Wednesday 17 February 2010

Yojimbo (1961)

Director: Akira Kurosawa
Star: Toshiro Mifune

I'm climbing the stairway to Cinematic Heaven in 2010 to post five reviews a week of films from the IMDb Top 250 List, supposedly the greatest motion pictures of all time. Are they really? Find out here.

Akira Kurosawa and Japanese film as a whole exploded onto the international film scene when Rashomon won the Golden Lion at the Venice Film Festival in 1951. He consolidated that position by turning out some of the greatest and most infuential films of all time during the decade to come, including Ikiru, The Seven Samurai and The Hidden Fortress. Other Japanese filmmakers took advantage of their newfound attention: Yasujiro Ozu with Tokyo Story, Kon Ichikawa with The Burmese Harp and Fires on the Plain, Teinosuke Kinugasa with Gate of Hell and Kenjo Mizoguchi with The Life of Oharu, Ugetsu and Sansho the Bailiff. It was an amazing time for Japanese cinema which was far from new but which went through something of a rebirth after Rashomon, one 1954 film even sparking a whole new genre, Ishiro Honda's Gojira. A decade later Kurosawa gave birth to another new genre, though not in any way he might have expected.

Yojimbo, which simply means The Bodyguard, was a more overtly American influenced film than his previous movies. While it's a Tokugawa era samurai drama, it plays out utterly like an American western with a heavy dose of the gangster film added in for good measure, actually sourced from novels by Dashiell Hammett, including Red Harvest and The Glass Key. Yet while these influences are obvious, he created something new out of them and the Italians paid serious attention. In 1964 Sergio Leone remade this film almost shot for shot as A Fistful of Dollars, the first spaghetti western. Clint Eastwood's Man with No Name began as Toshiro Mifune's Man with No Name. He does provide one when asked, Kuwabatake Sanjuro, but that merely means Thirty Year Old Mulberry Field. 'As names go, it's good enough,' he says. The rest is history.

It's 1860 and the Tokugawa dynasty is failing, leaving Toshiro Mifune's character one of many masterless samurai or ronin, the bleak landscape of constantly swirling dust echoing their hopes. Such ronin have only their wits and their swords to live by, wandering the countryside hiring themselves out to whoever will pay. He's obviously bound for no place special, as he even tosses a stick in the air when he reaches a fork in the road to determine which way he's going to take. He ends up in a town that is more like a war zone with two bickering gangs of gamblers who have hired every cutthroat, gangster and escaped convict around. The merchants can't make a trade, the only man really earning a living being the coffin maker.

All this chaos sprang out of a prospective inheritance, as the innkeeper explains to Sanjuro. One gambler, Seibei Manome, who runs a brothel at one end of town, wanted his son to have all his territory, but his right hand man, Ushi-Tora Shinden, wouldn't agree to it and so set up his own faction instead. The conflict only grew over time, but while the innkeeper bemoans this as the death of the town, Sanjuro sees instead the potential profit margin. He plays both sides against each other for his own gain like a true anti-hero. 'I like it here. I'll stay a while,' he says. 'I'll get paid for killing and this town is full of men who deserve to die.' This is a rather simple concept but it's a strange one. Really he's the only person we could conceivably care about and he's hardly a nice guy, although Toshiro Mifune's performance is so infectious that it's impossible not to root for him throughout.

Part of the reason the film doesn't fail on its feet is that there's more than a minor element of comedy in how things unfold, not highbrow comedy but something much closer to slapstick, as in both Yojimbo and Sanjuro, the sequel released a year later, Kurosawa had Mifune frequently deal with realistic idiots. In Yojimbo he climbs up the bell tower and watches, laughing, as the two sides fumble their way towards each other in an inept depiction of attempted battle. Even when they're drunk they could hardly be funnier but they still try. In Sanjuro, he becomes by necessity leader of a bunch of well intentioned but not very clued in good guys. A more serious recurring theme is that while these characters know what they want to do, good or bad, they often have no real idea how to do so and so flounder along doing as best they can. The family that Mifune reunites in Yojimbo have great difficulty in even believing their new found freedom, leading him to announce 'I hate pathetic people. I'll kill you if you cry.'

It's also hilarious, in an extremely dry manner, watching Sanjuro play both ends against the middle. He uses his sword, of course, but he uses his wits even more. His grand plan is a constant work in progress and he keeps having to rewrite it to accommodate changes caused by others, not least Unosuke, Ushi-Tora's younger brother, who returns from a trip away with a gun, or even divert from it to tie up a few loose ends for other people in the process. Up until this point, Mifune has been beyond challenge, except by numbers, but the introduction of Tatsuya Nakadai as Unosuke raises everything up a notch. Not only do we see a character who can one up Sanjuro but we see an actor who can challenge Mifune too, as he would later in their respective careers.

In fact all three of the actors that Kurosawa frequently worked with are present here. This was Mifune's era, but he'd inherited that position from Takashi Shimura and he later passed it onto Nakadai after a major feud with Kurosawa. Nakadai makes his presence felt here with some great scenes and some memorable wild eyes. Unosuke is the one character who seems to have anywhere near the wits that Sanjuro has. Shimura has a smaller role as Tokuemon, the sake brewer. However this time out it's Mifune's show, both as the confident samurai of the first half and the beaten and bloody wild haired mess that he becomes later. He's very believably damaged in the second half of the film, the undertaker telling him that he doesn't look alive and he's right. He looks far more like a white faced Japanese ghost.

Ryuzo Kikushima and Akira Kurosawa didn't receive any credit for A Fistful of Dollars, but it's obviously their script for Yojimbo that Sergio Leone adapted to his own ends, just as it's been remade again since as Last Man Standing and Lucky Number Slevin. It isn't as simple as Toshiro Mifune becoming Clint Eastwood, Japan becoming Mexico and swords becoming guns. It all goes far deeper than that to the supporting characters, every dynamic of the plot and even the grim humour of the piece. Mifune's portrayal is more complex than Eastwood's and more savage. Perhaps that partially has to do with the more personal nature of the sword against the gun but I think it's deeper than that. Perhaps Mifune instilled his character with more depth because he'd been building up to the role over a number of films while Eastwood was only beginning his exploration of the equivalent character.

Even the details are recognisable. When Eastwood enters town in A Fistful of Dollars he passes a man on a horse going the other way. His eyes are closed and there's a sign on his back reading 'Adios Amigo'. When Mifune enters town in Yojimbo, it's a dog that passes him with a man's hand in his mouth. The famous coffins quote is little changed. Unosuke brings a new level to the conflict in Yojimbo by bringing home a gun, just as Leone upped the ante in A Fistful of Dollars by use of a military chain gun. The imagery and the cultures are completely different but the message is precisely the same. In fact these cultural changes are fascinating in themselves, with only the undertaker being precisely consistent between the two films. Then again nothing is certain except death and taxes, right?

When I began exploring the IMDb Top 250 in 2004, I was new to Kurosawa, to Mifune and to samurai drama as a whole, a genre known as chambara or swordplay, part of a wider genre called jidaigeki or period drama. Previously my experience with Asian cinema had been with more modern martial arts, horror and gangster movies made in Hong Kong and with anime. The Seven Samurai was a big eye opener, one that I couldn't get my head around on first viewing. Yojimbo was far more recognisable and fathomable, not least because I'd seen A Fistful of Dollars a number of times and was reasonably well acquainted with spaghetti westerns generally. After this one I searched for all the chambara I could find, IFC treating me with their Samurai Saturdays that introduced me to much of the Zatoichi series as well as Gate of Hell, Samurai Rebellion and Kill!, just to name a few early examples.

There's a lot of top notch chambara out there, though much of it is unfairly neglected and I'm still scratching the surface. Kurosawa is definitely a great starting place and Yojimbo probably the best beginner's guide. After this you can work through Sanjuro, Rashomon and The Seven Samurai and then work sideways through the names you'll start to recognise, not just the cast but the crew too, to directors like Kihachi Okamoto (The Sword of Doom and Kill!), Hideo Gosha (Three Outlaw Samurai and Sword of the Beast) and Masaka Kobayashi (Samurai Rebellion). By that time you're off and running. Kenji Misumi will lead you to Shintaro Katsu and Zatoichi the Blind Swordsman. Kobayashi will lead you to Kwaidan and classic Japanese horror. Then it'll be Onibaba and Ugetsu, then Kenji Mizoguchi and Yasujiro Ozu and by that time you'll be hooked on one of the richest of national cinemas. Yojimbo is a great gateway drug to classic Japanese film.

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