Friday, February 29, 2008

Yojimbo and Sanjuro, both directed by Akira Kurosawa (starring Toshiro Mifune)

Yojimbo (1961). Screenplay by Akira Kurosawa and Ryuzo Kikushima from a story by Akira Kurosawa (based on the novel Red Harvest by Dashiell Hammett).

Sanjuro (1962). Screenplay by Ryuzo Kikushima, Akira Kurosawa, and Hideo Oguni from the novel Peaceful Days by Shugoro Yamamoto.

Yet another triumph from director Akira Kurosawa and his favorite star, Toshiro Mifune, Yojimbo has long been recognized as one of the greatest samurai films. It is also one of his most influential.

The basic "man in the middle pitting two sides against each other" is lifted directly from Dashiell Hammett's Red Harvest, and has since been used twice with few real changes (but with much less effectiveness) as A Fistful of Dollars and the Walter Hill/Bruce Willis actioner Last Man Standing.

Mifune stars as Sanjuro, a run-down samurai with no current direction. He happens upon a village with two feuding factions and instantly sees the opportunity. He hires himself out as a bodyguard, first to one then the other and has them wipe each other out with little physical effort of his own.

Don't think that Kurosawa misses any opportunities to show off Sanjuro's skill with the sword, but they are few and therefore to be treasured. Mifune is perfect as the has-been samurai, and Kurosawa's dark sense of humor has never been so perfectly showcased.

Although not as widely praised as his masterpiece Seven Samurai, I prefer Yojimbo, because is more purely entertaining and more accessible to the average viewer (it doesn't require the same time commitment, for example), and is therefore a perfect introduction to the director's work.

Its sequel, Sanjuro, while surely the lesser film, is no less enjoyable. Originally a different story that was later rewritten for Mifune's samurai character, this time Sanjuro chooses sides with a group of young samurai against a corrupt official. With his help, they manage to defeat the official and rescue two women hostages.

The story is much simpler this time around, but Mifune is the whole show here. His character, so wonderful in Yojimbo, is equally fun in Sanjuro. Watching him rub his stubble in thought while he surprises people with the wisdom hidden under his rough exterior is a great joy, and I can't imagine any other actor being able to pull it off. His easy confidence is an inspiration to "not judge a book by its cover."

The final duelling scene is notable for a tremendously bloody battle between the defeated official and Sanjuro. The carnage is almost laughable in its volume, but somehow Kurosawa makes it work in the context of his story.

Those who have not seen Yojimbo would still enjoy Sanjuro as it is simpler and thus more acceptable to a mass audience, but viewing them together gives one a fuller portrait of this enigmatic freelance samurai. A man who seems to always show up when he is needed, and then move on before he has worn out his welcome.

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