#16 — Yojimbo (Akira Kurosawa, 1961)
There’s an automatic cachet that comes with celebrating an Akira Kurosawa samurai film, but sometimes the prevailing sense of coolness–whether from the classic nature of the film or the hipsterish reclaiming of primacy of the Kurosawa work over all those adored echoes of it, like Sergio Leone’s spaghetti westerns–obscures just why the original work is so good in the first place. It’s not some pile up of badass elements that makes Yojimbo so good, although I suppose all those things are there. Instead, it’s Kurosawa’s staggering command of the craft of classic narrative storytelling, a gift shared by only a few other filmmakers in history. Watching Yojimbo is like paging through some mythical perfect film school text book. Over and over again, Kurosawa’s eye is entrancingly perfect. This is how a shot is framed, this is how the camera should move, this is the beat and edit should follow. This is how a movie should be made.
Yojimbo stars Kurosawa’s regular collaborator Toshiro Mifune as Kuwabatake Sanjuro, a ronin in nineteenth century Japan. He comes upon a small town that is beset by conflict as two warring factions struggle for supremacy over the community. The ronin recognizes that neither of this despotic groups should be the victor, so he chooses to becomes the town’s savior by finding a way to eliminate them both. An unparalleled swordsman, he could presumably do it simply by swinging his blade, but he decides the more effective way is to play the groups off of one another, switching allegiances when it’s helpful and generally finding ways to manipulate them into the most damaging battles possible. Cunning is better than cutting (or at least cunning that makes others do the cutting) and Kurosawa’s screenplay, written with Ryuzo Kikushima, is often ingenious in all the clever ways the plot folds back in on itself. Kurosawa said he drew inspiration from the 1942 Hollywood film noir The Black Key, directed by Stuart Heisler, and the lingering fingerprints of that story’s original author, Dashiell Hammett, are all over Yojimbo. It is a bleak, wickedly intelligent assessment of humanity wisely transported to even darker era than Hammett dared to dabble in.
Much as I want to downplay the cool factor, the simple truth is that it is marked by a heavy, brooding confidence. The technical dazzle of the film may come from Kurosawa, but much of its dark allure is straight from Mifune, who commanded the screen like few others. His glowering toughness never comes across as an affectation, an attempt at stardom. Instead, he walks onto the screen as if he owns it, the projector that flashes lights upon it and every seat in the theater. He holds the screen because he never seems to be trying to do so, and no matter how much his character might be test, no matter what turns the plot may hold, there’s never any doubt who will emerge still capable to hold his sword and wipe the steel clean of blood. Gotta admit: pretty badass.