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Savant International Dinner and a Movie Review:


Criterion 52
1961 / b&w / 2:1 (2:35) letterboxed flat / 110 min.
Starring Toshiro Mifune, Eijiro Tono, Kamatari Fujiwara, Takashi Shimura, Seizaburo Kawazu, Isuzu Yamada, Hiroshi Tachikawa, Kyu Sazanka, Tatsuya Nakadai, Daisuke Kato
Cinematography Kazuo Miyagawa
Production Designer Yoshiro Muraki
Film Editor Akira Kurosawa
Original Music Masaru Sato
Written by Ryuzo Kikushima, Dashiell Hammett sometimes credited to a novel by Dashiell Hammett
Produced by Ryuzo Kikushima, Akira Kurosawa, Tomoyuki Tanaka
Directed by Akira Kurosawa

Reviewed by Glenn Erickson

Before we saw Yojimbo, we were already tipped off that Sergio Leone's first Spaghetti Western, Fistful of Dollars, had been adapted from it, just as John Sturges had 'adapted' another Kurosawa samurai epic, Seven Samurai. What we weren't expecting was to find that the two movies are more than just similar; Leone remade Yojimbo scene by scene, joke by joke, almost.

This is a fast review of Criterion's DVD of Yojimbo, timed to coincide with a special screening of the film this Friday, May 17, at the Chicago Department of Cultural Affairs' International Dinner and a Movie night. These are special nights where the cost of admission buys not only the movie, but fine dining as well, in this case Japanese cuisine. The newest information from Chicago is that film critic Ray Pride will introduce the screening. Details for the event can be found on the web. Tickets for the event are $15 per person per event and may be purchased by calling (312) 742-TIXS.


A lone, mysterious samurai named Sanjuro Kuwabatake (Toshiro Mifune) drifts into a hamlet already split down the middle by two warring clans, each of which has taken on a retinue of hired swords to harass the other. Sizing up the situation, the stranger makes deals with first one side and then the other, cutting the private armies down to size, and quickly amassing a pile of mercenary loot.

The Japanese critics thought Kurosawa's ordinary films were too Western, and with Yojimbo he totally broke the mold. Paced more like a comedy than a period picture, and peopled with characters refreshingly free of historical meaning, this cynical samurai Western about a peerless mercenary was a monster international hit. The jazzy, percussive score, that hasn't much real connection with Japanese tradition, is just one factor that marked Yojimbo as a fresh step for the Samurai Film.

Toshiro Mifune plays the character lampooned by John Belushi on Saturday Night Live's skits - always scratching, often pulling his arms inside his tunic. Aloof, calculating, he always seems to have one more trick up his sleeve. The character isn't a clown, and doesn't ask for laughs, but like the Leone remake, a lot of what he does gets approving laughter from the audience.

The story is structured like a farcical fairy tale: the cagey Sanjuro (Yojimbo = bodyguard) hires himself out to one warring faction, causes some mayhem, and then switches sides. Pretty soon he has both sides annihilating one another while he sits in the middle getting rich. But he isn't totally bad: along the way he makes friends with a neutral barman, and helps a couple escape the clutches of one of the evil families. Like James Bond, he's a character we know won't get killed. Even as we marvel at the intricacies of the fighting, we never take the picture all that seriously. I'm informed that such a weapon was indeed real, but the wonderful shot where one side's warriors line up threateningly in the street, with one giant fighter carrying an oversized, Yosemite Sam-style mallet, is hilarious just the same.

Kurosawa's storytelling style plays nice tricks with the pacing. The picture slows down for long stretches, only to burst into fast action at a moment's notice, and then subside again ... and the relaxed segments get shorter until the expected violent climax. A followup to the film, called Sanjuro, is available from Criterion now as well.

Audiences really enjoy this picture, and the Chicago group this Friday will surely have a great time.

The DVD edition of Yojimbo is not Criterion's finest hour, although they have a good defense in that it came early in the DVD years, before the company fully defined their standards. The transfer is misidentified as being 2:35, when it's closer to 2:05 or so, and it crops off parts of titles during the opening sequence. It may be an original printing element, but it's a 'Seneca International' American issue of the picture, that's not very punchy in the b&w range, and has damage here and there, including some ragged splices in the opening. Neither is it 16:9 enhanced. It came out just as Criterion was adopting anamorphic enchancement as a standard feature.

Not that Criterion necessarily could have done a better job, considering the Toho studio's weird track record when it comes to licensing their properties. They won't distribute subtitled product themselves in the states, but they allow graymarket VHS's to proliferate. When an American distributor does have a licensing deal in place, they may send bad prints, or nothing, when it comes time to remaster. In many cases, especially all those popular monster movies of the '50s and '60s, the licensing contracts are so dusty that it's not worth the effort to reassert rights that lawyers say have now reverted entirely back to Toho.

Apparently Criterion had no choice but to go with a domestic print master of the original American art house release. We know these films can look great on DVD, as does Criterion's The Hidden Fortress. That superior disc even replicates the original 'perspecta stereo' track, that Stuart Galbraith IV assures me belongs on Yojimbo as well. A truly awesome Kurosawa experience, Red Beard, is on the way soon, and Stuart hopes that the stereo track can be located for that title as well. Yojimbo and High and Low remain great movies that play well on DVD, but should be in line for remastering, when Toho gets its senses together.  1

For those in the Chicago area, the The Dinner and a Movie screening this Friday should be an occasion not to miss.

On a scale of Excellent, Good, Fair, and Poor,
Yojimbo rates:
Movie: Excellent
Sound: Fair
Supplements: Trailer
Packaging: Amaray case
Reviewed: May 14, 2002


1. Toho also guards its Godzilla franchise like a miser with his gold - entire books have been recalled because they contained publicity-originated stills not licenced from the company. I looked at a new Godzilla fan book the other day, the kind that does nothing but increase interest in Toho's movies, and the only images in it were advertising poster art. What a bunch of numbskulls - Toho must have Lucas-On-The-Brain or something.

DVD Savant Text © Copyright 2007 Glenn Erickson

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