The opening credit sequence of Akira Kurosawa's "Yojimbo (The Bodyguard)" features a scruffy ronin, his back to the camera, scratching at his scalp and under his tattered robe. The year is 1860, and Japan's Tokugawa Dynasty has ended, sending a squadron of now-unemployed samurais out into the countryside, with no master to serve except their "will to survive". This one in particular, all hunched shoulders and lion-like gait, comes to a fork in the road. He picks up a stick, tosses it effortlessly in the air (foretelling Kubrick's "2001: A Space Odyssey", and its discussion of predetermined fate, perhaps?), and follows the path that it points to upon landing.
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Even if his name had never shown up on screen, or we had never seen his face by the end of the scene, the samurai is unmistakably identifiable as Toshirô Mifune, Kurosawa's onscreen doppelganger and artistic muse. His introduction is iconic -- the scratching and the restless body language are pure Mifune -- but the timing of it surprised me. I've noted before (in reviewing Rashomon, Seven Samurai, and The Hidden Fortress) how Mifune tends to be fashionably late to the party in Kurosawa's movies. He didn't make his first appearance in "Seven Samurai" until that film was 21-minutes old, and he was ostensibly the film's star. I guess being the title character means earlier screentime. Glad for it.
Ambling into the local town, the samurai find nothing but desolation and boarded-up storefronts, the kind of setting you're likely to find in any of a number of American Westerns. A dog, carrying a severed hand in its mouth, quickly strolls by, and the samurai has the situation pretty well summed up. There is much strife here (it's the kind of town where a cynical cooper rejoices upon hearing that the violence will start up again, for that means his coffin business will once again thrive). A town crier greets the samurai with suggestions for employment. A Sake seller warns him of the two warring factions, headed by Seibei the silk merchant and Ushitora the gambling kingpin, who fight to the death for control of the town's economy. And the samurai spends the rest of the film offering his services to both sides, playing each off the other in an attempt to swindle them both out of their money and save the town from destruction.
Named Sanjuro Kuwabatake, the samurai instead prefers anonymity. Just like The Man With No Name, in the Sergio Leone spaghetti westerns that Kurosawa's films inspired. Mifune, like Clint Eastwood would just three years later in "A Fistful of Dollars", holds the man's nihilism well. This is somewhat of a surprise, since the adjective I've used most often in describing Mifune's performances has been 'feral'. Whereas that word connotes a pre-societal state (untamed, wild), Sanjuro, after the fall of the dynasty, is post-societal. This new universe that he finds himself a part of, full of anarchy and chaos, doesn't conform to the same rules he once followed. Which gives a man capable of using his wits a distinct advantage.
(That being said, there's an odd little moment where Sanjuro, in an attempt to cover up his plans, kills a number of Ushitora's men, then destroys their hideout to make it look like it was done by a gang of Seibei's. Mifune, full of wild rage and destruction, reminded me of Orson Welles in "Citizen Kane", when Kane destroys the bedroom of his ex-wife. Even if they weren't intended, or chronologically possible, any film that can make reference to "2001" and "Citizen Kane" is tops in my book.)
Besides the obvious intelligence that he exudes, Mifune shows Sanjuro to be a relaxed warrior, even in the most dangerous of company. He's confident, slow to react, and methodical in his dealing with the warring factions. But he's also worn down, slouched, and slightly puffy, all detrimental effects from being the lone sane man in the asylum. This in turn makes him fallible. He's hardly the archetypal indestructible superhero, as events late in the film more than prove. They do a lot in terms of making the character easy to relate to, and sympathize with, even when his greed might become overwhelming.
By far, the most interesting aspect of the character is that, once he sets his plans in motion, he's easily amused by what transpires. One scene features a street showdown between the two sides, which Sanjuro orchestrates. The samurai, wanting to get out of the line of fire but still curious to see what will happen, climbs to the top of a lookout perch. Kurosawa's camera climbs up there with him, and watches the action below from just over Sanjuro's shoulder.
This is a very effective technique, which Kurosawa returns to over and over throughout the film. From the opening sequence onwards (remember how I said the camera sees the samurai from behind, as it follows him down the unknown path?), the audience is constantly being given Sanjuro's subjective perspective. It's an interesting technique, which allows us to follow along with him, to see what he sees, and possibly make the same conclusions that he does.
When we're not perched on Sanjuro's shoulder, like a parrot on a pirate, Kurosawa's camera captures some of the starkest and most startling imagery ever put on film (I hesitated writing such a hyperbole-soaked sentence
but then I remembered it was true). He uses the relatively new Toho widescreen aspect ratio to great effect, especially during the multiple street battles. Well, 'battles' would imply a sense of order and skill. They really more closely resemble slap fights. Or possibly a crowd of headless chickens accidentally running into each other (which further amplifies those rare moments when Sanjuro shows his supreme skill).
And Kurosawa's shot composition, always stellar, is just heartbreaking here. One tableau, late in the film, shows a sympathetic character hanging in the foreground, by a rope tied to his hands; a group of vicious murderers stalking the middle ground; and Sanjuro, a lonesome but formidable figure, off in the deep background. The wind and smoke, which always seem to comment on the action (Kurosawa is a master at controlling his weather), start to kick up with force. The face of the character in the foreground, the body language of the men in the middle, and the resilience featured in the background say a lot about who these men are, and how the drama is stacking up. It's a wonderful piece of work, prodigious yet never boastful.
Besides Mifune, Kurosawa stocks his cast with a gaggle of broad types and blatant over-actors (especially when compared to the reserve that Mifune shows). The notable exceptions are Tatsuya Nakadai as Unosuke, the gun-wielding and power-hungry brother of Ushitora, and Eijirô Tono as Gonji the Sake Seller, whose shop provides Sanjuro his only sanctuary, and whose cynicism provides Sanjuro with a much-needed Devil's Advocate.
Special note should be made of Isuzu Yamada, who plays Orin, the headstrong and determined wife of Seibei. This is one of the few instances in a Kurosawa film, that I've seen, where a woman plays more than just a hapless Princess or an expendable victim. True, "The Hidden Fortress" had Misa Uehara's headstrong Princess Yuki. But she was constantly under the thumb of General Rokurota. Orin is a woman strong enough to batter around her own son when his cowardice rears its ugly head, or to instigate a surreptitious plot against Sanjuro.
"Yojimbo" is not as rich thematically as, say, "Seven Samurai". But then again, how could it be? Still, it's probably the most easily accessible, and most fun, of the Kurosawa films I've seen to date. Be prepared for a slowly unraveling labyrinth of crosses and double-crosses, which features an endlessly charismatic Mifune delivering a most satisfying performance in the eye of its storm.
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