Review by Michael Jacobson
Stars: Toshiro Mifune,
Director: Akira Kurosawa
Audio: Dolby Mono, Dolby Digital 3.0
Video: Anamorphic Widescreen 2.35:1
Features: See Review
Length: Yojimbo 110 minutes, Sanjuro 96 Minutes
Release Date: January 23, 2007
“I’m not dying yet…there’s a lot of guys I have to kill.”
We open on a vast mountainscape, filmed in wide scope ratio. A samurai enters the frame, his back to us and his shoulders filling the widescreen image. He is a ronin, or unemployed samurai.
He tosses a stick in the air and walks in the direction it points to, where he comes across a town. His first sight is a dog with a human hand in his mouth.
Such begins Akira Kurosawa’s Yojimbo (bodyguard), and one of the great introductions to a memorable character in film history. That character is Sanjuro (Mifune), and he will be the centerpiece for a dark, violent, yet amusingly comical movie about the new world replacing the old; merchants and gangsters talking the place of lords and samurais.
In this town, there are two warring factions, each led by a merchant (one silk, one sake). A fight is brewing, and Sanjuro, to amuse himself, decides to bring it about, offering his services to one side and then the other. After a brief battle where he shows his skill with a sword, each merchant thinks that Sanjuro can be his key to dominating the town.
But the wily Sanjuro brings the situation to a boil and instead of fighting, sits atop a roof and watches with a smile to see what happens. At first, nothing does…the arrival of a bureaucrat causes both sides to play nice for a little while longer, while both still scheme for the services of Sanjuro.
Is Sanjuro merely a director, creating the action and remaining morally ambiguous? Though it seems so at first, his decision to put his neck on the line to rescue a kidnapped couple shows him as a man with scruples. And the arrival of an enemy (Nakadai), who brings a gun into the proceedings, is even more of a threat to both Sanjuro and the old way of life.
The yakuza, or professional gangsters, are replacing the samurai. In history, they did just that, but in Kurosawa’s world, that is stalled for at least a little while as Sanjuro faces down his enemies in a memorable climax.
So popular and instantly iconic was Sanjuro that Kurosawa and Mifune brought him back two years later in Sanjuro…an equally entertaining and decidedly more comical offering in which Sanjuro becomes a kind of mentor to a team of nine younger samurai. They are hotheaded and foolish, and frequently ignore Sanjuro’s sage advice and experience, much to their own dismay. What’s worse, they even tend to move, react and travel as one, as though there was only one brain between them, leaving Sanjuro to muse, “We can’t move around like a centipede!”
Both films showcase the excellent Kurosawa in top form. His camera moves, sense of framing, and ability to craft terrific action sequences are all on display here, as he creates frame after frame of parallel or perpendicular movements (with, perhaps, Sanjuro himself effecting the diagonal). His deep focus photography as well as his expert use of telephoto lenses make for memorable imagery, as he frames his principals and his action in more and more inventive ways.
Both mark a certain embodiment of American Western traditions into the tried and true samurai formulas. His windy empty streets may have hearkened back to John Ford, while his fearless use of violence (including a rather startling one at the end of Sanjuro) may have paved the way for Sergio Leone and Sam Peckinpah.
Leone himself would use these movies for inspiration, practically remaking them as A Fistful of Dollars and For a Few Dollars More. Walter Hill, as late as 1996, would turn Yojimbo into Last Man Standing. So if Kurosawa was inspired by Western filmmakers, it’s safe to say they returned the compliment.
It has been said, in fact, that Kurosawa’s work, while enormously popular worldwide, never fared as well in his native Japan because of his nods to Western filmmaking. But that’s not the case here. Yojimbo was his most successful film there, making it one that was heralded and responded to almost truly universally.
And not enough can be said about the eternally great Toshiro Mifune in the lead role. Already a star, and already a frequent collaborator with Kurosawa, it was Sanjuro that really transformed him from popular actor into icon, and he remains one to this day. He was in his 40s at the time, but still as capable of action as his younger counterparts, and able to craft a memorable character quite different than the samurai he played in Kurosawa’s Seven Samurai. That character was boisterous and over the top; Sanjuro is splendidly subtle.
Put it all together, and this is what great cinema is all about. Kurosawa constantly delivered films that were rich, splendid and entertaining all at the same time, and Yojimbo and Sanjuro are both standout efforts from the master.
Both films mark solid anamorphic black and white transfers from Criterion, who remains, in my opinion, the only studio that should be allowed to touch Kurosawa on DVD. Images are strikingly crisp and clear throughout, with solid details, and only marginal amounts of aging artifacts.
The Dolby Digital 3.0 tracks mimic the original panning stereo tracks of the releases, and they are both serviceable, from the memorable music right down to the swordplay and action. It’s lively, fairly dynamic, and pretty clean for their age.
Both films have excellent commentary tracks by the knowledgeable and affable Stephen Prince, who has done some of the best commentaries for Criterion’s Kurosawa releases. His wealth of information will be a plus to serious film students. And both films contain episodes from the Kurosawa documentary It Is Wonderful to Create, each with a segment about the respective film. There are trailers and teasers, stills galleries, behind the scenes photos, and excellent booklets featuring essays and notes.
I’m not sure if any director delivers both entertainment value and artistic value in such strong and equal doses as does Kurosawa. Many can give you one but not the other, but Kurosawa’s body of work is consistently pleasing to both casual moviegoers and die hard cineastes. Yojimbo and Sanjuro are both shining examples, and this box set from Criterion is a worthy addition to any library.