YOJIMBO – A Combination of Craft

William Benker

Yojimbo – 1961 – dir. Akira Kurosawa

It’s common Kurosawa knowledge that Japan’s greatest director was a huge fan of American westerns.  The wandering warrior often casually walks into a village at war.  What Kurosawa delivers in Yojimbo is a western all its own.  Complete with stand offs, hostages and a local brewery, the film encompasses a variety of talents at work.  Along with the usual duo of Kurosawa and Toshiro Mifune, Yojimbo exemplifies the valiant efforts that go on behind scenes, raising the film above most western/gangster stories to an experience so entertaining, it illustrates the significance it plays in later American cinema.

There are just as many artists at play behind the camera as there are before it in Yojimbo.  The presence of the score in Yojimbo heralds special attention, as composer Masaru Sato incites a tone all too appropriate for the subject matter, never clinging too devoutly to the genre’s conventions.  When there’s a battle, the music kicks up the pace in a rigorous but inspiring crescendo that maintains a light-hearted approach.  In an exciting mix of melody, Yojimbo’s music could almost be coming from the very perspective of the Samurai, whose actions perfectly parallel the score.  Only when Sanjuro is beaten does the score drop to a grim artifice, though it doesn’t last long.  As soon as the protagonist breaks free, the score jumps along with him as he carefully escapes through the hidden crevices underneath the town’s buildings.  The score truly carries the film’s tone in such a complimentary way that you may find your own anticipation following the music, rather than the action.

As the exceptional score plays its own role, the cinematography leaves a rugged portrayal of the crumbling society.  While Sanjuro (Mifune) instigates the war to progress its futile result, the entire design and literal deconstruction of the village is a spectacle in its own right.  The menacing fire consumes the town’s silk factory and the large casks of sake pour from the brewery.  Cinematographer Kazua Miyugawa visually describes a perfect scenario to slowly collapse beneath itself.  The usual elemental dynamic of wind and water are expected in Kurosawa’s work, but with careful consideration by Kazua, Yojimbo exemplifies the magic that erupts from a perfect compilation of individual masters.  Notice the bright blood that seeps from the only gunslinger in town and its stark contrast flowing from the dark dirt it travels over.

The set of the town itself illustrates the great intricacies that involve such a production.  You’ll find classic Kurosawa framing throughout, such as when the local restaurant owner explains to Sanjuro the present war that rages on.  Production designer Yoshiro Muraki makes sure to explore the extensive bits and pieces that are involved in the creation of a 16th century village.  You also receive the pleasure of seeing it torn apart piece by piece at the hands of Sanjuro.  While the film explores the nature of man in the pursuit of total control, the audience also receives a look at the societal elements necessary for a functioning town.  With Muraki’s set design dissected in nearly every scene, the audience will gain a better understanding of what was needed (and what was not needed) in a 16th century village.

Of course, while the director, cinematographer, composer and production designer all play their roles impeccably, all eyes are once again on Toshiro Mifune.  Mifune’s portrayal of the wandering Sanjuro is epitomized by his means of deciding his next direction, tossing a stick into the air to see which way it points.  Despite similar roles in other Kurosawa pictures, Mifune delivers each character in a remarkably dissimilar way.  Here, in a casually confident master of conflict, he allows the two sides to destroy each other to simplify the dispute and only really intervenes, (after a display of deadly skill to prove himself a necessity on both sides) when a woman is taken hostage away from her son and husband.  Outside his careless meandering, Sanjuro still follows a moral code that encompasses the samurai legend.  With a mix of quiet intelligence and dark wit, Mifune does it again, portraying yet another samurai unlike any other.  He is a perfect caricature for a future Clint Eastwood to base his role off of (A Fistful of Dollars).

This 16th century western couldn’t be more fun to explore.  In a perfect combination of artistic elements, each complimenting one another throughout the entire film, Yojimbo is easily one of the most enjoyable Kurosawa films to an everyday audience.  Such combinations of talent rarely emerge, but when they do, they legitimize the enthralling entertainment of a good movie.  Sit back and enjoy Akira Kurosawa’s Yojimbo and marvel at the impact it has had on so many films you probably already admire.

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