Monday, March 1, 2010

Yojimbo (1961)

TOP 100 FILMS: #10

Wondering ronin (Toshiro Mifune) stumbles into a rundown town torn between two gambling overlords, each trying to stake their claim to the territory. How can he pass up the opportunity to have this much fun?

"In a mad world, only the mad are sane." - Akira Kurosawa

When you walk into a town, seemingly full of nothing but lost dreams, and the first thing you see is a dog walking down the streets carrying a hand in its mouth, how do you react? A town so down trodden by violence and corruption all those who contain any level of purity hide, or have long sense left. Most of us would hightail it out of here. But not this wondering ronin. No, to him this is a challenge. But what exactly does he want? Money? Fame? To rid the town of evil? Or just something to do? Yojimbo is a movie about men at the very brink of sanity. So self absorbed they've forgotten any level of morality. And how to handle them.

Though of course, to leave it at that would be an insult to the film entirely.

Kurosawa's orgasmic blend of dark comedy, stark violence, and pure style gives Yojimbo a breath of life not often found in contemporary film. Backed by an amazing musical score, Yojimbo is both a homage to westerns before it, and a foresight to westerns after it. It's unnamed ronin moves swiftly from scene to scene, breathing new life in to the surroundings, all the while seeking to understand them. Yojimbo is not an analysis, so much as it is a narrative. It's dark, wickedly off the wall, and prospers from the pure enjoyment of its own absurdity. It criticizes those who act strong, but are weak, and those who are weak, when they most need to be strong.

And at the heart of the film lies two great performances. On one hand you have our ronin, a man who only identifies himself by a generalization of his age (Sanjuro - 30, something) and whatever he happens to be looking outside at that particular moment (in this case a mulberry field). He's not the likable guy, and his morals are highly questionable. Though, what would such a character be without a counterpart. Enter Gonji (Eijiro Tono), the town's local tavern keeper. Out of business because of all the fighting, Gonji is the last remaining moral center of what was once a prosperous town. He dislikes violence, and finds the town's new levels of corruption horribly unbearable. Together, these two form a strong moral conflicting center, often at odds over how to save the town.

It's these sort of moments that makes Kurosawa's fable come to life. It's slow, developmental, and riddled with style. But there's such a strong underlying layer of substance. It counterbalances cool, gun vs. the sword, with heart, self-preservation vs. societal preservation. Sure there's some things it could do better, but no matter how many times I watch it, I fall in love with it all over again. It's the perfect combination of characters, silliness, and action. A powerfully involving, and unmistakeably smooth. The very kind of film I wish I could make.

While it's not the greatest film ever made, Yojimbo is one of Kurosawa's most purely enjoyable films to date. An amazing blend of style, substance, and music, it creates a world onto itself, and we're all the more entertained for it.

Alternate Perspectives:

"While I appreciate the film for being the catalyst of something I do enjoy, I unfortunately I can't say I enjoyed this film." - Common Sense Movie Reviews

"Everything about it was so... cool. The crisp black and white contrasts, the traditional-meets-hep jazz music, the mash-up outfits and punk-chōnin hairstyles: everything combines to create a wonderful, seemingly anachronistic mood." - Film Forager

"This film is timeless and a classic that everyone should see at least once." - GManReviews

7 better thoughts:

Chase Kahn said...

I do like this film a lot, an obvious influence on pretty much every Clint Eastwood western ever made. Very much looking forward to the Sanjuro/Yojimbo Blu-ray box-set.

Alex said...

Aw your love for this movie really shines through in your review, making it all the more enjoyable to read. I'm excited 23 Days of Kurosawa is here!

Also wow that's like the first time I've been quoted I think. It makes me feel vaguely legitimate. Thanks!

Jake said...

Yojimbo used to be my second favorite of Kurosawa's films after Seven Samurai, but it's since fallen out of my top 5 in favor of Ran, Ikiru, Throne of Blood and High and Low. Still a masterpiece of popular entertainment though. I'm eying that Criterion Blu-Ray like a hawk.

Paolo said...

Wonderful review. Yojimbo is a well made film, without a doubt, but in my opinion it falls short of Kurosawa's other classics like Throne of Blood, Ikiru, and of course, Seven Samurai.

Univarn said...

Thanks for all the comments everyone!

@Chase I may just buy a blu-ray player for that very reason :)

@Alex Haha, well you'll likely be brought up again come Rashomon since you did a review for that :).

@Jake I'm not as high up on Ran and Throne of Blood as everyone else, but those reviews are coming soon.

@Paolo Ikiru is my #2 Kurosawa film with Seven Samurai my #1 so I share the sentiment. Throne of Blood is definitely one of those films I need to revisit.

Marc said...

This was really my favorite of my 12 Days of Kurosawa (well as far as the ronin Kurosawa films; your suggestion of High and Low became my favorite modern Kurosawa film). I got a better appreciation for Seven Samurai seeing it again but I like the loner aspect of the film just a tad bit more than the ensemble nature of Seven. Definitly Kurosawa for beginners and then Sanjuro is like Kurosawa lite:)

Plus Mifune is just one highly watchable actor and I wish I knew Japanese so I could focus on him and not the subs:P

Great write up and I never knew you wrote for RT. That's really cool!

Univarn said...

@Marc Thanks for the comment! I should clarify that I never wrote 'for' RT. Way back in the day they used to have review journals anyone could use on their site (still do but less use them) and I had one of those. Though I was featured on their blog landing page for a while there, so that was nice.

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