Classic Movie Review: Yojimbo (1961)

Title: Yojimbo
Release Date: 25 April 1961
Director: Akira Kurosawa
Production Company: Kurosawa Production | Toho

In 1860, a  rōnin (Toshiro Mifune) travels through rural Japan, dropping a stick to decide his fate (much like Abraham Lincoln). His path carries him to a town dominated by two rival gangs of criminals. He gets the lay of the land from an elderly tavernkeeper, Gonji (Eijirō Tōno), who tells him that the only the only profitable business in the town is the coffin maker. The rōnin, who makes up the name Kuwabatake Sanjuro for himself, determines that all the criminals deserve death. He offers his services as a bodyguard (“yojimbo” in Japanese) to both gangs and uses the bidding war to initiate a long con for the two gangs to destroy one another.

The movie starts as a comedy but slowly evolves into a grim spectacle. I was surprised by the level of graphic violence for a movie from 1961, although I supposed today’s audiences would find it tame.  Kurosawa’s direction is one again excellent with spectacular framing of the various set pieces and the views of the townfolk peeking through the cracks in their shutters. Kurosawa drew on American Westerns for influence and in turn inspired more Westerns, specifically Sergio Leone’s “A Man With No Name” movies with Clint Eastwood. Mifune’s samurai may be the iconic representation of the antihero that remains a popular character – for good or for ill – in Hollywood movies to this day.

Rating: ****

Classic Movie Review: Seven Samurai (1954)

Title: Seven Samurai
Release Date: 26 April 1954
Director: Akira Kurosawa
Production Company: Toho

In 16th-century Japan, a village of farmers faces the threat of repeated raids by bandits. The village elder Gisaku (Kokuten Kōdō) suggests that they hire samurai to defend themselves against the bandits.  Realizing that the farmers will only be able to pay in food, he notes that the will need to find hungry samurai.

The farmers are initially unsuccessful but they meet a skilled and generous rōnin, Kambei (Takashi Shimura) who takes leadership and recruits additional samurai to the cause.  The team brings together the various skills of an archer, Gorōbei (Yoshio Inaba), a swordsman, Kyūzō (Seiji Miyaguchi), and Heihachi (Minoru Chiaki), who is less known for his fighting than for his good sense of humor that keeps up morale.  Two more oddball selections fill out the team: Katsushirō (Isao Kimura), a young and unskilled samurai who attaches himself to Kambei, and Kikuchiyo (Toshiro Mifune), a hot-tempered and manic figure who may not even be a samurai.

The seven samurai train the farmers to defend themselves, build defenses around the village, and put together a plan to defeat the bandits.  Despite this, the farmers make it clear that they consider the samurai only a step above the bandits, making an uneasy alliance.  One of the farmers tries to protect his daughter, Shino (Keiko Tsushima), by cutting her hair to disguise her as a boy.  Nevertheless, Shino and Katsushirō end up having a romance that forms a major subplot of the movie.

Kurosawa directs a fantastic movie to look at, innovating several techniques to capture the action scenes from all angles.  He had an entire village built as a set and it really feels lived in with the geography made clear.  And does anyone film in the rain as well as Kurosawa? The movie is over 3-1/2 hours long but it goes by swiftly due to the good storytelling.  And it certainly is a very familiar story because it has inspired all manner of movies where a group is brought together to achieve a goal.  Just remember, it came first!

Rating: ****