Saturday, January 28, 2006
I have never been shy about my admiration for Akira Kurosawa. If you happened to have read my Hidden Fortress review then you probably know this...mannn (sorry, I couldn't resist a Friday reference). While watching Yojimbo I asked myself why I love Kurosawa’s films so much. I think the answer is that he’s able to be a genre filmmaker and yet his films are capable of transcending the genre into art house cinema. The cynical might quip that I’m saying this only because he’s a foreign director. I don’t think that’s the reason at all. Sure, there are films that transcend their genre in the manner that they’re the best Western, Science Fiction, Adventure film out there, but Kurosawa’s films raise the important questions that the average Hollywood drama wishes it could address. There are only a couple films outside of Kurosawa's work that I feel have done this (Butch Cassady and the Sundance Kid and 2001). Kurosaw makes us think within a form that entertains as much as it probes.
Yojimbo is the darkest Kurosawa film I’ve seen yet (I must admit that this is only the fifth film of his I’ve seen). There are scenes of a dog taking away a human hand for a snack, the main character chops off a thugs arm, and towards the end of the film the main character is beaten to the point where he can barely stand up. In fact, I don’t’ think I’ve seen a more violent film made from 1961 or earlier.
Toshiro Mifune plays the main character (we’re never given his real name) who becomes the “hero” of the story despite himself. He enters a town that has been devastated by a war between two gangs and quickly decides he will set the two against each other while making a nice profit in the meantime. After a demonstration of his skills where he kills three people (“Cooper. Two coffins…No, maybe three) the hero sets up a bidding war for his services. Eventually things escalate and Mifune continues pitting the two gangs against each other until they just about destroy the town itself.
Mifune’s character is a protégé of the hard boiled anti-hero that spouts off one liners in modern movies. Compare Sin City’s “It's time to prove to your friends that you're worth a damn. Sometimes that means dying. Sometimes it means killing a whole lot of people.” to “I’m not dying yet. I have to kill quite a few men first.” The movie is based off of Red Harvest by Dashiell Hammett, and is really a mix up of a samurai film and film noir. In turn, it was latter remade into “A Fist Full of Dollars.”
There’s less hope in this film than there is in other Kurosawa movies. Unlike the lost baby in Roshomon or the city park in Ikiru, I get the feeling that there’s no redemption for Mifune’s hero. There are several references to the gates of hell in the film, and this is perhaps the best description of where the hero resides. He’s constantly in a state of limbo where he hasn’t fallen into damnation but salvation seems like an impossibility. When the hero walks off at the end one can only assume he’s going to be wandering for the rest of his life.