Director: Akira Kurosawa
Screenplay: Akira Kurosawa & Ryuzo Kikushima (story by Akira Kurosawa)
Stars: Toshirô Mifune (Sanjuro Kuwabatake), Tatsuya Nakadai (Unosuke), Yôko Tsukasa (Nui), Isuzu Yamada (Orin), Daisuke Katô (Inokichi), Seizaburô Kawazu (Seibei), Takashi Shimura (Tokuemon), Hiroshi Tachikawa (Yoichiro), Yosuke Natsuki (Kohei’s Son), Eijirô Tono (Gonji), Kamatari Fujiwara (Tazaemon), Ikio Sawamura (Hansuke)
MPAA Rating: NR
Year of Release: 1961
Country: Japan
Yojimbo: Criterion Collection DVD
YojimboBy the time he made Yojimbo in 1961, Japanese director Akira Kurosawa had already forever entangled the lineage of the American Western and their Eastern equivalent, the jidai-geki (period films about samurai). The year before, his Western-inspired masterpiece Seven Samurai (1954) had been remade by John Sturges as The Magnificent Seven, an American Western that needed to change little more than the scenery. The even more explicitly Western-inspired Yojimbo was famously remade three years later by Italian director Sergio Leone as A Fistful of Dollars (1964), the first of the Man With No Name trilogy to star Clint Eastwood. And Yojimbo itself, which is credited as an original story, is rumored to have been loosely based on Budd Boetticher’s Buchanan Rides Out (1958), in which a lone gunslinger gets caught in the middle of a family feud in a California border town (it is also said to have been inspired by Dashiell Hammett’s novel Red Harvest).

Yojimbo has a similar plot to both Boetticher’s film and Hammet’s novel, except that it takes place in a small Japanese village at the end of the Tokugawa Period (around the late 1860s). The presence of Boetticher is certainly felt, although the American filmmaker who seems most directly influential is Boetticher’s mentor, John Ford, particularly his wry combination of myth and dark humor, not to mention his penchant for broadly drawn characters and humorous situations involving alcohol. The secondary characters in Yojimbo would probably feel right at home next to John Wayne in Stagecoach (1939).

The protagonist of Yojimbo is a nameless samurai (Toshiro Mifune in his 12th collaboration with Kurosawa) who wanders into the middle of a boiling standoff between two rival gangs. We get the first sign that something is deeply wrong in the quiet village when the samurai is met not by a person, but by a dog happily trotting down the town’s main street with a dismembered human hand clutched in his mouth--a humorously gruesome, nearly surreal, image that immediately sets the tone for things to come and is rightly one of the most famous in all of Kurosawa’s films. The rival gangs are led by Tazaemon (Kamatari Fujiwara), the local silk merchant, and Seibei (Seizaburô Kawazu), the town’s sake brewer. Each is vying for control of the village and has slowly amassed an army of thugs and criminals. The entire town has all but shut down as a result.

The wily samurai, who eventually adopts the name Sanjuro Kuwabatake after looking out at a mulberry field (his name literally means 30-year-old mulberry field), decides to stick around and manipulate the two sides to his own advantage. This is a bold narrative move, as it aligns the audience with a ruthless antihero who works exclusively for his own benefit (although this does not always preclude acts of decency). Sanjuro is a cunning manipulator who sees a desperate situation and realizes that he can milk it to his own benefit. But, because he is played by Toshiro Mifune, an established star of great physical dexterity and comedic ability, Sanjuro is never as despicable as his character would seem.

Sanjuro’s primary rival is Unosuke (Tatsuya Nakadai), who arrives one day bearing a weapon--a pistol--that puts him at a great advantage. The presence of the iconic firearm, the first ever seen in the small village (most people don’t even know what it is), firmly aligns Yojimbo with the Western and allows Kurosawa to play with the boundary between East and West. The gun’s ability to kill from a distance depersonalizes the violence, which Kurosawa highlights with a graphic intensity rarely seen in films before. When people are cut down in Yojimbo, blood spatters, and one surprising scene shows Sanjuro cutting off an opponent’s arm.

It isn’t surprising that Kurosawa gravitated toward arterial spray given his penchant for exaggerated naturalism. Like many of his earlier films, Yojimbo is awash in the thundering intensity of nature in the raw. It doesn’t just rain; it pours. When the wind blows, it sends plumes of dust into the air taller than the village’s buildings, creating the palpable sensation of being inside a literal and emotional tempest. The ’Scope photography by Kazuo Miyagawa (who also shot films for Yasujiro Ozu and Kenji Mizoguchi) emphasizes the intensity even more, giving us vast wide shots in which nature seems to be exploding all around the amassing army-gangs. While Yojimbo might not be one of Kurosawa’s most thematically accomplished or narratively complex samurai films, it is certainly one of his most visually ravishing, and that alone justifies its place in the pantheon of great action films.

Yojimbo Criterion Collection DVD
Yojimbo/Sanjuro Box SetYojimbo is available both separately and in a two-disc box set with Sanjuro (SRP: $69.95).
Aspect Ratio2.35:1
  • Japanese Dolby Digital 3.0 Surround
  • Japanese Dolby Digital 1.0 Monaural
  • Subtitles English
  • Audio commentary by film scholar Stephen Prince
  • “Akira Kurosawa:
  • 45-minute documentary on the making of Yojimbo, part of the Toho Masterworks series “Akira Kurosawa: It Is Wonderful to Create”
  • Theatrical trailer
  • Teaser trailer
  • Stills gallery of behind-the-scenes photos
  • Insert booklet featuring an essay by critic Alexander Sesonske and notes from Kurosawa and his cast and crew
  • DistributorThe Criterion Collection
    Release DateJanuary 23, 2007

    Yojimbo has long been a sore spot for Criterion fans, as the original 1999 DVD had the misfortune of boasting one of the company’s worst nonanamorphic transfers. This new DVD release, which includes a brand-new, anamorphic, high-definition transfer, is a welcome replacement. The digitally restored transfer was taken from a 35mm fine-grain master positive struck from the original camera negative. The resulting image (which is slightly windowboxed) is quite superb, with good sharpness and excellent detail. While the original DVD’s transfer was too gray, this transfer emphasizes the contrast in the image, with solid blacks and nuanced grays. In terms of sound, the disc offers two options: a monaural soundtrack or a three-channel surround mix that beautifully replicates the film’s original aural presentation via Perspecta Stereophonic sound.
    This re-release also improves substantially in the supplements. The audio commentary is by film scholar Stephen Prince, author of Warrior’s Cinema, one of the preeminent scholarly works on Kurosawa. As he has on several other Criterion commentaries, including Kurosawa’s Red Beard (1964) and Sam Peckinpah’s Straw Dogs (1971), Prince provides a lively and deeply informative commentary (few scholars on commentary tracks sound as excited to talk about the film as Prince does). In addition to illuminating Kurosawa’s aesthetics, Prince gives a great deal of background on Japanese culture and history that puts the film into a better context for Western viewers. In addition to the commentary, Criterion has also included an episode of from the Toho Masterworks series “Akira Kurosawa: It Is Wonderful to Create” on the production of Yojimbo. This 45-minute documentary features interviews with Kurosawa and a number of members of the cast and crew, each of whom has an interesting anecdote to tell about making the film. Some of the most interesting information in the documentary is about the use of the telephoto lens and its effect on the film’s look. Also on the disc is a stills gallery of behind-the-scenes photos and two theatrical trailers, both in anamorphic widescreen.

    Copyright ©2007 James Kendrick

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    All images copyright © The Criterion Collection

    Overall Rating: (3.5)

    James Kendrick

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