It’s a pleasant consequence of having the skill to turn above average into the unforgettable. These films should not be important bedrock films. Yet here they are, standing head and shoulders above, almost 60 years later.
Director Akira Kurosawa
Screenplay Ryūzō Kikushima, Akira Kurosawa, Hideo Oguni
Starring Toshiro Mifune, Tatsuya Nakadai, Yoko Tsukasa, Isuzu Yamada, Daisuke Katō, Takashi Shimura, Kamatari Fujiwara, Atsushi Watanabe, Tatsuya Nakadai, Keiju Kobayashi,Yūzō Kayama, Reiko Dan, Takako Irie, Masao Shimizu, Yūnosuke Itō
The one-two punch of Yojimbo and Sanjuro actually started out as two different films. After a string of critically acclaimed if not altogether box office windfalls, these two films take advantage of Mifune’s work in the Samurai Trilogy, if not just from his own huge Seven Samurai in order to score two huge box office wins. The stories for both are templates for future films, the action is matched by the laughs, and Kurosawa’s talent with the camera has turned into a refined skill.
The first is an out and out ronin masterpiece story that has been duplicated several times since its first release. The title Yojimbo, which means Bodyguard in English, is the original story of a lone wolf playing two wicked sides against the other, with the goal of having them take one another out to the benefit of the townspeople.
This is Mifune as an elder, wiser, still untamed rogue. He is a man of few words, who offers even fewer compliments. This is primarily because he is surrounded by crooked people on two sides with more docile people in between. He is always the smartest man in the room, and often the smartest person listening in from the next room.
The fights are incredibly well crafted. These are not the politically minded displays of Seven Samurai, which had people of similar abilities (or lack thereof) fighting spastically because, you know, fighting to the death is scary. This time there are groups of mediocre fighters who have cowed the meek with only their brash willingness to use force. When things get tough, they act like idiots.
Mifune’s nameless ronin wanders into town and quickly sizes everyone. He soon is in a position of power, dodging even the best machinations (even those of the remarkable Yamada’s Orin) and using their own greed and weaknesses against them. He just hasn’t dealt with guns often, if ever.
Sanjuro started out as a different story, based on the story Hibi Heian (Peaceful Days). The director saw the similarities with the leads for both stories and decided to make a few adjustments and call it a sequel. It’s not as if he claims a real name in either story.
This time, a band of nine honorable, if naive, young samurai are tricked into a near ambush. The lord chamberlain (Fujiwara) is the uncle of one of them. He seems complicit in corruption, but is actually aware that it’s truly his opposing superintendent (Shimizu) who is the mastermind of this conceit.
This ambush is averted when our hero (Mifune) overhears the conversation of the samurai from the next room, pieces things together, and shows them the error of moving forward with ignorant passion versus wisend skill.
This story, as the first, requires a steady dose of foolish behavior on both sides. The women, who are ridiculed, but respected by the ronin, show the only amount of propensity by the middle aged warrior. They also are able to turn his own words against him.
It’s interesting that Kurosawa turns to women as agents of deeper thought, either for good or ill, in both films. Aside from Mifune’s somber samurai, they are the only ones in the action who understand the better steps to take. It is truly a sign of a man who respects women ahead of his culture.
As usual, his mastery of the camera is a spectacular advantage. He always has the action perfectly framed, often at two levels simultaneously. There is no better director at having one scene lead right into the next often in the same frame. Then there is something as simple as a flower in a stream as a sign for battle. Brilliant.
Mifune’s character, when compared to his own previous samurai excursions, is a demonstration of his own advancing age and reputation. His fights, even with competition better armed and outnumbering him, show a deadly precision and economy of movement. They are not much in the way of extended action scenes of modern cinema. If you blink, you’re likely to miss something. There is no doubt he is lethally intelligent, even if he looks to be a half-life older than his time on Seven Samurai.
He and Kurosawa put the years to good use. Mifune is constantly perfectly aligned to show his ease in any situation. He’s usually nodding off. He’s always making faces. He’s constantly got those arms inside his kimono, reaching up and rubbing his chin, even while in motion. To compare him to John Wayne is unfair to Mifune. He’s got an incredible humor and range that doesn’t require being known as The Duke to enjoy. He could float through your life, judge you the fool, then save you from yourself. You may never know it.
There plenty of good actors playing a different character in each film. Shimura is utterly wasted in both films. The first movie has him as an opportunistic brewer. The second film has him as one of three cowering headpieces of the bad clan. His character is sadly reminiscent of the Nimodians of Star Wars: The Phantom Menace.
Nakadai is the gun toting youngest brother who becomes the main antagonist in Yojimbo. His role shows a recklessness fascination with his gun. He is sadistic and very rightly deserves to die. By the time he is in Sanjuro, he’s again the antagonist. This time he’s the number one general of the superintendent. He gives a similarly stellar performance here, even when he’s duped, it’s clear he is not an idiot. He is brash, and well-attuned to the concept of being the bad guy.
Neither of these films are perfect. Though they are definitely classics for the simple fact that this morally ambiguous ronin character would dominate the Western movie for decades to follow.
It’s clear that Kurosawa and Mifune are very comfortable in both films. They understand these films are not going to be the thought inducing study of humanity that most of their work together had been. These two feel like they are for the studio.
My friend Mike used to tell me that Mariner Hall of Famer, Edgar Martinez never really sought to hit home runs.
“Homers are just doubles that got away from him,” he said.
The same can be said for these two films. Their success and the duplication of the character and the story lines are not what the director and his actor intended. It’s a pleasant consequence of having the skill to turn above average into the unforgettable. These films should not be important bedrock films. Yet here they are, standing head and shoulders above, almost 60 years later.
(****1/2 out of *****)