Yojimbo: The Criterion Collection
If nothing manmade can ever really be perfect, then it simply must be that a divine hand or extraterrestrials or super-smart otters from the future guided Akira Kurosawa as he crafted Yojimbo (1961), because, subjective quibbles aside (from presumed morons), it is as flawless a piece of art as ever existed. While the film may not aspire to much thematically (though devastating commentary on capitalism and man's innate predilection for violence are offered up), that should hardly be held against it, especially when one considers how thoroughly Kurosawa was subverting the tropes of the American western. But what's wonderful about Yojimbo is that it can be enjoyed time and again sans deconstruction; as with other great feats of narrative invention like Stagecoach or The Lady Eve or North by Northwest, it unfolds as if preordained and never slows to let the viewer catch up because the storyteller knows they've hit every beat cleanly and conveyed every twist with astonishing brevity and clarity. But the screenplay, written by Kurosawa and Ryuzo Kikushima, is anything but mechanical, and, even if it were, there'd still be the matter of carrying off Kurosawa's tidy widescreen compositions and deft editing, which dovetail to give the viewer a thorough sense of the town's geography. Yojimbo is the (comparatively) terse yin to The Seven Samurai's epic yang, yet the greatest compliment one might be able to pay the film is that no one ever knocks its director for having swiped the premise wholesale from Dashiell Hammett's Red Harvest.
The idea of an enterprising scoundrel wandering into a corrupt town and playing two rival factions against each other is probably unique enough to warrant a "story by" credit for Hammett, particularly considering how frequently the narrative has been reworked since the novel's publication in 1929, but Kurosawa, while packing in plenty of western elements, has stripped the tale down to its essence, which is to say that he's eliminated any hint of romantic involvement for his protagonist. When Toshiro Mifune's well-traveled samurai, Kuwabatake Sanjuro, wanders into the barren village turned battleground due to a dispute over succession between gang lord Seibei (Seizaburo Kawazu) and former bodyguard Ushitora (Kyu Sazanka), he seems primarily interested in securing a plate of rice and a place to rest; when the cautious restaurant owner, who becomes Sanjuro's only trustworthy companion, reveals in passing that one of the gang lords runs a cathouse, little interest is evinced in availing oneself of its services. For the peripatetic samurai, there is only the promise of profit and profuse, perverse amusement in pimping out his tremendous facility with the blade to the highest bidder. The brothel owner, Seibei, gets first crack after Sanjuro swiftly, and publicly, dispatches a few members of Ushitora's gang, but the coveted swordsman quickly shifts allegiances when he learns of Seibei's wife's plans to have him offed once they've defeated their enemy. Never mind the absurdity, or the historical futility, of purchasing a warrior's loyalty; as Sanjuro keeps driving up his price, both sides keep meeting it, even after the arrival of Ushitora's son, Unosuke (Tatsuya Nakadai), whose brandishing of a pistol cleverly ups the dramatic stakes. With each twist, Sanjuro remains unconcerned and emotionally uninvolved, i.e., until an innocent family's welfare becomes a bargaining chip between the thugs. By bothering to care about the outcome of his little chess match, Sanjuro is vulnerable at last, but while Unosuke may hold him in check, the wily samurai has one last possible move to knock all the pieces off the board for good.
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If there were going to be a misstep in Kurosawa's and Kikushima's narrative, it would've certainly come in their handling of Sanjuro's surprisingly sentimental reaction to the plight of the family, which is most piercingly observed through the wailing of the young boy as his prostituted mother is exchanged during one of the gangs' public negotiations. The Hollywood tendency would be to drop in a bit of backstory for Sanjuro, but Kurosawa mercifully avoids this, opting instead for the unspoken understanding that the samurai just isn't heartless enough to be immune to the rage incited by wanton injustice, though Mifune amusingly plays it off as contempt for the weak father ("Guys like that make me sick!" he barks to the restaurant owner). And this isn't a cheat, because Sanjuro, were he a true villain, would probably be content to assume control of one of the factions and live off the meager largesse. In other words, the samurai's stand is a noble one. He is turning scum against scum so that the village will be returned to the farmers and proprietors and silk merchants too weak to challenge those whose sole skills are for malfeasance and murder. The worst that can be said about Sanjuro is that he enjoys watching the bloodshed a bit too much, but it would be hypocritical of the viewer to cry foul they're enjoying the spectacle as much as he is. For this, blame Kurosawa, whose first concern was to craft a brisk entertainment unlike any he had churned out before, and then Mifune, who created a pop cultural icon with his charismatic turn as the wise-cracking ronin (a character revived to mostly diminishing returns in countless rip-offs and parodied brilliantly by John Belushi on "Saturday Night Live"). Yojimbo wouldn't be nearly as enjoyable without Mifune; with every exaggerated stroke of his chin or shrug of his shoulders, he imbues the picture with its mischievous soul. Watching him revel in the mayhem is one of cinema's most ineffable pleasures, as is Kurosawa's film. Since it's impossible to surpass perfection, it's safe to say Yojimbo can only be matched and never, ever topped.
The Criterion Collection presents their second release of Yojimbo in an outstanding anamorphic transfer (2.35:1) with the same Dolby Digital 3.0 soundtrack found on Sanjuro. It enhances the experience a bit, but it's not essential; the monaural track is a serviceable option. Admirers will want to consider the upgrade over Criterion's original DVD release, both for the improved transfer and for the extras, which include a nice feature-length commentary from film historian Stephen Prince, a Yojimbo-centric episode of Akira Kurosawa: It is Wonderful to Create (45 min.), the theatrical teaser and trailer, stills, and a 20-page booklet featuring an appreciation from critic Alexander Sesonske, a statement from Kurosawa, and notes from the cast and crew. Keep-case.