Movie Information

Yojimbo, part of a series of Classic Cinema From Around the World, will be presented at 8 p.m. Friday, July 31, at Courtyard Gallery, 9 Walnut St. in downtown Asheville. Info: 273-3332.
Genre: Black Comedy/Action
Director: Akira Kurosawa
Starring: Toshirô Mifune, Tatsuya Nakadai, Yôko Tsukasa, Isuzu Yamada
Rated: NR

Lightweight Akira Kurosawa to be sure, still Yojimbo (1961) remains one of the director’s most entertaining and best-liked films (and his most successful work in Japan). The movie is a singularly odd creation: It more or less uses the framework of Dashiell Hammett’s novel Red Harvest—in which a detective from outside cleans up a corrupt town by pitting rival factions against each other—but I’m not sure I’d call it an adaptation exactly. Using that setup and changing the detective to a wandering samurai (Toshirô Mifune), Kurosawa turns the whole thing into a Japanese Western, even to creating a town with one central street that’s just built for showdowns. (The film is so like a Western that Sergio Leone appropriated it for A Fistful of Dollars in 1964.)

This is then approached in a darkly comic manner that almost verges on the slapstick subgenre (well in advance of such a subgenre existing). Kurosawa then tops it off by applying an offbeat score by Masaru Satô that can best be described as a fusion of Japanese music and 1950s jazz. This is one of those movies where it sounds like none of it should work and yet all of it somehow does. Mifune gives an exceptional—and quietly humorous—performance as a man who cares nothing for the amoral town (the first thing he sees on his arrival is a dog with a human hand in its mouth) and manages to get paid for doing nothing.

About Ken Hanke
Head film critic for Mountain Xpress from December 2000 until his death in June 2016. Author of books "Ken Russell's Films," "Charlie Chan at the Movies," "A Critical Guide to Horror Film Series," "Tim Burton: An Unauthorized Biography of the Filmmaker."

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5 thoughts on “Yojimbo

  1. I’m glad you reviewed this, Ken. It’s one of the few classic films you’ve covered that I care enough about to comment on.

    “Yojimbo” is a great introduction to Kurosawa, for the exact reason you mention: It’s basically a Western in samurai’s clothing. It’s certainly not his best film by any means, but it’s possibly his most broadly entertaining, and almost certainly his most accessible film for Western viewers.

    You don’t really need to understand much about Japanese culture to follow the film, and the editing feels much less stiff and dated (partially because George Lucas lifted the much of the style for “Star Wars”) than many Japanese films from the era. (Try watching an Ozu film from the same time period, for instance.)

    I’d argue that it’s also Mifune’s most iconic role. He’s the definitive heroic ronin here: Savvy, grubby, cynical, masterfully violent and yet just heroic enough to root for.

    And while it’s a little on the long side for an action film — 110 minutes — it’s much less of a commitment than “Seven Samurai,” a better film that often gets snubbed by the non-cinemaphile crowd because clocks in at nearly three-and-a-half hours.

  2. Sean Williams

    He’s the definitive heroic ronin here: Savvy, grubby, cynical, masterfully violent and yet just heroic enough to root for.

    See, for me, the definitive ronin is the rabbit Yojimbo.

  3. Rob Close

    Kurosawa’s movies are some of the best ever made. I really hate subtitles, yet his films make it all worthwhile. Mifune was his “go-to” actor, and for good reason. One of their many masterpieces that I’d highly recommend.

  4. Sean Williams

    Now see here, Mr. Shanafelt, I was trying to befuddle Mr. Hanke!

    I really hate subtitles, yet his films make it all worthwhile.

    Better than overdubs.

    What’s interesting is that I find subtitles more distracting when I speak the language, because I’m constantly contrasting my interpretation with the subtitles, and yet I’m reluctant to disable them in case there’s vernacular I don’t understand.

    By far the best subtitles I have ever seen (read?) are for Cuarón’s Y Tu Mamá También, which correspond to the Spanish dialogue pretty literally yet have a great richness of expression even in English.

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