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'
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
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,
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