the other half through a wall made of bubble wrap and background static. It all creates tone and contributes to the storytelling, Seven Samurai was similar, so I’m beginning to believe Kurosawa may indeed be a genius.
But wait, I said two fold, and tempo manipulation is only one, so what’s the second fold you didn’t ask. Well, that would be the camera work. There are camera positions in Yojimbo, which, if not quite revolutionary are certainly exemplary, my favourite example consisting of a window in an old man’s house where Yojimbo stays. The window is blocked by three planks of wood, which the old man lifts whenever he or Yojimbo hear a noise outside, so effectively there’s a little window which the camera looks through, where we see the back of Yojimbo watching what’s going on through it, more than one character gets introduced this way, and it has the Rear Window feel of voyeurism. It’s just a cool effect, one used often today, but pretty rare and ahead of the curve for a sixties film.
In retrospect then, does Yojimbo deserve status as a film I watched because so many of my peers called it a classic? Yes, yes it does. Now the next question, has it dated? Yes, of course it has, no black and white film can ever be called anything other than dated. If any part of you just thought, ‘but what about The Artist’, well done, give yourself a slow clap then go lay down on some train tracks. Yojimbo’s also subtitled, which, living with possibly irradiated, sometimes southern and occasionally cycling housemates, I know isn’t everyone’s cup of tea, so if subtitles put you off watching, don’t bother with the slow clap, just go lay on those train tracks.
Yojimbo is what I love about filmmaking; it’s an example of a film aiming to be both entertaining and art. Good or bad, and this happens to be very good, when a film is made with this approach the results are always interesting, and in this case inspiring. I’m no Kurosawa, though I am pretty good, but you don’t need to make films to enjoy Yojimbo, in fact, being a filmmaker, can often be detrimental to your enjoyment of the silver screen, because you’re paying attention to crap like music or camera angles instead of how many coffins the cool samurai jus ordered. With that said, Yojimbo is something special, it transcends the process, even an idiot wouldn’t find something to enjoy about this film, which is a shame, because idiots tend to avoid 1960’s black and white subtitled Japanese Samurai films like Mel Gibson avoids eye contact in a synagogue……………..sorry Riggs.
Written By Sam ‘Yes I know technically Yojimbo’s a Ronin, now go lay on those train tracks’ McKinstrie
Unnecessarily on twitter as McKinstHFP
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