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Yojimbo (Akira Kurosawa) 1961


    Set in 1860, Akira Kurosawa’s Yojimbo opens with a title card that tells us the emergence of a middle class has taken the upper class out of power. Unlike opening titles in most period movies, this information is no mere background detail. It’s closer to a mission statement. Yojimbo is a purposely-inflated satiric comedy that takes to task the capitalist motives that sprang up with emergence of a middle class in Japan. Since he’s skewering capitalism, which is a generally thought of as a Western phenomena, Kurosawa stylistically echoes several Western genres (most notably the western and the gangster film), in this samurai epic. Another title card tells us that Sanjuro (Toshiro Mifune), his recently unemployed hero, has nothing but his sword and his wits to protect him. He stumbles into the microcosmic hamlet that provides the setting of the entire film penniless, but quickly begins to improve his fortunes once he sizes up the transparent situation before him. His success basically argues that it’s only the cleverest and most devious that will thrive in such a flawed system.


    In Yojimbo, two warring clans of thugs are fighting for control of the gambling trade, and each of them is eager to recruit Sanjuro’s services as a samurai so that they might gain the upper hand in their impending clash.  When Sanjuro resorts to two-timing treachery, playing one side’s capitalist opportunism against the other, the movie wants us to cheer, since it seems to confirm Kurosawa’s obvious stance that the middle class, and capitalist concerns that occupy them, are rather senseless. The gang leaders’ self-destructive unwillingness to cooperate with each other is born out of their desire to control the limited resources of the village. Instead of working together to increase the village’s overall wealth, they squabble over it, resulting in its destruction. Mifune’s samurai turns that hubris against them, and the biggest joke of all seems to be that so much death and destruction is wrought over such meager wealth. These men have enough power to command respect from lowlifes and felons, but they aren’t nearly powerful enough to impact any real social change. When a government official shows up, they push their agendas aside so that they may compete in groveling and bribing. Kurosawa, never one to be particularly subtle, sets the tone early on by having Sanjuro see a dog running by with a human hand in its mouth as he enters the village. Nearly everyone in the village is equated with that dog here, and they all are fighting over table scraps.


    It’s odd that Kurosawa should have a reputation as a great humanist, since his films often show us a rather cynical worldview. Ultimately, this movie seems to argue that the poor and rich shouldn’t mingle. Besides Sanjuro, his greatest sympathies here seem to lie with the lowest class inhabitants in the town, who mostly stay shuttered up in their homes while they wait for the middle class to off themselves with Sanjuro’s help. As weary as they seem with the state of affairs, they seem to have grown fairly adept at navigating it. When the vigilante Sanjuro implies that his killing is justified since he’s outsmarted the criminal riffraff, he’s dispensing a skewed morality. No one designates him as the purveyor of justice here, but he assumes the mantle anyway, and becomes judge, jury, and executioner. He manipulates and lies to his prospective employers to turn them against each other, but you can’t shake the feeling that Kurosawa sees him as something greater than the commodity that the geisha girls are. The satiric power of the movie suffers whenever it creates a hallowed place for his character and places his accountability outside of the same realm as everyone else’s. Just because Sanjuro is a self-aware product doesn’t mean that he isn’t still a product. It just so happens that on this occasion he opts to get paid in goodwill over gold. It seems odd that he never seems to notice that his attempts at compassion backfire, time and again.


    Sanjuro just sits on his perch, above the common folk, and watches as they tear each other apart, and that standoffish point of view seems reflective of Kurosawa’s worldview. As a result, some of the observation that the film doles out seems rather schematic. In Seven Samurai, he similarly filtered varying points of view through his large cast, but it never felt calculated like it does here. The audience is placed in the same position as Sanjuro, and can similarly watch the gears turning behind the scenes, but I’m not entirely sure that this effect is intentional. It’s fortunate that this material wasn’t intended as a drama, since it’s a bit thin and obvious, though you worry sometimes that the director intends to play the scenes with a straight face. If that’s the case, Kurosawa seems downright contemptuous of humanity if this brand of heroism is the best he can scrounge up. The film’s direction seems to coast by more on virtuosity than necessary technique at times, though Kurosawa’s bloody showmanship often mocks the inflated sense of purpose that floats around in the film’s most dramatic moments. Still, there’s no denying its snappiness. Whenever you shut your brain off, it hums amicably right along.

* * * 1/2


Jeremy Heilman