Film Reviews

Yojimbo Akira Kurosawa

Rating - 10/10

While Akira Kurosawa's masterful "jidaigeki" (or period drama) turned dark comedy, Yojimbo, is a riveting archetypal character portrait of the mythical wandering samurai Sanjuro Kuwabatake, it is more deeply a historical fable regarding the effects of capitalism in multiple eras of Japan's history.  At the time of its release in 1961, the country's post-World War II economic boom stimulated Kurosawa's dogmatic audacity, and the film serves to correlate the his reproachful ideas about the period in the twentieth century with the Tokugawa shogunate, a century prior, in the late 1860s.  As Kurosawa scholar Stephen Prince reports, the Tokugawa transitional era in Japan was particularly pertinent to the modifications in social and economic structures; additionally, the Sanjuro persona, in this circumstance, symbolizes a heroic resistance to the economic system at the cusp of modernization.  In order to contrast such a stern and unyielding political commentary, Kurosawa appropriately injects universally entertaining elements of "good" and "evil" from John Ford's American Westerns.  In fact, Kurosawa's application of the stylized grammar of the Western genre was so astute and innovative that Sergio Leone largely adopted Yojimbo's opening scene shot-for-shot in his 1964 Spaghetti Western, A Fistful of Dollars, staring the legendary Clint Eastwood as a similar laudable wandering entity, "The Man with No Name."  Furthermore, Mark Pollard of Kung Fu Cinema reports Kurosawa's borrowing of traditional Japanese chambara and kabuki motifs (particularly represented by the Hansuke character who announces the village's public events with wood blocks) and "seamlessly melding them with elements of America's stylized, hardboiled detective stories" to fully concoct a rich amalgamative cinematic brew.

As the fable is unraveled in Yojimbo, a masterless samurai (or ronin) stumbles upon an assiduously feuding village in Feudal Japan.  The two principal gangs responsible for the widespread violence and extortion exhibit no mercy to ever settle or cooperate, and the ronin determines that his temporary residence there will solely reside on the perception of feeding his ego to absolve its absolute corruption.  Early in the film, he overtly states to the innkeeper Gonji, "I like it here.  I'll stay awhile.  This town is full of people who deserve to die."  With this farcically tenacious proposition, Kurosawa sets in motion a deliberate scheme to establish and demonstrate the cool and lonesome hero with sardonic sense of humor.  However, Sanjuro is a more intricate and multifaceted presence than the summation of any few lines of dialogue.  In fact, the warrior achieves a mythic stature by the subtleties of his actions.  While he is in reality concerned with "fighting the good fight" to vanquish evil, he misleadingly lures the villagers to believe that he considers himself of monetary value available to the highest bidder, a sharp contrast to the conventions of the typical Japanese samurai who are taught to live frugally.  Much of the film's perspective is delivered similarly, with the deliberate intention to defy cinematic and historical conventions.  For example, Sanjuro is a relatively unkempt individual with stubble and facial hair, which doesn't customarily project an image of nobility or heroism.  While the samurai tells the villagers that his name is Sanjuro Kuwabatake (or "30-Year-Old Mulberry Field"), it is a spontaneous gesture and superfluous moniker to enhance his relevance to the present events.  The ronin's past is given an infinite number of possibilities, which in turn heighten the perception of him as an angelic guardian rather than a mere man.  In the face of danger and overwhelming odds, Sanjuro's otherworldly confidence intimidates the strongest of men and elucidates their sins.  Battered and bruised by a gang of thugs prior to the final act, Sanjuro assures Gonji that he is not yet emasculated.  "I'm not done yet.  There's a bunch of guys I’ve got to kill first."  With a touch of absurdist humor, he exercises a sense of personal honor as a direct contrast to the universal ethics or code of the antiquated warriors.

As Sanjuro devises a series of misleading traps that pit one side of the village against the other, the film succeeds as both a "jidaigeki" and a black comedy.  Essentially, the ongoing quarrels concern the control of commodities and domination of resources.  Seibei, the one ganglord, controls the silk industry while Ushitora, the other more ruthless boss, regulates sake-brewing.  While Yojimbo initially chooses to depict the rivalries as a senselessly malicious struggle of exaggerated evil, the film projects constant indicators of capitalism and the marketplace as with the nameless casket-maker promoting death as a business enterprise.  His profitability relies on the merciless killing and enmity between gangs, but when the carnage soars beyond a certain threshold, he complains of the villagers not bothering with proper burials anymore.  There is an inherent sense of moral depravity and irony within his complaints, since the casket-maker is a pitiful and non-violent man who does not perceive his business as an exploitation.  He is a firm example of the absolute corruption within the small village, which has permeated every niche of enterprise.  (At the conclusion of Yojimbo, Sanjuro sets him free, and the act is representative of the liberation from the confines of capitalism).  Additionally, the film is critical of avaricious officials, even the geisha, who wish to benefit from the luxury of their superiors; Kurosawa's condemnation of materialism and greed essentially relies on the deformation of human relationships by subjecting everything to competition and control of the marketplace.  As a complement to capitalistic philosophies and overarching pessimism, Neo-Confucianism (cultivation of virtue), the prevailing ideology of the Tokugawa period, is sharply invalidated in the film.  As Stephen Price cites, Seibei's familial hierarchy and loyalties betray respect for human life, and the mother figure, Orin, assumes a dominant role instructing her son, Yoichiro, to kill Sanjuro against his will in a devious plot; even those bound by blood struggle for allegiance.

Conclusively, Yojimbo emerges as an apocalyptic film that depicts an end of the world scenario through unstoppable corruption as a product of the transition from Feudalism to a modern business economy.  Kurosawa finds redemption in his own imaginative samurai, Sanjuro, who functions as a cleanser of evildoers.  While Sanjuro ultimately succeeds in his purifying quests and personal moral obligations, a distinct pessimism about society's resistance to reformation morphs into the inevitable loss of modern day heroes.  Sanjuro manages to defeat inherent evil but only due to his mythic charisma, a bit of luck, and the unflinching will of the film's director.  Yojimbo confronts Sanjuro with oppressions that eventually instigate the downfall of the samurai.  In Mark Pollard's review of the film, he discusses the "emergence of the merchant class, yakuza gangs, foreign influence, governmental corruption, and firearms, which contributed to the dissolution of the samurai and their way of life," thus providing a means to romanticize the social class.  Unosuke, the film's flagrant arch nemesis to Sanjuro, stands as a domineering symbol of the West, brandishing a pistol and scarf with a misinformed impudence, all related to his indirect contact with Western traditions or extrapolated capitalist tendencies.  In the film Unosuke is a most powerful adversary and one of the most significant representations of the corruption of the individual.  The film makes little attempt to portray him objectively, but Kurosawa is not unwilling to imply that his skill is derived from a virtuous path of the samurai that was unfortunately intercepted.  Any of Unosuke's subsequent efforts to obey samurai code quickly resulted in a life of crime and compromise of principles by the capitalist system.  In this sense, Kurosawa seems to be striving for much more than a culmination of world entertainments (Westerns, samurai, kabuki theater, and hard-boiled detective stories) with Yojimbo.  A film that unmistakably succeeds on multiple levels as a liberal political allegory and an inexorable clash between forces of "good" and "evil," the director's quest to protect a fervent idealism simultaneously created a new language in the art of entertainment.