Having tasted international celebrity, Akira Kurosawa was on a roll when he delivered the one-two punch of Yojimbo and Sanjuro. Of course, as long as he has a camera in front of him, Kurosawa was always on his game, but Yojimbo and Sanjuro nicely demonstrated Kurosawa's cultural flexibility and influence. Though distinctly of a piece with the samurai/ronin narrative tradition, Yojimbo largely takes its cues from the archetypal American western, and in turn inspired two Western remakes, Sergio Leone's A Fistful of Dollars and Walter Hill's Last Man Standing. The films were also prime pairings of Kurosawa and Japanese superstar Toshiro Mifune, who made a total of sixteen films together.
The inimitable Mifune won Best Actor at the Venice Film Festival as the masterless samurai Sanjuro (since "Sanjuro" is an impulsively adopted pseudonym plucked out of the air, he might just as well be called "the man with no name"). In the equivalent of a one-horse town, Mifune's late 19th-century drifter discovers fearful villagers living under the thumbs of two equally dastardly rival clans. Becoming more hopeless by the hour, the local businessmen are given to pronouncements like "This town is doomed," but Sanjuro—no stranger to the ways of evil men—cooly sizes up the situation: a power struggle overlooked by the town's corrupt "law." Knowing the angles is half the battle, and, perhaps as much for his own amusement as for a payday, the ronin begins to toy with the warring factions, offering his services variously to both but playing matters close to the kimono.
Speaking of angles, Kurosawa again demonstrates his spatial command and genius use of the widescreen frame, not least by use of a tavern with slatted walls that afford views on all sides and, of course, the main drag that lends itself to sword-wielding brawls and showdown duels (along with perches that provide broad perspectives of the same). Ahead of the curve of sixties style, the director employs a pacesetting snazzy, jazzy score by Masaru Sato and wry humor that's unafraid to push the envelope (the infamous staging of a dog trotting down the street with a severed hand in its mouth). As always, Kurosawa gets marvelous supporting performances, in this case enjoyable theatrical turns by the likes of Tatsuya Nakadai as smiling gunman Uno, Kamatari Fujiwara and Takashi Shimura as the warring power players, Eijirô Tono as the noble but terrified tavern keeper, and Tsunagoro Rashomon as hulking henchman Kannuki.
The biggest impression left by Yojimbo is the characterization of Sanjuro, whose iconography of stoic cool (that inspired Clint Eastwood's antiheroic "Man with No Name") is consistently undercut with dashes of comical realism, like the hitches in Mifune's posture and the character's restless scratching and stroking of the hair on his head, presumably home to an infestation. Though he professes "I'm a complete stranger," at least one onlooker has his number: "You're not really bad. You just pretend to be." From the anti-hero's entrance to his grim exit (marked by death and the ironic banging of a prayer drum), Yojimbo is a thoroughly satisfying genre picture, one that understandably inspired clamor for a sequel.
Criterion gives Yojimbo its Blu-ray debut in a single-disc edition and as part of a double-set with its sequel Sanjuro. Picture quality is typically outstanding, up to Criterion's gold standard. The film still looks its age (mostly not a bad thing, though there's a touch of flickering at times), but it is far sharper and clearer in contrast and texture than it has appeared on home video in any incarnation. Kurosawa fanatics will be beside themselves. Criterion has also outdone itself by providing two audio options: Japanese DTS-HD Master Audio 3.0 and Japanese LPCM 1.0; the former is a bit more dynamic by nature, but the original mono track is essential—it's great to have the option.
The bonus features are outstanding, and in keeping with other Kurosawa releases from Criterion. There's a crack scholarly commentary with film historian Stephen Price, author of The Warrior's Camera: The Cinema of Akira Kurosawa, recorded exclusively for the Criterion Collection in 2006. Price gives wall-to-wall critical guidance about the making of the film and Kurosawa's stylistic and thematic approaches to the material.
On most releases, a commentary like that would be the jewel in the bonus-feature crown, but nothing tops the Toho Masterworks series Akira Kurosawa: It is Wonderful to Create (44:37, HD). The Yojimbo entry, like others, gathers clips of Kurosawa and his collaborators, who breathlessly recount the master's brilliance. Along with generous clips and archival photographs, we get fascinating interviews with Kurosawa, actor Tatsuya Nakadai, production designer Yoshiro Muraki, cinematographer Daisaku Kimura, cinematographer Takao Saito, property master Koichi Hamamura, sound effects man Ichiro Minawa, director Masanobu Deme, Toshiro Mifune's son Shiro Mifune, and longtime Kurosawa collaborator Teruyo Nogami.
Rounding out the disc are the "Theatrical Trailer" (2:38, HD), "Teaser" (1:24, HD) and a Stills Gallery. Also included is a twenty-page booklet with an essay by film scholar Alexander Sesonske and transcriptions of interviews with Kurosawa collaborators.
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