Yojimbo (1961 Japan)

kurosawa 1Toshiro Mifune, one of the world’s most charismatic actors, is perfection as a tough loner of a samurai who takes it upon himself to clean up a town corrupted by two gambling clans. Swirling through and around him is a story that is both technically flawless and profoundly moving. And yes, the Italians borrowed it for A Fistful Of Dollars. But Mifune’s samurai is the original Man With No Name although he does have a name – Sanjuro.

Based on noir writer Dashiel Hammett’s Red Harvest, Yojimbo ( means “bodyguard”) the film is a thrilling ride and very funny dark comedy. It is hard to imagine what a bombshell this was for audiences at the time of its release. This is as far removed as can be from the then squeaky-clean aesthetic of samurai films: you can almost smell the sweat and the grime of the sordid town and characters. The action is fast and furious, enhanced by Kurosawa’s deft use of telephoto lenses and Masaru Sato’s avant-garde score. With all that, Yojimbo was a massive kick in the pants of a fossilized genre. Toshiro Mifune incredibly outdoes himself with a portrayal that can be excruciatingly hard to be described in words.

Mifune is crafty, cunning, capricious and yet seemingly nonchalant as the ingeniously disingenuous ronin, a portrayal overwhelmed with so many contrasting attributes that it revolutionized the very concept of an anti-hero in the world of cinema. Kurosawa said of his stair: “Mifune had a kind of talent I had never encountered before in the Japanese film world. It was, above all, the speed with which he expressed himself that was astounding. The ordinary Japanese actor might need ten feet of film to get across an impression; Mifune needed only three. He put forth everything directly and boldly with a great sense of timing. And yet with all his quickness, he also had surprisingly fine sensibilities”.

Yojimbo 4aSanjuro is a cross between a wolf and a sheep, a guardian and a usurper, a misanthrope and an altruist, a demon and an angel, a libertine and an ascetic, a fiend and a beloved, a mercenary and a messiah and that’s what makes this portrayal singular and incredibly magnificent. Mifune has meticulously taken care of even the slightest gestures and the subtle changes in mannerisms during the portrayal; be it Sanjuro’s perpetually grinned countenance or his nonchalant disposition. Each triviality and nuance evinces certain details that are hard to be expressed even through expatiation. Despite Sanjuro’s rapidly changing expressions and his frenzied demeanor, Mifune always seems to be in absolute control.

It is the rapport between Kurosawa and Mifune (undoubtedly the best director-actor pair of all time) that makes it so especial and unique. Yojimbo neither appears to be superficial nor superfluous and not a moment of it is extraneous. Human values and emotions are ubiquitously similar irrespective of the cultural and the social divide between the peoples of the world and hence everyone can savour the thought-provoking movies of Kurosawa; even those who are daunted by the handicap of using subtitles can relish a movie like Yojimbo as a silent film because it is so visually descriptive. It’s a must watch for film students, action movie lovers, and especially those who want to acquaint themselves with the eccentrically brilliant works of such a masterful director. In other words its Fab!

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