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Yojimbo (1961)

by on 2010/04/02

Once, about fifteen years ago, I needed to visit an elderly man.  I didn’t dislike him but, when he gave the directions, I found my eyes glazing over in impatience,  and then rolling in frustration.  “You’ll come across an outdoor mall,” he said.  “I mean that it’s outdoors, next to the road.  Most of the shops are indoors.  It’s surrounded by a big parking lot.  Some food places, gas station, that kind of thing.  That’ll be on your left side.  Now . . . ignore it.”

My first experience with an Akira Kurosawa film felt a bit like that, but even less successful.  I came across Rashomon at a local library and decided to give it a try.  I’d heard it inspired episodes of Star Trek: The Next Generation and The X-Files, among other things.  At that point, however, I’d never been willing to spend the kind of money that its distributor, the Criterion Collection, charges for its videos.

When I actually sat and watched Rashomon, I was profoundly disappointed.  Perhaps I was in the wrong frame of mind.  Perhaps I was unable to see past the distractingly awful transfer quality.  Perhaps I simply didn’t need to justify the cost of something borrowed.  Whatever the reason, I popped it out, unfinished, and promptly returned it to the library.

Fast forward to the present.  In the intervening years, I’d continued to hear good things about Rashomon specifically, and its director in general.  I’d watched many movies based on his work, including well-known favourites like John Sturges’ Magnificent Seven, Sergio Leone’s Fistful of Dollars, and George Lucas’ Star Wars. Plus, I think I’m reasonably open-minded.  I have nothing against “old” movies, subtitles, mono sound, or black and white.  With all evidence to the contrary, how had Kurosawa left me cold?

Well, with luck, Yojimbo may change all of that because, to be blunt, it rocks.

In fact, it will seem oddly familiar to anyone who’s ever heard, read, or watched a story that involved playing both sides against the middle.  Toshiro Mifune stars as the protagonist, whose name may (or may not) be Kuwabatake Sanjuro.  This rogue warrior wanders into a small town ravaged by the feuding of two families, and sees his chance to profit from the chaos.  It’s as simple as that.  The stakes are ratcheted up over the course of the film.  Sanjuro’s intention to pose as a Yojimbo (bodyguard) is ironic given that any late-game missteps could result in him needing a protector of his own.

Stylistically the movie is simple, spare, and elegantly filmed, but not above the odd shock:  an early moment involving Sanjuro and a stray dog, for example.  To say more would ruin the surprise, but Kurosawa injects far more of both humour and brutality into his work than I anticipated.  I suppose I expected a stereotype:  the arch, mannered art film.  What I got instead was an unusually textured entertainment.

I’m being somewhat evasive, I realize, and my concern about spoilers may be irrational.  Anyone who has seen Miller’s Crossing, Last Man Standing, or even A Bug’s Life might already know what kind of things to expect from Kurosawa.  But if you haven’t, Yojimbo will be a great experience.  Well, even if you have, it’ll still be a great experience.

You know how, sometimes, in the wake of a landmark picture, we become dazzled by its followers — students and inheritors, plagiarists and innovators — and the original no longer impresses us?

Well, Yojimbo doesn’t have that problem.

* * * *

Unrated, with alcohol consumption, adult situations, and violence

110 minutes

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