If Akira Kurosawa's 1959 samurai pic The Hidden Fortress had seen the director move away from the serious minded Seven Samurai (1954) and Throne Of Blood (1957) and towards more light hearted genre fare, then his next but one feature, Yojimbo took this progression one step further. The two hour plus running time of the consciously epic The Hidden Fortress has been pared down to more manageable level, as has the plot, reducing a film to a single location and the simplest of narratives: a lone stranger (Toshiro Mifune) enters a small town populated by rival gamblers and sets about eradicating both, primarily by pitting them against each other.
In comparison to Kurosawa's earlier samurai works, the most striking aspect of Yojimbo is just how cartoonish it is. The small town itself is so ridiculously tiny that the rival gangs are separated only by a tiny street - a concept that would seem out of place in one of the more absurd Looney Tunes. Moreover, its populated almost entirely by grotesques, each one sporting either flamboyant costumes, facial tattoos or ridiculous looking hair. Daisuke Sato, in particular, with his rabbit teeth and monobrow wouldn't look out of place in a Chaplin two-reeler of the 1910s.
Even Mifune's character, very much the outsider, fits into this scheme. From the opening scene it is apparent that he has had a less than savory past courtesy of his insouciant manner, not to mention his unshaven and flea-ridden state, a fact confirmed when he offers a made up identity when pressed for a name. More interesting, however, is how the character compares with Mifune's previous roles in Kurosawa's period dramas (1950's Rashomon, Seven Samurai, Throne Of Blood). The more serious works present either naive or innocent parts for the actor, gradually giving way, with The Hidden Fortress to more laconic, cynical characters, a situation that would continue beyond Yojimbo with Sanjuro (1962) and Red Beard (1965). Indeed, there is an aspect of American private eye in Yojimbo insofar as Mifune finds himself unwittingly in the centre of an explosive situation with only his smarts and his world weary toughness to protect him - an aspect that becomes less surprising when it is is considered that the films unofficial source was Red Harvest, a crime novel by Dashiel Hammett, best known as the author of The Thin Man and The Maltese Falcon. However, as with Throne Of Blood and Rashomon, there is still something far from perfect about the character. After all, his justification for cleaning up the town is that "it would be better if they were [all] dead", hardly the most heroic way of going about the issue.
That said, the audience still gains a huge amount of enjoyment seeing the machinations of Mifune's plot get under way, and it soon becomes apparent that he is easily the most appealing person on-screen. The main pleasures, however, derive from the black humour that Kurosawa allows to penetrate the entire proceedings. His glee in wiping out almost the entire population of a town is the most notable example, yet the director allows the darker edge to also creep into the details; the first site to greet Mifune's arrival is is a stray dog carrying a severed hand in its mouth.
These less serious aspects do not show a director in regression, however, Kurosawa's celebrated use of composition, particularly within the widescreen frame is exemplary here as elsewhere, and his ability to draw fine performances from Mifune (which no other director could quite match, as the actor himself admitted) likewise stands comparison. Where Yojimbo differentiates itself from his earler output is the sense of fun he is obviously having, perhaps now fully aware of his talents following the string of excellent movies he produced the fifties. Indeed, Kurasawa's next work would be a direct sequel, the jokier Sanjuno surely the only proof needed that the director found great enjoyment in taking obvious genre elements and twisting them in a playful manner. The fight scenes, in particular, are indicative of this, reducing the lengthy battles of Seven Samurai to breathless duels that last mere seconds. (Sanjuro's conclusion would famously take this to its limit.) The films best joke sees Mifune spend minutes trashing a room so as to look as though a massive brawl has occurred, whereas the reality of the situation is that he has dispatched of six opponents in no more than 10 seconds.
This playfulness proved infectious to other crewmembers too. The score by Masura Sato, a Kurosawa regular since Seven Samurai, is particularly jaunty. Mixing traditional Japanese percussion with brass instruments and an organ, there's an incongruity at work that is immensely appealing. From a modern perspective, it is impossible to hear the music (especially the jazzy theme that accompanies the opening credits) without being reminded of the numerous spaghetti westerns that took Yojimbo as their source and likewise made use of unexpected musical accompaniment. And yet whilst the most well known titles, A Fistful Of Dollars (1964) and Sergio Corbucci's Django (1966) enjoy sizeable cult followings, neither quite manages to approach Kurosawa's level of quality. (The famous "three coffins" line from Dollars originates here, incidentally). Indeed, the director may be celebrated for Rashomon, Seven Samurai and the like, yet Yojimbo undoubtedly proves that he had equal command of more lightweight tales.
Yojimbo's presentation on disc proves to be a mixture of positives and negatives. On one hand it offers the original Tohoscope ratio of 2.35:1, on the other, it happens to be non-anomorphic. Likewise, the print is free of any damage for the most part, yet suffers from being a little too soft and lacking in contrast which is particularly frustrating during the long shots. (Also frustrating is the fact that the BFI have since released the sequel, Sanjuro on disc with an almost faultless transfer.)
The sound fares better, presenting a two-channel monaural mix of the original Japanese with English subtitles. This presents no major problems, being clean and clear for the most part, though the subtitles are non-optional despite being electronically generated. (The option is given to have them appear within the scope frame or without.)
The discs major selling point, however, is the commentary by Philip Kemp. The film historian expands on the brief video commentary he recorded for the BFI's Seven Samurai release, allowing for many of the films themes to be discussed. Among these are the historical context and Yojombo's political parallels with contemporary Japan, as well as smaller details such as tiny in-jokes that Kurosawa included and even a mention of Rutger Hauer. Most impressive, however, is the inclusion of an index for the commentary allowing the viewer not only to jump to a discussion of, say, Kurasawa’s use of widescreen but also to skip past any of the silences that occasionally break up the chat.
The other extras are fairly minor, limited as they are to brief biographies of Kurasawa and Mifune (and are identical to those that appear on other BFI releases of the directors work).