Friday, August 14, 2015

Yojimbo (1961)

Yôjinbô, Japan, 110 minutes
Director/editor: Akira Kurosawa
Writers: Akira Kurosawa, Ryuzo Kikushima
Photography: Kazuo Miyagawa
Music: Masaru Sato
Cast: Toshiro Mifune, Tatsuya Nakadai, Kyu Sazanka, Daisuke Kato, Seizaburo Kawazu, Takashi Shimura, Eijiro Tono, Kamatari Fujiwara, Isuzu Yamada, Hiroshi Tachikawa

Akira Kurosawa—director, co-writer, film editor, even costume designer on this one—enjoyed his biggest international hit to that point with Yojimbo, a samurai action picture that remains uniquely modern, positioned at a unique crossroads of film history and going its own way. It serves up a cynical, comical human corruption that eventually made its way into the American Western and still strikes chords decades later. Sergio Leone adapted the basic narrative for the first of his iconic Man With No Name spaghetti westerns, Fistful of Dollars.

It's not just the Leone style of storytelling, with the unmistakable echoes in the work of Quentin Tarantino, Beat Takeshi, and so many others, that makes Yojimbo look and feel so oddly fresh today, compact and muscular and efficient. It also packs a mixed nuts assortment of strange elements that keep one off balance, even as it rollicks along. The soundtrack is jazzy and jarring, with an air of West Side Story, a '50s Broadway musical about New York City juvenile delinquents. The widescreen treatment lifts the petty level of squabble on which Yojimbo operates into an epic realm of blowing dust, scheming, and sudden grotesque death. Long shots with telephoto lens provide a fluid and gritty documentary feel and contribute to the heavy air. And with the expedient of a firearm—that's singular, as one thug only, Unosuke (Tatsuya Nakadai from The Human Condition), is somehow in possession of a six-shooter—it even slips into moods and gestures of the Hong Kong action films that followed later. Yojimbo is so insistent on its own weirdness, with its curated selection of elements that don't quite gel, that it's the experience of seeing it and being surprised by it that most sticks.

Not coincidentally, one of its most powerful elements is a great Toshiro Mifune performance. The critical bond between this director and this star was as powerful as any between John Ford and John Wayne, Werner Herzog and Klaus Kinski, Martin Scorsese and Robert De Niro, Alfred Hitchcock and Kim Novak. Mifune plays a skilled samurai swordsman drifter who says his name is Sanjuro Kuwatabake, or "Mulberry Field," which is what he happens to see out a window when he is first asked his name. He is a man with no name, to coin a phrase. Call him Mulberry.

Mulberry wanders into a 19th-century Japanese backwater town where all it ever does is blow dust around (it looks like My Darling Clementine exteriors minus the tumbleweeds). The town is in the throes of a gang war and Mulberry finds ways to pit the two sides against one another. Both sides want him neutralized, hired to their sides as a bodyguard, or "yojimbo." Mifune is cagey and won't commit. Though this performance is slightly quieter than some of his others, marked by an inner core of confidence, Mifune as always seems to be playing it just shades away from Tourette syndrome, his mind and body racing faster than anyone's in the frame. Even when he is still he slaps at himself and moves his back as if he has fleas. He paces, turns this way and that, cocks his head at strange angles, makes comments under his breath. When he draws his sword he is swift and deadly. Kurosawa was expert at framing and capturing coiled explosive power in his fight scenes and violence and Mifune is an ideal instrument to deliver it.

Yet for all the nihilist gloom and violence—a dog spotted early trotting around with a human hand in its mouth sets the tone of realistic violence for which it was also known—Yojimbo is more a comical story of human foible in the vein of Mark Twain's "The Man That Corrupted Hadleyburg." It can be pretty funny. Maybe the better comparison is with Dashiell Hammett's Red Harvest, which is comical (and violent) in much the same way. An early fight that Mulberry goads the two gangs into (then climbing a tower to watch from a safe and godly vantage) is aborted before anyone is hurt. But the moment of engagement is very good. The thugs have a cowardly way of grimacing and advancing and retreating in confusion choreographed like physical comedy. It may be inadvertent, but the kooky music often emphasizes the humor too.

As for the gangs, there's are elements there of Freaks, perhaps even The Addams Family—a wonderful visual. They are a motley and unlovely bunch, except when they are splayed across the ribbon of widescreen cinema in medium, facing forward and glowering, and then they radiate a kind of unearthly power: Unosuke, who brandishes his gun and is quickly identified by a scarf, the bald and dumpy Inokichi (Daisuke Kato), who must verify with his fingers that four is greater than two, and a misshapen Lurch-like goon who looms over his victims like a professional wrestler sasquatch.

The story thus proceeds in set pieces of posturing, deception, overheard conversation, thwarted deals, betrayal, and mostly ironic triumphs by Mulberry. At one point, fate does catch up with him and he finally gets his, captured and viciously beaten. The Lurch-like goon is not so comical in these scenes. But, also, it only exposes the steely core of Mulberry, which is all that could have been expected. Guile and stamina—and the swordsmanship—are what get him by. He does what he has to do and it is often a beautiful thing to behold, and at the end he gives us the last line of the picture, "See ya around."

Top 10 of 1961
1. Yojimbo
2. Last Year at Marienbad
3. Il Posto
4. Viridiana
5. The Innocents
6. Breakfast at Tiffany's
7. The Hustler
8. The Misfits
9. One-Eyed Jacks
10. The Ladies' Man

1 comment:

  1. In my ignorance I assumed the slightly spastic exaggerated mugging in Yojimbo had some history in Japanese theater like Kabuki. Love Mifune's antic energy and get those director-actor duos except Hitchcock and Novak? Feel like I need to see The Misfits again b/c there was something I was supposed to get out of it that I cannot now recall? Besides Monroe, right?