Criterion // 1961 // 110 Minutes // Not Rated
Reviewed by Judge Brendan Babish (Retired) // March 23rd, 2010
"I'm not dying yet. I have to kill quite a few men first."
Drawing inspiration from American Westerns and pulp fiction (Dashiell Hammett's novel Red Harvest, in particular), Yojimbo is one of Japanese Director Akira Kurosawa's essential films (from a career full of highly regarded movies). The film is so popular that it has proved influential for both Japanese and American cinema -- including, ironically, American Westerns. Now, the Criterion Collection is re-releasing Yojimbo on Blu-ray with a remastered digital transfer. For any knowledgeable film lover, this is reason to celebrate. Is this a movie that can be appreciated by those who are used to a strict diet of contemporary American films?
An early adoptee of the Man With No Name concept, Yojimbo (which translates to "Bodyguard") is the story of a mysterious ronin (Toshirô Mifune, The Hidden Fortress), or unaffiliated samurai. After wandering into a dangerous town, the man learns that two competing crime families are violently vying for control of the village, crippling local businesses and causing much loss of life. After the ronin makes a public display of his swordsmanship -- killing some belligerents in the town square -- a bidding war ensures between the families for his services. However, though the ronin is destitute, he doesn't seem interested in money. Instead, he seems to think the only way to bring peace to the town is if both sides completely wipe each other out. Can he get them to do that without making himself a casualty as well?
Though Kurosawa is a cinematic giant, I imagine his films -- especially one that's fifty years old, presented in black and white, and with subtitles -- could sound daunting for casual filmgoers. They shouldn't be scared off. Though volumes have been written on the style, minutiae, and deeper meanings of this film, I can't emphasize enough how fun and exciting Yojimbo is.
Kurosawa sets the mood perfectly early in the film, when the samurai enters a desolate village and is greeted by a dog carrying a severed hand in its mouth. Shortly afterward he encounters a gang of thugs and before we know it the film's already got a body count of three. Indeed, throughout Yojimbo, people are either killing each other or threatening to kill each other. This is not to say that indiscriminate violence makes a film great (if that were the case, Steven Seagal wouldn't be selling energy drinks now), but this has got to be one of the most violent "important" films I've ever seen -- or at least, up until Quentin Tarantino came of age.
What elevates Yojimbo far beyond exploitation is ingenious storytelling, strong characters, and Kurosawa's brilliant style. As often happens with great movies, Yojimbo's story is deceptively simple. However, this is only because characters are defined so succinctly and distinctly that their actions seem like natural (or obvious) responses to their situations. Never once does a character seem to do anything contrived just to advance the plot. Additionally, the characters are so colorful: just a few of the most memorable are the conniving Orin (Isuzu Yamada), the buffoonish Inokichi (Daisuke Katô), and the dandy Unosuke (Tatsuya Nakadai). Of course, as the lead, the unnamed samurai is a perfect, inscrutable center of sanity in the midst of the chaos all around him.
This chaos is beautifully heightened by Kurosawa, rightly considered one of the best directors in the history of cinema. He not only uses camera placement to highlight the drama of each scene (especially any scene involving a showdown), but he sets the mood with fantastic visuals, such as the occasional sandstorms or the ronin sitting upon a tower watching a brawl on the street below.
With all the deserving plaudits Yojimbo has received over the years, there are probably few people wondering if the film is any good. The question, rather, is how good are the transfer and extras on the Blu-ray disc. For anyone familiar with Criterion, the answer should not be surprising: very good.
The initial Criterion release of Yojimbo on DVD was fine at the time, but it pales in comparison to this new transfer. This 1080p picture both eliminates all the tiny specks in the previous print and creates a sharp contrast between black and varying shades of gray. This is no small improvement. Both in tone and lighting, Yojimbo is a dark movie, and the nighttime scenes are presented with a clarity I don't think anyone has seen outside of movie theater screenings of this film. Additionally, Kurosawa's fine attention to detail pays off with a transfer that presents daytime scenes as clear, bright, and pristine. I couldn't imagine a fifty-year-old film with a limited budget could ever look this good.
The disc features a DTS-HD Master Audio 3.0 mix that replicates the initial Perspecta Stereo sound of Yojimbo's original release. The excellent soundtrack, at times whimsical and sometimes threatening or foreboding, is spread out nicely over the front channels. There is also an uncompressed mono track, which gives the film a dated feel that matches the movie's age and might be preferred by nostalgic viewers.
In addition to these technical upgrades, the Blu-ray contains the same bonus features included on Criterion's DVD re-release in 2007. These include an informative commentary track by film scholar Stephen Prince and an excellent 45-minute documentary on the making of Yojimbo. For those who do not yet own that DVD re-release, an upgrade is clearly in order. If you do, then this might be a tough call, but I can't imagine fans of the film being disappointed with the audio and visual upgrades of this transfer.
This Blu-ray remaster gives cinema lovers reason to rejoice; I'm sure this film has never looked this good. Novices and newbies should be excited as well: If you haven't seen Yojimbo yet, there is no better time (or transfer) to watch this great movie.
Not guilty, old man.
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Scales of Justice
* 2.35:1 Non-Anamorphic (1080p)
* DTS HD 3.0 Master Audio (Japanese)
* PCM 1.0 Mono (Japanese)
Running Time: 110 Minutes
Release Year: 1961
MPAA Rating: Not Rated
* Photo Gallery