Yojimbo (1961) “The Benchmark for Action Movies”

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Starring:- Toshiro Mifune, Tatsuya Nakadai, Eijiro Tono, Seizaboru Kawazu, Kyu Sazanka, Daisuke Kato, Takashi Shimura, Kamatari Fujiwara, Isuzu Yamada, Atsushi Watanabe.

Directed by:- Akira Kurosawa

Action movies often serve as a hit-and-miss for me. The almost invisible existence of a concrete story and the eventual rise of franchises makes them an ordeal for a person like me. It feels like as if they are clinging onto comedy and editing to prove their relevance in the modern cinematic world. Even though the latter has become necessary to exemplify the experience, most of the movies in the club don’t have the perfect knowledge to incorporate comedy into the bloodstream, as a result of which, parodies of such action movies like Hot Fuzz become much more entertaining and cinematically viable than their much more glamorous inspirations.

Each genre has a movie which with time, transforms into a benchmark for the movies of that genre. If we come around to the pantheons of Action, None has the level of power and gravitas which Yojimbo enjoys over the present crop of action movies. It feels as if one goes on to make an action movie, one should introspect oneself with only one question – can my movie even remotely approach Yojimbo’s stature? If yes, take the jump. If no, take the jump. If you don’t know, move away.

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A slouching ronin who later takes up the name of Sanjuro Kuwabatake (Mifune) finds himself in a town riddled with bloody gang wars between two factions led by Seibei (Kawazu) and Ushitora (Sazanka). Both of them try to exert influence over the town’s administration by adjudging two influential businessmen in the town as the mayor, leading to an administration void. Living with a reluctant and distasteful tavern owner (Tono), Sanjuro keeps the two gangs on their feet to hire him after he displays his swordsmanship in a rapid style. Witty one-liners and humorous retorts slowly seem to conquer over the movie when Ushitora’s youngest brother Unosuke (Nakadai) returns to the town from his travels with a newly-found weapon to turn the tide towards his faction – a revolver. After a bout of fires, holes, hostages and epic stand-offs, Yojimbo turns out to be a cinematic force to be reckoned with.

Kurosawa was influenced by a film noir classic named The Glass Key from 1942 for the story. It further strengthens the notion that Yojimbo is an amalgamation of genres. Even though the setting and compositions evoke a sense of Western, the dialogues and the overall charisma of the movie inclines towards film noir – characterized by witty dialogues and the dubious nature of the protagonist. Sanjuro is an arduous character. Even though his intentions are laid out like a huge chessboard, his execution and mannerisms seem to contradict each other. His passion for money and distaste for weaklings is known, yet his actions would prove to be unlike something which one should expect from such a character.

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The action in Yojimbo is authentically raw yet refined in its approach towards the genre. The scenes are painfully composed and choreographed, as a result of which they turn out to be so fast and furious (truly) that it takes time to recollect what just happened. Mifune just glides past his enemies with his sword, the strikes being consolidated with the enemies’ moans. Kurosawa expertly uses the camera and his editing skills to make the scenes look serenely grim yet exciting. In the last battle of the movie, the music accelerates as Mifune charges at his enemies, after which it cuts out and only the sword and the enemies are heard with blood spouting like a fountain. Even though it might seem stupid at first, it is gruesomely beautiful to look at. After watching Yojimbo, directors like Michael Bay should realize that action doesn’t mean exploding cars and spraying fire on the camera – it should be realistic and at the same time, aesthetically strong.

Excellent performances from Mifune, Nakadai, Kato and Tono keeps the movie flowing like a turbulent river, riddled by dark stones like Isuzu Yamada and Seizoboru Kawazu. Kazuo Miyagawa, who has worked with filmmakers as chaotic as Kurosawa and as peaceful as Yasujiro Ozu, presents the town completely in wide angles, allowing the frames to breath, resulting in excellent shots and sequences complemented by the extraordinary score by Masaru Sato.

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Sato’s theme track for the movie can be considered as one of the very best of all time, as it heightened the charisma of our protagonist’s introduction with a mixture of styles and perfectly synchronized sequence. It is said that Kurosawa told Sato to write anything for the movie. Sato considered this as the chance to pay tribute to his favorite composer Henri Mancini, thus the flamboyantly playful score. One of the best tracks of the soundtrack has to be the theme for Seibei’s women, with a tune so Japanese that I saw the scene again and again out of pure admiration.

In conclusion, Yojimbo feels like the scroll which had all the secrets to make a great action film, but was reproduced in a comparatively lesser manner and got thrown into a gargantuan bonfire comprising of similar movies; the perpetrators being the fanatical maniacs who feel that firing guns and exploding cars are enough ingredients for an action flick. Even though Fury Road has managed to approach Yojimbo’s stature with some rusted oil tankers on its side, it is with great pleasure that one can say that Yojimbo can’t be dethroned from the Throne of Blood.

Pro:- Everything except…

Con:- Isuzu Yamada and Seizeboru Kawazu.

Ratings:- 4.4/5

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