Movie Reviews: Yojimbo & Sanjuro

Yojimbo — Japan, Akira Kurosawa (1961)

The Siskel Film Center is ending the year with a mini Kurosawa film fest which is giving me the opportunity to catch up on a couple of the director’s classics which I’ve never seen. It’s a bonus that I get to see them for the first time on the big screen, since they’re in Cinemascope.

After years on my “To Be Seen” list, Yojimbo did not disappoint. Toshiro Mifune, frequent star of Kurosawa’s greats, is terrific in the title role of the wandering samurai. His body language of shrugging shoulders and thoughtful scratching tells more in a brief snapshot of his character than pages of dialog ever could.

Throwing a stick in the air to determine his path, the nameless samurai comes upon a town turned into a living ghost town by the war waging between two rival gangs. Mifune sizes up each group, debating which to sell his services to. Not only is this man a powerful fighter, wicked with the sword as he mows down enemies one-by-one, but he’s clever. When he decides they’re all a nasty lot, he begins to play them off one another, until the bitter end.

Watching a Kurosawa film on the big screen, I’m reminded of how carefully and beautifully he uses the wide screen to tell his stories. From edge-to-edge and foreground to background, he fills the screen with detailed, gorgeous black-and-white cinematography. In one scene, Mifune watches through his window, framed completely on screen, as he looks across the street and into the window of the neighbor’s house, straight back, one layer on top of another, and the audience watches it all. In another, the two gang members prepare for a showdown, each on opposite ends of the street, swords drawn, stepping forward and back, as both groups wait for the other to make its move. At one point Kurosawa frames the action from the side–the empty frame is slowly filled by the gang members creeping in from either side of the frame, as they approach the middle to do battle.

There’s also a great sense of place in this film, as the camera follows Mifune through the shops and streets of this wind-swept town. Sergio Leone based his film A Fistful of Dollars on Yojimbo, and it’s easy to see the elements that went on to influence a score of other westerns. And Mifune is amazing in this role. Seeing this film, and the sequel Sanjuro, sparked me to want to see many more of this actor’s films.

Sanjuro — Japan, Akira Kurosawa (1962)

Sanjuro is the follow-up to Yojimbo, quickly produced to capitalize on the popularity of the first film. While not quite as good, it’s definitely worth seeing. The masterless samurai falls in with nine young neophyte samurai who are mobilizing to expose a corrupt official and free one man’s uncle who’s been taken hostage. These bumbling wannabe samurai have a lot to learn from the gruff and scruffy Sanjuro. Given the rush job of this production, most of it consists of interiors and sets, so there isn’t that same sense of space, but the composition of shots is still expert, and Kurosawa has fun placing the nine samurai in the frame. There’s a clever story and much humor, and Mifune is excellent once again in this role.

Here’s the Gist: Great cinema. Fans of action, foreign and westerns will all enjoy. Yojimbo: [*****] Sanjuro: [****]

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