Yojimbo (The Bodyguard)
- Reviewed by: Friday and Saturday Night Critic
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Current Rating 9.44/10 | 18 Votes
Unless they were mistranslated or the addition of some sloppy American distributor, the title cards at the beginning of “Yojimbo,” while Mifune is walking his walk, are very illuminating and colored my entire reading of the film. They describe how the rise of the Japanese middle class in the 1860s caused the decline of the most recent imperial dynasty, leaving many samurai without masters or a purpose. This explains it all: the wandering ronin Sanjuro (the mighty Mifune) is out to cut him up some bourgeoisie.
Sure, the movie calls them “gamblers.” But we hardly ever see them gambling. They are the middle class, the townsfolk, out to buy and sell, out to reduce everything to its monetary value. When we first hear of the two warring clans of “gamblers,” it is when Sanjuro crosses paths with a farm boy who is abandoning his country parents in favor of a life in the town. Are his parents distraught about him taking up a life of crime, or is it just the age-old and mournful refrain of farm parents whose children are seduced by the glamour of the big city?
“Yojimbo” belongs to that lineage of tales whose latest offspring include not just “The Last Samurai”—in which one way of life in Japan does battle with another—but “The Lord of the Rings” as well, in which the pastoral and the industrial face off. Among Sanjuro’s many adversaries is a man armed with a six-shooter. Jackson’s “Lord of the Rings” sends many confused messages about the country flat-out defeating the city, all the while beating us over the head with technological effects that only the most industrialized world could produce. But Kurosawa’s film is a more complex and mature examination of the reactionary’s glee at seeing the nouveau riche suffer, as well the price of his revenge.
From the moment Sanjuro enters the town where the clans are at war—from opposite ends of the same street, by the way—he dangles in front of them the one thing they cannot have: his honor. He taunts them by pretending to sell it and his sword over and over again, but he keeps neither their allegiance nor their money. He throws their coins away or gives them to others, as if to say “this thing that I once gave away for free to my master, you cannot even buy it.” Because they are without honor, the clans are revealed to be comprised of tough-talking cowards. “Yojimbo” includes a great scene that I can’t imagine a modern big-budget costume epic being brave enough to include: two giant gangs of toughs confront each other in the street, swords shining, and then are too afraid to fight.
But “Yojimbo” also has that element of so many great movies and stories: a conflict of desires. We come to see things Sanjuro’s way, mostly because he’s just so cool. But he is also deceitful, vicious, and has little regard for human life. He kills two toughs and wounds a third in the middle of the street just to prove his worth to the clans. “Two coffins,” he tells the coffin-maker before glancing over his shoulder at the wounded man. “Better make that three.” We crave revenge, but we also acknowledge its futility and are disappointed when our (his) vengeance is finally enacted. When Sanjuro finally does get to watch one clan obliterate the other, it involves parents being killed in front of their son, while others are cut down begging for their lives. He is filled with remorse at the work of his hands, and his final statement before clapping the dirt off those hands is “things will be a lot quieter around here now.”
Does Kurosawa have something to say about the rapid industrialization of post-World War II Japan? Who knows. But the very fact that the industrialization of the 1860s can be applied again a century later illustrates “Yojimbo’s” longevity. We are all perpetually in a cycle of finding comfort, morality, and order, only to abandon it all to greedily consume a newer, comparatively more reckless way of life.
The Sensai loved American pulp movies, especially Westerns, and was influenced heavily by them. IMDb even lists Dashiell Hammett’s novel “Red Harvest” as the uncredited source of “Yojimbo.” In the special “100 Greatest Movies of All Time” issue, Entertainment Weekly’s Peter Bonventre called “The Seven Samurai” “the greatest Western ever made.” He coyly adds “with amusing redundancy, Hollywood chose to remake ‘Samurai,’ six years later, as ‘The Magnificent Seven.’” “Yojimbo” was similarly honored with Leone’s “A Fistful of Dollars” and the Bruce Willis box office debacle “Last Man Standing.” The ronin is the hired gunfighter, the impotent town “official” is the sheriff, and the clans are feuding families or cattle interests. The silk industry is replaced by barbed wire and locomotives, while gambling is still, well, gambling. Of course some of the meaning is different. The Western is about civilization entering into where there is no civilization (once all the indigenous peoples were swept aside, that is). Because Japan has no frontier, the rogue samurai movie might be more about the shift between one civilization and the next.
But more than the old West was affected by Kurosawa. George Lucas is said to be a big fan. Not only does “Yojimbo” include many of the wipes beloved of the “Star Wars” series—that’s when a new scene quickly covers up an old scene by rolling on from screen-left or screen-right—but the arm severed by Obi-Wan Kenobi originates here, as does Han Solo’s emergence from the floor of the Millennium Falcon. Han Solo and Indiana Jones also have more than a share of Sanjuro in them, in their willingness to shoot first, ask questions later, and claim neutrality when all is said and done.
Make no mistake, “Yojimbo” is a B movie, and it shows. It has the great fast and raw characterization of black-and-white drive-in thrillers. The clan bosses are utter toads. The guy with the gun (Tatsuya Nakadai) is a grinning sadist probably crippled by sexual inadequacies. His big brother (Daisuke Kato) is a chunky, buck-toothed mental patient. The coffin-maker (Atsushi Watanabe) is gleeful at the prospect of bodies everywhere and despondent at the thought of a truce. Sanjuro’s only companion is the innkeeper (Eijiro Tono), although I think he might just be called “Old Man” until near the end. Actor Takashi Shimura, who as a young man played the elderly hero of Kurosawa’s “Ikiru,” once again dons aging makeup to become the embodiment of a dirty old man enslaved by lust for his imprisoned concubine. Kurosawa is not interested in realism and heightens everything he can. Virtually every conversation begins with choked gutturals and ends with screams. The way he orchestrates the near-battle between the two clans is not at all what you would see in real life, but precisely how you might imagine it if you were reading it from a book of thousand-year-old folk tales.
From a technical perspective, “Yojimbo” may be a little rough around the edges for modern audiences. The toy gun might, somehow, work in the movie’s favor (“I can’t die if I’m not holding my gun. I feel sort of naked without it!”). The costumes are convincing—so many sandals and socks—but the movie’s sound is not great and we’ve become accustomed to seeing swords dig in farther. The stunts in the sword fights are flawless, even if the special effects are not, and even more convincing than modern movies is the way some of Mifune’s enemies actually run away from him. “Yojimbo’s” greatness is that it is so iconic. It single-mindedly develops its lead character, makes its point, and goes home. The way Sanjuro picks his direction by throwing a stick into the air is straight out of some fable or another. Kurosawa gives the movie the feel of a myth or a legend, and “Yojimbo” has become a legend in its own right.
Finished March 11, 2004
Copyright © 2004 Friday & Saturday Night
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