Yojimbo (1961, Akira Kurosawa)


In part because it inspired the beloved western A Fistful of Dollars, Yojimbo might be the easiest introduction for a budding cinephile (or one new to international films) to the frequently sublime works of Akira Kurosawa. After a bumpy opening half-hour it really gets nutty, essentially an application of his battle-heavy Samurai pictures to a cinematically exuberant western-comedy; indeed, Yojimbo scores as parody as much as it scores as an influential action film. Either way it’s extremely entertaining, complete with beautifully directed action sequences, a serious-minded look at small-time societal manipulation, and a number of excellent and totally unexpected visual gags.

What’s most laudable here is that the satirical elements in Kurosawa’s script (cowritten with Ryuzo Kikushima) have a specific purpose: the undercutting of a heroic persona. The lovably nonchalant Toshiro Mifune is playing a role similar here to those Bogart defined in Hollywood films of the ’40s: the guy who’s too cool to even let you notice how awesome he is and doesn’t really care if you never do. Kurosawa is more than a little coy in deconstructing this attractive myth, for this is the rare film — particularly in western, comedy, and action genres — that improves as it goes along. By the third act, Mifune has been knocked into submission and is near death, his teaching of lessons to the warring factions in the small town he inhabits having been generously repaid. This is precisely what you don’t expect to happen in the film (or in any film with such a character at its center, even Indiana Jones and such) and precisely what you wish would. I seriously thought as the film was rolling “man, I really wish someone would make a movie where the know-it-all clearheaded bastard would actually not see it coming when he’s about to get throttled.” My wish was granted. The audience’s worship is punished, their wickedness celebrated.

That’s not to say that the film is amoral; in fact, one reason I identify with it nearly as much as Seven Samurai and Rashomon is that I actually agree, personally, with its thesis: that it’s better to live “a long life eating porridge” than to live on the edge with a million short bursts of excitement and burn out early. Call me a curmudgeon, but I’m all for boredom if it extends the amount of time I get to be conscious. I’m the opposite of Pete Townshend: I hope I get old before I die. (With that said, I also believe in the virtues of a short fulfilled existence, but Yojimbo doesn’t really address the matter of happiness positively or negatively; it’s more about survival and ambition.)

Despite keeping that trace of full-force identification with Kurosawa on this point, I hate to say it but I continue to be turned off by the seemingly ruthless misogyny of his films. Much of this may be cultural, though in nearly every other sense he aspired for the look and pace of American films, specifically John Ford’s. There isn’t as much obvious sexism in Yojimbo as there in Rashomon before it or Ran (in which the problem is eased some by sexual playfulness) much later, but what little is there affected me quite harshly — perhaps because in this case, the film is highly comic and positions the few female characters as figures for mockery. That’s a rough juxtaposition to contend with, witnessing the rest of the film’s cackling over human absurdities, greed, and the vacant awe of violence.

Contradictions are a hallmark for Kurosawa, as they were for Ford. He indulges completely and unrelentingly in bloodshed before throwing out a few leaden anti-violence buzzwords. He shoves his liberal humanist views artificially into a given story after an hour or more of raw, well-observed cynicism. Though he may carry them rather far at times, these are essentially positive traits of his work, whereas his apparent lack of interest in women as humans is not a contradiction. There’s no real relief, and the stories lack the kind of ambivalence that could even lend serious credence to a different opinion. Because Rashomon, Ran and Seven Samurai were full of the other ambiguities mentioned, their more relevant social attitudes were of somewhat less concern.

Yojimbo is quite the opposite. It’s a black comedy, and an astonishingly skilled one — it mocks murder and fighting without treating violence itself as a joke, the trap into which Quentin Tarantino and many of his contemporaries repeatedly fall, and there is almost no moralizing, the most serious debit to some of his best films (especially Rashomon). But the tone makes it much harder to tolerate the way Kurosawa invites the audience to laugh at the women, particularly in one truly degrading sequence near the finale, when a repetition of music from earlier in the film is employed to imply the essentially nonhuman vaudeville of the shrill, useless women running from a burning building. The female actors (or extras) are there as Kurosawa’s playthings, to be dropped at the first opportunity. And this is not even addressing the woman (Yoko Tsukasa) who figures in a major plot point, who is treated for the duration of the film as property in both a story sense (which would be forgivable since it would obviously be a product of Japanese mores of the 1870s) and an emotional one (which, to me, is not).

But in the end, this issue that bothered me so much occupies very little screen time, and there are so many bits of technical mastery to balance it out. Kurosawa’s use of widescreen is superb, the camerawork is perfect and beautiful without being showy, the pacing is rapid and smart (the film clocks in at 110 minutes, a nice break from Kurosawa’s epics), the action sequences are brilliantly staged, and the stylish music score by Masaru Satô is excellent and really adds to the experience. Plus, it’s always nice to see the director’s rain. It’s grand entertainment, thanks nearly as much to Mifune as to Kurosawa.

[Originally posted in slightly different form in 2007.]

Leave a Reply

Please log in using one of these methods to post your comment:

WordPress.com Logo

You are commenting using your WordPress.com account. Log Out /  Change )

Google photo

You are commenting using your Google account. Log Out /  Change )

Twitter picture

You are commenting using your Twitter account. Log Out /  Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out /  Change )

Connecting to %s

This site uses Akismet to reduce spam. Learn how your comment data is processed.