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Classic Review: Yojimbo (1961)

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Many in the film industry have touted the power of film as a "universal language" that can bridge almost any divide. Whether these divides are cultural, verbal or generational, many films and genres of films have succeeded in staying true to the idea of speaking to more than one audience. There has never been more of a mutual relationship between two countries respective genres than American Westerns and Japanese Samurai films. Both gave ideas and story lines to the other, and both inspired filmmakers to try to emulate styles and concepts of the other.

None got it more right than Yojimbo a 1961 effort released by Toho Films and directed by Akira Kurosawa.

The story takes place in 1860, near the end of the reign of the Shogunates, and the samurai class has fallen on hard times. Many were resigned to taking paying jobs as simple bodyguards (or "yojimbo" in Japanese) in order to make some money. A nameless drifter (Toshiro Mifune) walks into a town where two rival gangs are fighting for control, Seibei (Seizaburo Kawazu) and his former right hand man Ushitora (Kyu Sazanka). Things get even more interesting when Ushitora's pistol-wielding brother Unosuke (Tatsuya Nakadai) returns after a year long absence. The nameless samurai decides he must make the gangs kill one another off, and he begins to put a plan in motion...

This has been a movie that was talked about but seldom seen, and one might expect a stodgy, dramatic, period piece. However, one might be pleasantly surprised at just how fun Yojimbo is. The movie mixes a variety of genres together to create its tone and it is done to great effect. This movie is a Western, an action movie, a dark comedy, and a film noir all rolled into one picture. Kurosawa himself stated that movies like The Glass Key, based off American author Dashiell Hammett's novel, and another Hammett work Red Harvest were big inspirations for the story, and its felt here,

On that note, Kurosawa's direction is pitch perfect here, he moves in and out of gang warfare and character moments. The scenes were Mifune is slicing up opponents like a Thanksgiving turkey are brisk and action packed. His use of light and darkness is also notable, and it augments the power of many scenes.

His co-written script with Ryuzo Kikushima is also on point. The dialogue is snappy and fast paced, an it never gets stale. The two writers weave between witty dark comedy and serious business like it is no big deal, when almost every moviegoer knows that such skill is quite a feat. The decision to also give only one character a gun in a village of swords is also a nice touch. It heightens the danger, and might be refreshing to many who are used to impressive arsenals and large gun caches in modern film.

The acting is also fantastic from all its players. Mifune is ice cool and twice as cool as "Kuwabatake Sanjuro" (literally meaning "mulberry-field thirty-youth) and carries the film. Nakadai is also very good playing an impressive villain in Unosuke. Even the characters who are more their for humor like Unosuke's corpulent, unibrowed, buck toothed brother Inokichi or the corrupt, buffoonish sheriff, played by Daisuke Kato and Ikio Sawamura respectively, are able to secure laughs while never winking to the audience.

The dusty, windy, cinematography also is a plus, and adds to the setting of a ghost town torn by violence. The soundtrack and scores are also jazzy and keep a beat going.

As for the cultural impact, this movie is known to have been very influential to the Western genre. Mifune's nameless samurai would be the inspiration for the "Man with No Name" played by Clint Eastwood in Sergio Leone's Dollars Trilogy. Walter Hill would also try to remake Yojimbo for American audiences with his movie Last Man Standing, starring Bruce Willis, to mixed effect.

Overall this is an influential and well made film that really anyone could enjoy. Even people who are wary of foreign films and subtitles will be able to enjoy the gleeful mix of genres and the characters. Yojimbo is solid fun and well-made entertainment at that.

Yojimbo is available on Blu-Ray/DVD as well as a variety of rental platforms.