Written by: Ron Cotton on May 28th, 2004
Theatrical Release Date: Japan, April 25th, 1961
Director: Akira Kurosawa
Writers: Akira Kurosawa, Ryuzo Kikushima, Dashiell Hammett
Cast: Toshirô Mifune, Tatsuya Nakadai, Yôko Tsukasa, Isuzu Yamada
DVD Released: September 21st, 1999
Approximate Running Time: 110 minutes
Aspect Ratio: 2.35:1 Non-Anamorphic Widescreen
Sound: Dolby Digital Mono
DVD Release: Criterion
Region Coding: Region 1 NTSC
Retail Price: $29.95
“The time is 1860… The emergence of a middle class has brought about the end to power of the Tekuagawa Dynasty… A samurai, once a dedicated warrior in the employ of royalty now finds himself with no master to serve other than his own will to survive ……and no devices other than his wit and sword” – Introduction after credits, Yojimbo
As the intro credits roll, Sanjuro’s (Toshiro Mifune) back is filmed as Mufune’s trademark nervous twitch; a repetitive beard stroking that invokes images of the sculpture “thinking man” as if in deep contemplation. Just as the introduction is filmed from behind, the majority of the movie’s perspective is just over Sanjuro’s shoulder. As a result, Sanjuro throughout the movie is the voice of reason, but uses unethical and indirect methods to carry out his goals. Upon an unwelcome entrance, Gonji (an innkeeper) welcomes Sanjuro to some rice without payment for a promise to “get the hell out.”
Sanjuro listens more of Gonji’s lament of a town torn between two bosses: Seibei and Ushitora in a town where only a sword can settle things and where the most profitable business is the undertakers. Sanjuro begins to drink sake and decides that he loves the place as the story progresses, Sanjuro profits by doing contrary to Gonji’s ethics. Sanjuro leads both bosses to believe he’s the deciding factor to end this war as he disperses misinformation to create more mischief and smokescreens. Seibei and Ushitora plead and offer enormous amounts for his unseen services. And yet again, Sanjuro feeds the fire to cause strife between the two. Sanjuro has his own cross to bear when he goes out on a limb for Gonji’s ethics.
Filmed in Black and White, like most of Kurosawa’s major productions that Americans and Europeans give homage to, is a haunting ghost like reflection to a poetic past that is seemingly untouched. Black and White none the less brings emphasis to the story rather than over-the-top visuals. Kurosawa is so influential; his stories were adapted to create the new breed of westerns made in Italy known as Spaghetti Westerns. Yojimbo’s alter ego is better known as Sergio Leone’s “A Fistful of Dollars”. The cast for Yojimbo seem like strong archetypical characters that are forces that cannot be ignored. You will notice wipes from left to right between scenes in Yojimbo. This technique was used just as effectively later in Star Wars.
The Criterion Collection as usual offers a superior transfer. Yojimbo has some long scratches are still found, but the clarity of the print is astounding. The original trailer and an essay by Alexander Sesonske are the only extras included. Yojimbo could have offered a commentary track as a bonus. Hardcore fans of Subtitles might find this offensive, but an English dub could have been another alternative to American audiences.
Kurosawa’s writing and direction has transcended into every culture even though many Japanese accused him of being too western. Yojimbo is a blueprint that laid the ground work for western cinema and transformed modern Japanese cinema in its wake. Criterion’s release of Yojimbo is a godsend for those who’ve awaited for a digital transfer of this classic.