“For a long time, I’d wanted to make a really interesting film.”
—Akira Kurosawa on Yojimbo.
Perhaps no other director can claim to have created a body of work as influential as Akira Kurosawa. In fact, wide swaths of popular culture feel like footnotes on the work of the Japanese auteur. Films as diverse as Bonnie and Clyde, Star Wars, Unforgiven, Scarface and Kill Bill are more or less unimaginable without Seven Samurai, The Hidden Fortress and, newly released in a gorgeous Blu-Ray transfer, Yojimbo and its companion piece Sanjuro.
Yojimbo, roughly translated as “bodyguard “ or “mercenary”, is perhaps Kurosawa’s most accessible film and certainly the most financially successful. Remade twice (including a shot for shot remake by Sergio Leone for the first entry in his Spaghetti Western “Dollars” trilogy) it combines comedy and violence in a plot highly recognizable because of this films’ seminal significance. A Tokugawa period Ronin, or masterless samurai, comes to a town divided between two warring gangs, each equally despicable. The ronin is the original “man with no name”, telling the villagers he is called Sanjuro or “thirty years old.” In a series of battles and rescues, hostage exchanges and high noon showdowns, Sanjuro kills more or less the whole town.
Sanjuro is played by the inimitable Toshiro Mifune, star of countless other Kurosawa masterpieces. Shoulders hitched, toothpick in his mouth, he created in this film what became the gunfighter swagger of Clint Eastwood.His manner, highly restrained by the standards of a Mifune character from the ‘50s, steals every scene with sheer physical presence and a feeling of tightly wound tension that suddenly explodes into catastrophic violence. This is the film that lifted Mifune from acclaimed actor to almost mythic status in world cinema and rightly so.
The 1962 follow-up to Yojimbo, Sanjuro, has a much lighter touch. Instead of Yojimbo’s rough world of gamblers and gangsters, this film takes place within one of the late 19th century Japan’s castle towns. Mifune returns as the swaggering ronin swordsman, coming to the aid of a group of young samurai whose conception of the warrior’s code has given them an impossibly idealistic view of the nature of duty and honor. Although without the hair-trigger intensity of Yojimbo, Sanjuro’s use of irony and humor to evoke moral complexity makes it a fascinating contemplation of the meaning of violence.
There are moments in these films when it becomes easy to forget that they are a product of the early ‘60s. Take, for example, the darkly hilarious opening scene in Yojimbo when a small dog comes running from behind a building with a severed hand in his mouth, Mifune scratches’ and rubs his rough warrior chin, comically aware that this town is a level of creepy he hasn’t encountered before.
As Kurosawa historian Stephen Prince points out in the commentary track, this use of extremely violent and disturbing images for comic effect took another decade to make its way into American film and even then often sat uneasily with audiences. This long remained the case in American cinema and filmmakers either represented violence as being cartoonish or as having a mythic quality.
This so long remained the case that the uses of violence in Tarentino‘s Reservoir Dogs and Pulp Fiction seemed shockingly original to many audiences in the early ‘90s. In fact, Tarentino simply paid homage to the master who had used irony and humor to rob violence of its power 30 years earlier.
Criterion has taught us to expect from them the cleanest and most faithful digital transfers possible and these Blu-ray versions of the classic films in no way disappoint. The images are clean and crisp and the sound remastered and renecoded as Dolby 3.0. You won’t hear a single hiss or hum out of this film nearly half a century old. Small leaves blowing on the ground are visible even in some of the more darkly lit scenes. The transfer itself is a work of art.
Also, as is to be expected from a Criterion release, there is a wealth of extras here. The commentary by Stephen Prince, the author of the excellent The Warrior’s Camera: The Cinema of Akira Kurosawa and numerous other works of film criticism, freshens the film after repeated viewings with his vast knowledge of world cinema. Prince never plays the pedagogue and brings fanboy sensibility to his commentary track that makes his discussion of Kurosawa’s techniques and influences hugely satisfying.
As if this were not enough, each disc comes with a booklet containing short essays by noted film scholars and interviews with cast and crew .Unfortunately these are not as thorough or as large as the small book that came with Criterion’s 2006 DVD print of Seven Samurai. Outstanding documentaries are included with each film, however, and if you want to read a some great material on Kurosawa, consider picking up Prince’s book mentioned above.
If you only half-remember Kurosawa from that film studies course you took in college, these new Blu-ray transfers of two of his most accessible films are your chance to discover for yourself the most influential, if not the greatest, director of the 20th century.