And so we come to Kurosawa at his most entertaining, and his most commercial. Oddly enough for this serious and often didactic auteur, also at his best. On one level, we have one of the most enjoyable action flicks ever made, with rousing swordplay, plenty of moments to cheer the hero, and many laughably inept villains. Yet we also have a black comedy about the vileness of the human race, a critique of big business and organized crime, and a work in one genre (samurai sword-fighting movie) that appears to parody another (the western). That’s a lot going on for such a fun entertainment.
I first saw Yojimbo about 30 years ago at Wheeler Auditorium, on a double bill with its sequel, Sanjuro. I’ve seen it a few times since then theatrically. It was one of the first laserdiscs I ever rented, and the first subtitled movie I showed my son. I bought the DVD when it first came out, and eventually replaced it with the better DVD. If I wasn’t cutting back on my home video purchases, I would own the Blu-ray version by now. I watched it Wednesday as part of my Kurosawa Diary project of seeing all of his films in chronological order.
At this point in his career, Kurosawa made star vehicles for Toshiro Mifune, and none showed off the star like Yojimbo. Mifune plays a masterless samurai who wanders into a small village torn between two rival outlaw gangs. These brutes and their corrupt bosses so offend the nameless hero that he decides to kill them all. His incredible skill with a sword helps, of course, but so does his ability to play the various villains against each other, dealing and double-dealing until he has them killing off each other.
Speaking of movie stars, this was the first time Kurosawa used Tatsuya Nakadai in a major role. The actor did extra work in one scene in Seven Samurai (blink and you’ll miss him), then became a star in other people’s films, usually as peaceable, sympathetic protagonists. Here, he’s a killer, and the only villain who constitutes a real threat.
Like it’s predecessor, The Bad Sleep Well, Yojimbo takes a critical view of big business and organized crime, and views them as two peas in the same salad. This being an action comedy instead of film noir, it allows for catharsis. You can’t lose with a sword-slashing Mifune on your side.
Although I call Yojimbo a comedy, it’s not wall-to-wall laughs. The humor is dry, quiet, and only occasionally of the laugh-out-loud variety. And it’s infused with the feeling that the world is so corrupt that only a massacre can save it. Dark comedy, indeed, but that must have been in the air. Kubrick would make Dr. Strangelove two years later.
Yojimbo was Kurosawa’s second period piece to be turned into a western, in this case Fist Full of Dollars (Seven Samurai was remade as The Magnificent Seven). Yojimbo didn’t require much change. From the moment Mifune enters the dust-blown, one-street town, to his walking away after proclaiming that the town will now be quiet, Yojimbo feels more like a western than any other Asian movie I’ve ever seen. (Of course, I haven’t yet seen the recent The Good, the Bad, the Weird, which as I understand it has a Kurosawa connection.)
This film was such a big hit in Japan that Kurosawa followed it with a sequel. And that sequel, Sanjuro, is up next in my Kurosawa Diary project.
07/02: I edited this post to correct an error. I first saw Yojimbo about 30 years ago. 40 years ago, I had never heard of Kurosawa or Wheeler Auditorim.