by HELEN GEIB
In 1961, Akira Kurosawa’s blackly comic, transgressive samurai movie Yojimbo gave birth to one of world cinema’s greatest characters. Played magnificently by Toshiro Mifune, the yojimbo is a wandering hired sword (“yojimbo” translates as “bodyguard”), a ronin in samurai parlance. His sword is for hire, but not his loyalty. His loyalty isn’t for sale because it would be stupid to deal in loyalty as a commodity with people who will sell you out for a bag of rice.
The yojimbo is still alive because he’s smarter and stronger than most people, and because he values his life too highly to sacrifice it to an archaic code of feudal loyalty.
The yojimbo is a man with no name (to pick up on the appellation popularized by Sergio Leone’s spaghetti Western remake A Fistful of Dollars, famously starring Clint Eastwood in the Mifune role). When asked for his name in Yojimbo, he jokingly responds “Sanjuro Kuwabatake,” loosely translating to “30 year old Mulberry.” The nonsense surname became the title of the first sequel, Sanjuro.
Made a year later and re-teaming Kurosawa and Mifune, Sanjuro has a lighter comedic tone than Yojimbo. The first film satirizes the romantic myths of the feudal warring states era in its plot and setting, an isolated and insular village that has devolved to a pre-civilized state after an unchecked turf war between the local, rival strongmen merchants.
Sanjuro takes a softer view of the past as the yojimbo takes a group of naïve young samurai under his wing and foils the plans of a devious, power-hungry official. The yojimbo explodes the young men’s ideas of a proper samurai, but there are still good people and a good way to live within the system.
Note on the DVD release: Yojimbo and Sanjuro are available on DVD individually or as a box set from The Criterion Collection. Video and audio quality is excellent. Features for each DVD include a commentary track by Stephen Prince, a film historian and Kurosawa scholar, a documentary on the making of the film created as part of the “Toho [the studio] Masterworks” series, theatrical trailer, stills gallery, and a booklet with a critical essay and cast and crew production notes.
Eight years later, Mifune brought the yojimbo back to the screen in Incident at Blood Pass (1970), a tremendously entertaining film with a delightfully complex plot of hidden motives, crosses, and double crosses featuring beautiful women, incompetent officials, young lovers, an old innkeeper, bandits, and mysterious strangers. The yojimbo has mellowed a little with the passage of time and much wandering, and is now willing to go very slightly out of his way to help someone out.
The years have not dulled his intelligence or his blade, and his loyalty still isn’t for sale.
Incident co-stars Katsu Shintaro, star of the long-running Zatoichi film series. Shintaro agreed to appear in the film in a performance trade with Mifune, who had agreed to appear in Zatoichi Meets Yojimbo (1965). Mifune’s character in the latter film is like a variation on the yojimbo character, adapted to play second fiddle to the blind swordsman Zatoichi in a Zatoichi movie.
The result is a fun entry in the Zatoichi series with another enjoyably convoluted plot, though it’s a film of distinctly lesser filmmaking quality than Incident. Shintaro fared better out of the deal: Incident gave him the opportunity to play a different, intriguing, and not typecast character.
Note on the DVD release: Incident and Zatoichi Meets Yojimbo are available on DVD under the “Samurai Cinema” label of Animeigo. The Samurai Cinema releases exceed even the Criterion Collection releases in quality. Video and audio are always fabulous and the translations exceptionally good, even including optional translation and historical notes (like on-screen footnotes; I always turn them on). The Samurai Cinema releases have fewer extras than the typical Criterion release, but usually include an interesting booklet about the film.
New releases this week: Beowulf, The Darjeeling Limited, Death at a Funeral, Goya’s Ghosts, Resurrecting the Champ, Silk