Not too long ago A Life in an Equinox: A Movie Lover’s Journal held an Akira Kurosawa blogathon in honour of the late director’s birthday. Until recently my only experience with Kurosawa has been my VHS copy of Seven Samurai. Akira Kurosawa was always one of those directors who is so well loved that I was never in a rush to see the rest of his works. I figured his films would always be in demand so I would not have any problems find his full canon of work. Recently I decided to pull a few Kurosawa films, Yojimbo and Sanjuro, out of the purgatory that is my long list of “must see films” and finally watch them.
Yojimbo follows the adventures of a wandering samurai, Sanjuro (Toshirô Mifune), who finds himself in the middle of a gang war in a small village. On one side is the gang led by Sebei (Seizaburô Kawazu) who controls the brothel and the silk industry; the other gang is led by Ushitora (Kyû Sazanka) who produces the towns’ sake. Sanjuro, seizing up the situation, sets out to play the gangs off each other by offering his services as a bodyguard to both sides. Sanjuro thinks he has things all figured out but the arrival of pistol-packing Unosuke (Tatsuya Nakadai) will throw a deadly wrinkle into his plans.
The first thing that struck me about Yojimbo was how much humour there was in the film. Early on Akira Kurosawa establishes the fact that both gangs are more bark than actual bite. This not only allows Sanjuro to calculate the situation quickly, but it also provides Kurosawa with an avenue to run wild from a comedic standpoint. Several characters, such as the coffin maker and the official, serve no other purpose than to increase the level of humour even further. There are a few moments when Yojimbo veers dangerously close to bordering on slapstick comedy but Kurosawa always finds a way to reign things back in.
Part of the reason Kurosawa is able to maintain control is due to the wonderful lead character Sanjuro. There is rarely a moment when Sanjuro does not bring a smile to the viewer’s face. There have been many drifters in the history of cinema but few have been as enjoyable as Sanjuro is. Whether he is displaying his swordsmanship, eavesdropping on conversations, or riling up the local restaurant owner, Sanjuro’s charisma is always at the forefront. You can always see the glee in his face when is devilish schemes unfold. What makes Sanjuro a great character is that for all his strengths he still has glaring weaknesses that keep him, and the film, grounded in reality.
I really liked the fact that Kurosawa makes Sanjuro vulnerable on several levels. Despite being a caring individual deep down, Sanjuro is always concerned with maintaining his image as coldhearted killer. When you really look at the character of Sanjuro it becomes apparent that his pride is his greatest weakness. If you really think about it, Sanjuro has no reason to even interfere with the gang battle in the first place. He merely intervenes for the fun of it. Sanjuro loves the fact that he is always the smartest guy in the room. There comes a point in the second act when Sanjuro has too much control over events in the town. Kurosawa shows that Sanjuro is too smart for his own good; and it is his overall arrogance that leads to his abrupt downfall.
It is aspects like these which help Yojimbo to live up to all the acclaim it has received over the years. Thanks to Toshirô Mifune’s great performance as Sanjuro, the film proved to be more enjoyable than I had anticipated it would be. The only thing I have left to ponder is why I took so long to see it?