September 2015 Blindspot: Yojimbo

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The Blindspot Series is a series of twelve posts spread throughout the year designed to offer bloggers a chance to catch up classic films we somehow may have missed. Started by The Matinee, here is my list of Blindspot films for 2015. I didn’t quite get to it in September, so a little late is Akira Kurosawa’s Yojimbo.

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Yojimbo is a movie I’ve been interested in checking out for a while, given how A Fistful of Dollars, which I caught as part of Western Wednesday last year, is basically an illegal remake of it. I was somewhat surprised to find out that Yojimbo was basically a Western even before it was remade as one by Sergio Leone a couple of years later. He really didn’t have to change that much, but nevertheless I still got a bit lost at some points in this film.

The film opens with a samurai wandering the fields, who gives his name as Sanjuro (Toshiro Mifune). He comes upon a town fraught with chaos and decides to stay a while, pitting the two factions of the warring town against themselves and trying to profit in the process. He allies himself with the coffin maker (Atsushi Wanatabe) and the tavern keeper (Eijiro Tono), who help him deceive both the vagabond armies of Ushitora (the sake brewer) and Seibei (the brothel owner). Each side competes for his services as a yojimbo, or bodyguard, while he collects the payouts and does very little guarding.

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The film really is startlingly similar to A Fistful of Dollars, and I find myself thinking the same sorts of criticisms about it, both positive and negative. Both films are splendid to look at, though Yojimbo being shot and black and white sets up a bit of a different tone, visually. The main character in both films is very ambiguous, though there is some more dialogue between the tavern keeper and Sanjuro here to flesh out his character more. However, you can’t really take any of it at face value, so you still aren’t super clear on why Sanjuro feels obligated to help clear this town out of bad guys in exchange for money that he doesn’t really seem too interested in. There is an interesting shot near the beginning though that shows the two factions lined up for a show down in the middle of the town, and Sanjuro perched high above them, laughing his head off. One gets a sense that Sanjuro is something like the superior beings that often make humans fight for fun in old episodes of Star Trek.

Like A Fistful of Dollars, the central performance here is very compelling. Like Eastwood in that film, Mifune here doesn’t have to emote that much or even let use see what’s going on in his character’s mind, he just has to command the screen and make sure we can’t look away from him. And like Eastwood, Mifune is more than up to the challenge, and his presence in the film was one of the things I liked most about it.

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More parallels to the Leone film include the design of the town, the scarcity of other inhabitants (there are so few people in the town that it effectively takes away innocent bystanders to the feud as a motivation for Sanjuro), and the convoluted plot. I found it very hard to keep track of who was who in this movie, not just because the Japanese obviously doesn’t come naturally to me, though I really can’t fault the film for that. Looking back at my A Fistful of Dollars review, I didn’t talk about the plot too much which probably means I didn’t have a great grasp on it at the time, and adding Japanese into the mix here doesn’t help matters.

There is an interesting bit here in this film though, partway through another character appears wielding a gun. This couldn’t be included in the Western version because of course Westerns are populated with guns instead of samurai swords. Kurosawa finds an interesting way to interact with a classic American Western theme here, the march of time or the old west vs. the more civilized new west. That’s not exactly how it plays out here, but the new weapons technology is something Sanjuro has to deal with, whereas in American Westerns the technology is usually railroads or some such thing (Leone does exactly this in his follow up, For A Few Dollars More).

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Though I did get a bit lost in the plot, I did really appreciate the cinematography by Kazuo Miyagawa. Like I said earlier, the film really is wonderfully beautiful in black and white and the Criterion edition is really nice. Combined with the blocking of the actors, there really are some spectacular shots in this film. Towards the beginning of the film, Sanjuro is often shown lurking in the background between two other characters in the foreground. It’s a subtle way of showing how he’s sort of forcing himself in between the two factions in the town. There’s also a very interesting use of the edge of the frame here as well. During one fight, the gun is shown right on the edge of the frame sort of intruding on the sword based action, but the gunfighter himself can barely be seen. The movement of the gun barrel draws your eye to a part of the frame that it doesn’t usually go, which in turn highlights the foreignness of this new weapon in the story. The are quick lovely shots like this all throughout the movie.

So I did really appreciate Yojimbo, but had a bit of a hard time following it, especially in the middle. It’s an interesting experience to get lost in the film like this, when you don’t know exactly what is going on, you probably miss some stuff, but you come away with an appreciate for other aspects that you did catch, sort of isolated from the whole. Those shots I mentioned, the introduction of the gun, and the commanding screen presence of Toshiro Mifune, all of these things I came away with really liking, but the entire film eludes me a bit.

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“I’m not dying yet. I have to kill quite a few men first.”

Long story short: 3.5/4 stars

For Further Reading:

Roger Ebert “Great Movies” review 
The New York Times review
Criterion Collection essay

I know I have a bad track record with this, but the next Blindspot will be on Guillermo del Toro’s Pan’s Labyrinth, hopefully coming on October 27th.

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