Yojimbo (1961), Kurosawa Aiming Squarely for Thrills and Hitting the Mark

Akira Kurosawa is today, correctly remembered as an artist. His meditations on morality, mortality, and identity like Ikiru, Ran, and Kagemusha: Shadow Warrior are correctly hailed as visual feasts rich with themes and lessons that are timeless. It’s important to remember though that it was Rashomon that first broke Kurosawa internationally, although some of his previous films have since been discovered and hailed as the masterworks they are, (one of my personal favorites is The Men Who Tread on the Tiger’s Tail, it’s tense, and funny, and short, and charming, check it out). Regarding Rashomon though, yes it is academically remembered for its revolutionary approach to narrative perspective in film, but at the end of the day, it is a contained Samurai thriller. It’s easy to forget that while he did constantly make films that were fundamentally dramas or sweeping epics that spoke to the human soul, Kurosawa did constantly, all throughout his career, trade in these visceral thrills. Whether it’s the broad comedy and tight plotting of The Hidden Fortress, the scary and revolutionary archery scenes in Throne of Blood, or detective thrillers like The Bad Sleep Well, it is a thread that Kurosawa has constantly come back to in his work, and he does it so, so well. 

Yojimbo follows Toshihiro Mifune’s nameless vagabond sword-slinger, a down on his luck samurai with no fixed abode, and his experience with one unfortunate town. The town long ago became overrun by a horrible group of basically gangsters, who have since fallen into a power struggle that threatens to tear the town, and its more humble residents, apart. Mifune sees the opportunity to change his fortunes, and in the process set things right as he begins to play both sides against the middle and attempt to make a tidy profit in the process. 

It’s interesting that the film that went on to inspire Sergio Leone’s violent as heck dollars trilogy is itself pretty restrained in terms of out and out bloodletting. The film relies much more on slowly building the character dynamics and atmosphere. By setting up exactly who people are, who they intend to kill, and why, and telling that story in the required amount of time to do it properly, it makes the final atmosphere at the end something mephitic verging on biblical in its portent. That doesn’t mean that the film doesn’t deliver pulpy thrills by the bucketful because it definitely does. There’s a scene where Mifune has just had the shit beat out of him to the point where he can’t walk, and has to escape not only a locked room but a guard infested compound that is one of the most tense, nail-biting scenes I have seen, maybe ever. There’s a scene where Mifune is rescuing a wife of a friend held captive that’s exhilarating and explosive, and there are moments of cruel violence that’s shocking and unsettling in a really compelling way. Part of the way Kurosawa builds this action is through gorgeous cinematography that builds layers of smoke, rain, dust, falling objects, blood, bodies, all on top of each other until the frame looks like it’s just slowly filling up with attitude and menace, the frame getting busier as the action gets tenser. That’s true also across shots and edits, what I mean is that the shots Kurosawa shoots will individually gradually get busier across the film as it gets tenser and more portentous. It creates a general atmosphere of impending doom that’s endlessly exciting.

Mifune is outstanding in this film. His visage conveys whatever emotion he has to convey with a sense of brooding, animalistic intensity that I just love. He goes from anger, to wry wit, to wounded pride with the simplest of ease. Mifune’s character goes on one hell of an arc and it’s done with such subtlety. It’s an arc depicted through actions and what he does and that’s how it should be, this is a film that understands the words, “action is character”. Mifune starts the film espousing a philosophy of kill or be killed, murder the murderers, avenge, revenge, and destruction, fuck you got mine, and it is through some very simple actions and rash decisions his character makes that demonstrates his shifting internal psychology. You get the idea that after this story his character will go and do very similar things in future, he’ll still get in trouble, never settle down, never have a fixed abode, and wonder and drift, but always be changed by his time in this town. Now, Mifune by himself could run the risk of being a one-note brood-machine hunk of meat if it wasn’t for the colourful cast of characters Kurosowa surrounds him with. Here we see Kurosawa dipping into his goodie bag of reliable actors from his troupe, not just Mifune but Daisuke Katô, the ever lovely and charming Takashi Shimura, and Ikio Sawamura, amongst many, many others. These side characters help give the film a beautiful tonality, juxtaposing the brooding intensity with sometimes horrible violence and sometimes laugh out loud comedy, with the exception of pretty dated body shaming and use of the fat-ugly-stupid character archetype that I really just find to be lazy storytelling and stigmatizing in a way I find damaging. Shimura is a particular highlight in this eclectic and talented cast. 

To summarise, Yojimbo is Kurosowa operating at peak efficiency. It was made in the early 60s, just as Kurosawa’s production rate was beginning to ease, moving into his one film every five years era not long after this, but Yojimbo does not look like a film made by a man slowing up. It is sleeker and more streamlined than some of Kurosawa’s earliest films, but it feels as youthful and full of energy, if not more so than the debuts of equally celebrated directors. As far as sleek thrillers go, Reservoir Dogs pales in comparison here. While Yojimbo won’t be turned over in my head to the degree of something like High & Low, that’s really not what it’s trying to be, and going for the kind of visceral, crowd-pleasing thrills that Yojimbo goes for is just as valid and artistically interesting I think, and y’know, Yojimbo does that really, really well.

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