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Yojimbo

Japan 1961
produced by
Akira Kurosawa for Kurosawa Films/Toho
directed by Akira Kurosawa
starring Toshiro Mifune, Seizaburo Kawazu, Eijiro Tono, Tatsuya Nakadai, Isuzu Yamada, Daisuke Kato, Kamatari Fujiwara, Takashi Shimura, Hiroshi Tachikawa, Kyu Sazanka, Ikia Sawamura, Ko Nishimura, Yoshio Tsuchiya, Yoko Tsukasa, Takeshi Kato, Susumu Fujita, Eisei Amamoto, Namigoro Rashomon, Yosuke Natsuki, Atsushi Watanabe
written by Akira Kurosawa, Ryuzo Kikushima, music by Masaru Sato, cinematography by Kazuo Miyagawa

Yojimbo

review by
Mike Haberfelner

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Sanjuro (Toshiro Mifune), a ronin (masterless samurai) comes to a small village, hoping to earn some quick buck, even though the local innkeeper (Eijiro Tono) tells him to leave this godforsaken spot right away, since the village is a battleground of of the clans of Seibei (Seizaburo Kawazu) & Ushitora (Kyu Sazanka).

Sanjuro however sees an opportunity to seize & immediately slaughters 3 of Ushitora's men ... only to better advertise his services to Seibei.

Seibei gladly employs him, as he plans to attack Ushitora's place the next day, but when Sanjuro eavesdrops on a converstion between Seibei & his wife, who conspire to kill him once the job is finished, he at the very last moment bails out, & with amusement he watches the 2 clans fight each other from a watchtower ... a conftrontation that is only cut short when a policeman arrives in town ...

It is not long though before the policeman, who has favoured Seibei over Ushitora, is killed by some of Ushitora's henchmen ... who Sanjura soon captures & sells to Seibei - who can make good use of them to strengthen his bargaining position against Ushitora.

So of course, Ushitora's men - led by the gunwielding Unosuke (Tatsuya Nakadai) -know nothing better to do than capturing Seibei's son & suggest an hostage exchange ... at which Unosuke shoots the hostages of Seibei, his master Ushitora's henchmen, in cold blood, just to strengthen Ushitora's bargaining position ... an idea that falls flat on his feet when Seibei's men present yet another hostage - the wife of one of Ushitora's strongest allies !

At the second (successful) exchange of hostages, everything seems to run more smoothly ... but Sanjuro has to realize that said wife of Ushitora's ally was actually stolen from a poor gambler, with whom she has a son ... & out of pity, Sanjuro frees her from her heavily guarded prison, reunites her with her husband & son & sends them away, intedning to blame everything on Seibei ...

Unfortunately though, Sanjuro is found out by Unosuke & his henchies & violently tortured so he can give away the hide-out of the woman. No such luck of course, as Sanjuro, despite being severely injured, manages to escape prison & hides himself under the boardwalks of the village while Ushitora's men search every corner of town, & when that doesn't help, they finally slaughter Seibei & his clan ...

Sanjuro however can escape to the cemetary with the help of his only friend, the innkeeper, slowly regains his strength & trains himself in knifethrowing.

When Sanjuro learns though, that the innkeeper has been captured by Ushitora's men, he returns to the village, to face all of Ushitora's goons at once - including Unosuke, the only man in town with a gun ... but thanks to a surprise knifethrow, Sanjuro can put Unosuke out of action, & after that free the village of its oppressors & free the innkeeper ...

 

This very grim swordfighter (or chambara) movie is nowadays regarded as one of the key films of the genre ... & I tend to agree: a very dark story, crisp pacing, beautiful cinematography, rough but three-dimensional characters, great acting & fine music all make this a first class Eastern that really stands out of its genre.

Due to the success of this movie, 3 sequels were eventually made, Sanjuro in 1962, also by Kurosawa, & Zatoichi to Yojimbo/Zatoichi meets Yojimbo (by Kihachi Okamoto) & Machibuse/Ambush at Blood Pass (by Hiroshi Inagaki) both in 1970, with none of them (of course) coming close to this film.

The story itself was at least remade 3 times, as Per un Pugno di Dollari/For a Fistful of Dollars - the key Spaghetti Western - in 1964, in 1984's good-natured but meaningless The Warior & the Sorceress the film was transposed into Fantasy-Land, & in Walter Hill's 1990's version Last Man Standing it has become a 1920's/1930's gangster tale.

 

review © by Mike Haberfelner

 

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