Saturday, April 20, 2013

Yojimbo (1961)

Director: Akira Kurosawa                              Writer: Akira Kurosawa
Film Score: Masaru Satô                              Cinematography: Kazuo Miyagawa
Starring: Toshirô Mifune, Tatsuya Nakadai, Yôko Tsukasa and Isuzu Yamada

Right from the opening credits, Akira Kurosawa’s Yojimbo (The Bodyguard) is magnificent. Focusing on Toshirô Mifune’s back as the credits roll, his hand emerges incongruously from under his collar as he itches his scalp, scratches his neck, then shrugs his shoulders to ease some hidden itch that is bothering him--perhaps the itch to kill. As he reaches a fork in the road, he throws a stick in the air and when it falls he heads in the direction it points. Rolling into the deserted street of the 1860s town a few minutes later, it’s clear the inspiration for Kurosawa is the American western, and Mifune is the out of work gunhand, a stranger in a strange town with no allegiance to anyone save himself. When a dog trots by with a severed hand in its mouth, he knows he’s in just the right place for a man with his skill set.

Mifune is absolutely masterful, dominating the screen with a quiet confidence harking back to hundreds of Hollywood westerns. The rest of the cast is great as well, quirky, comical, predating Sergio Leone’s westerns that began two years later with A Fistful of Dollars. In fact, Kurosawa’s story was the template for Leone’s western about two families attempting to gain complete control of a town. Here it’s gambling and the silk trade, with two mob bosses battling for control and being played off against each other. Mifune’s arms inside his kimono prefigure Eastwood’s poncho as well, but it’s even better when his hands suddenly emerge from the front of his kimono in unexpected ways. And there is a definite current of humor in Kurosawa’s film that influenced later westerns as well.

Masaru Satô’s score is easily a decade ahead of its time. Alternately humorous and menacing, Lalo Schifrin copied the effect for Enter the Dragon over ten years later. The production design is equally confident: wind blown dirt streets in the town, structures entirely of wood, dead leaves everywhere, and dust circling around as if threatening to form a cyclone. There is also some very nice camera work, and many of the setups are ingenious. While there is not a lot of fluid motion, there doesn’t have to be. The stationary setups reflect the period, the slower pace. Even so, the screen crackles with tension as Mifune begins lying to each side, collecting money but never taking sides, even when one of them brings in their own bodyguard who owns a gun. Yojimbo is a brilliant piece of filmmaking, and one of the most influential westerns ever made--it just happened to have been made in Japan.

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