Criterion // 1961 // 110 Minutes // Not Rated
Reviewed by Judge Dan Mancini (Retired) // January 23rd, 2007
"The story is so ideally interesting that it's surprising no one else ever thought of it." -- Akira Kurosawa
Akira Kurosawa's Seven Samurai was a huge box office hit in Japan in the mid-'50s. The Hidden Fortress surpassed it at the end of that decade. Yojimbo -- a bizarre and unlikely samurai flick at the time of its release -- raked in more yen at the box office than either Seven Samurai or The Hidden Fortress. Its success initiated a jidai geki revival of sorts, refreshing a tired old genre by turning it subversive. Ironically, it also rejuvenated the western in America and Europe, acting as a guiding light for directors like Sergio Leone (whose A Fistful of Dollars is a direct remake) and Sam Peckinpah.
In 1860s Japan, an impoverished itinerant ronin named Sanjuro Kuwabatake (Toshiro Mifune, Throne of Blood) wanders into a dusty town consumed by gambling and gang conflict. There, he meets a restaurant owner named Gonji (Eijiro Tono, The Lower Depths) who fills him in on the town's sorry state. The mayor, a silk broker named Tazaemon (Kamatari Fujiwara, The Hidden Fortress), is supported by yakuza boss and brothel owner Seibei (Seizaburo Kawazu, Chushingura). But a one-time retainer of Seibei's named Ushitora (Kyu Sazanka, The Bad Sleep Well) is making a play for his former boss' power. He and his oafish brother Inokichi (Daisuke Kato, Rashomon) have assembled a gang of ruffians and are backing sake dealer Tokuemon (Takashi Shimura, Ikiru) as the town's new mayor. The rest of the town is caught in the crossfire -- especially a poor sap named Kohei (Yoshio Tsuchiya, Seven Samurai), whose wife has been indentured as the concubine of Tokuemon. Business is bad for everyone but the coffin-maker (Atsushi Watanabe, One Wonderful Sunday).
Gonji urges Sanjuro to leave the town as quickly as possible -- the presence of a samurai skilled in combat can only bring more trouble. But Sanjuro decides to stick around and watch the deadlocked struggle between the yakuza bosses. Amused by their treachery and cowardice, Sanjuro hires his skills first to one side, then the other. Whether the ronin is a heartless mercenary or a hero isn't immediately clear, but his involvement in the town's conflict is complicated by the arrival of Ushitora's steely-eyed, revolver-bearing brother Unosuke (Tatsuya Nakadai, Kagemusha).
Influenced as it is by Hollywood westerns and films noir, it's difficult for westerners to fully understand how radical a picture Yojimbo was when it was released in Japan in 1961. A character like Sanjuro would've been unthinkable in Japanese cinema before World War II; a movie like Yojimbo would never have been made. Prior to the war, jidai geki (movies set in Japan's feudal past) and chanbara (sword-fight action movies) celebrated the ideal of the samurai code of honor called bushido. They were program pictures whose often predictable plots centered on the nobility of the warrior, rococo codes of conduct, and carefully rehearsed rituals of social propriety. Consider, for example, the tale of the loyal 47 ronin, a famous Japanese folk tale adapted several times into motion pictures (most notably by Kenji Mizoguchi in 1941's The 47 Ronin and Hiroshi Inagaki in 1962's Chushingura). The story is about a young lord forced to commit seppuku because of a minor ceremonial gaffe during a visit by the Shogun. Forty-seven of his retainers then wait two years before exacting revenge on the older lord who'd goaded their master into his deadly error. Having honored the spirit of bushido by carrying out justice on behalf of their master, they themselves commit seppuku for having broken the letter of the Shogun's law, thereby honoring bushido once again. It's a great story, but one in which the characters are subordinate to the ideas of honor, loyalty, and justice.
If Kurosawa turned jidai geki conventions on their heads when he humanized the heroes of his 1954 masterpiece, Seven Samurai, he annihilates those conventions in Yojimbo. Sanjuro is everything a samurai isn't in the eyes of Japanese traditionalists: poor, threadbare, sarcastic, self-serving (or so it seems), and willing to hire his sword to just about anyone in exchange for money or food. Plus, he eats like a slob. But in some ways, he is also the epitome of the warrior class: cunning, just, stoic, and frighteningly skilled with a sword. Kurosawa doesn't just strip away the obsession with propriety that characterizes old school samurai flicks, he goes out of his way to sully it. Sanjuro lacks all of the outward trappings of the samurai, all the stuff Kurosawa considered rigid, dehumanizing, and phony. But he has the important characteristics in spades -- bravery, skill, a sense of personal honor, and a realist's view of the world around him. He'd have been deeply offensive to Japanese in the 1930s, but was tailor-made for a '60s Japanese generation that had come of age in the wake of Hiroshima and Nagasaki, humiliating surrender, and nearly a decade of occupation by the American military.
Sanjuro is both an emulation of and reaction to Americanism. He's the seminal lone wolf samurai (an oxymoron before the war). Beaten down by life but resilient, he's cut from the same cloth as Ethan Edwards in John Ford's The Searchers. His struggle against chaos in the cruddy little town he stumbles upon by chance at the film's beginning reflects the ennui and distrust of authority among Japanese after the war. By the '60s, the Japanese intelligentsia and youth culture were angry at the empire that had led them down a path to slaughter and defeat, at the centuries of feudalism under samurai rule that had made them passive and compliant, and at the Americans who had bombed their cities, defeated them in war, and forced foreign customs on them. It's no surprise then that the story of a ragged samurai facing off against corrupt authority figures whose violent and corrosive self-interest has destroyed the lives of the people they are supposed to protect would resonate with Japanese in the 1960s. In the upside down (and all too true) world of Yojimbo, figures of official authority are corrupt and vile. Virtue belongs solely to the oppressed -- and a single vagabond ronin offended by the abuse of power he witnesses.
The Criterion Collection first brought Yojimbo to DVD way back in August of 1999 (the title carries spine number 52). While Criterion is renowned for their meticulous digital restorations, they were late adopters of anamorphic enhancement. As a result, the original releases of Kurosawa's chanbara classic was simply letterboxed. Beyond the issue of widescreen enhancement (which itself raised the ire of many a DVD geek), the 1999 release crop the film's 2.35:1 aspect ratio to about 2.0:1, making the disc (along with the release of its sequel, Sanjuro) perhaps the most controversial and vilified entry in Criterion's catalog. For the sake of fair play, it should be noted that Toho was wary of western production houses monkeying with their catalog back in the day, and kept a tight grip on the titles in their vaults -- especially prestige titles like Kurosawa's oeuvre. It's pretty clear watching the original disc that Criterion didn't create the transfer from a source carefully archived by the studio that produced the films. Criterion's official line in response to whinging home theater techno-nerds was that the image on the 1999 release, cropped it is, represent 100% of the image on the source materials at their disposal when the transfer was created. Based on their mostly exemplary track record, there's no reason to doubt them. The fact that Yojimbo opens with and English-language title card is proof enough that it was created from an inferior (and no doubt old) duplicate created for a theatrical release of the picture in the west.
So, the real question is how much of an improvement over the original is this remastered edition of Yojimbo? The answer: The new transfer looks so good it ought to silence the whingers once and for all. According to the liner notes, the movie was transferred from a 35mm fine-grain master positive produced directly from the original camera negative. Age-related defects were then digitally swabbed. The movie displays some minor flicker, as well as the sort of tiny print flaws that can only be removed if you want the final image to look like Kurosawa shot the movie on digital video. Detail is crisp. The black-and-white image offers a subtle and varied grayscale, with deep blacks. Whites are occasionally overblown, but this appears to be rooted in Kurosawa's use of anamorphic telephoto lenses, which required setups with copious amounts of light in order to maintain sharp focus. From time to time, the face of an actor standing in the background appears washed out and pallid, but as the actor moves one can see subtle shifts in lighting that indicate he is occupying a hot spot. It's a fairly minor technical glitch Kurosawa was apparently willing to suffer in order to achieve the overall visual effect he desired. That these isolated fluctuations in contrast are the biggest problem with the transfer ought to give you some notion of the excellent work Criterion has done in remastering Yojimbo.
By way of example, here's a screen capture of that ugly English-language title card from the 1999 release of Yojimbo:
Here's the Japanese-language title card from the new release:
Now, isn't that better?
Fans of the film are probably most curious (and worried) about the framing issue. I have good news on that front, too. The remastered edition is correctly framed at 2.35:1. Here's a screen capture from the original release of a key shot from in which Kurosawa blocks combatants at the edges of the frame in order to demonstrate their cowardice:
Here's the same shot from the new release:
Note that the cropping on the left side of the old transfer is relatively minor, but it does throw off the composition because of the way Kurosawa uses the extreme edges of the frame. (While you're studying the screen captures, note the remaster's superior contrast and detail.)
Audio has been similarly spruced up. When shooting the picture, Kurosawa utilized the Perspecta Stereophonic sound system, which spreads various frequencies of a mono track across three separate channels, creating more depth and allowing the sound to be mixed with side-to-side pans. Criterion decoded the picture's soundtrack with Perspecta equipment, digitally restored the output, and translated it into a Dolby 3-channel mix that spreads the sound across the entire front soundstage of 5.1 systems. The results are stunning. Not only is the abundant crackle and hiss on the 1999 release gone, but the remastered track is punchy and full-bodied. Masaru Sato's score benefits the most. None of the shrill distortion that marred his playful, bombastic themes on the original DVD release remains. Despite the new 3-channel mix, the default audio setting is a single-channel presentation of the mono track. The restored track is cleaner, brighter, and louder than that on the original release.
On the supplements front, Stephen Prince (The Warrior's Camera: The Cinema of Akira Kurosawa) provides an audio commentary. Prince's casual delivery of a wealth of production information, as well as his enthusiasm for Kurosawa, has made him my favorite commentator on director's pictures. (Criterion must share my affinity for Prince considering that, in addition to Yojimbo, he's recorded a track for its sequel, Sanjuro. Plus, he previously recorded tracks for their releases of Stray Dog, Kagemusha, Ikiru, Throne of Blood, Red Beard, and Ran, as well as participating in the roundtable commentary on Seven Samurai.)
The disc contains an episode of Akira Kurosawa: It Is Wonderful to Create, the documentary series produced by Toho for their Japanese DVD releases. The Yojimbo episode runs approximately 45 minutes. Kurosawa's assistant Teruyo Nogami, actor Tatsuya Nakadai, and others involved in the production contribute to the two documentary.
The only other supplements on the disc are a teaser and a theatrical trailer for the film.
Yojimbo also comes with a 22-page insert booklet that contains a variety of supplements. The book opens with a paragraph-long statement by Kurosawa about Yojimbo, reprinted from Donald Richie's seminal book on the director, The Films of Akira Kurosawa. Alexander Sesonke provides a little context for the film in his essay, "West Meets East." Finally, there are a trio of essays written by Kurosawa's collaborators on the film, the most interesting of which is the piece by Yojimbo's cinematographer Kazuo Miyagawa who had worked with Kurosawa on Rashomon.
All in all, you won't exactly feel buried in supplements, but the disc offers plenty of substance for what is essentially an action-adventure popcorn flick.
The Criterion Collection's upgrade of Yojimbo is beautiful to behold. "Double-dip" is normally a bad word among DVD geeks, but this disc is worth the investment. It's a tasty morsel that'll wipe away the bad taste of the 1999 release.
Review content copyright © 2007 Dan Mancini; Site layout and review format copyright © 1998 - 2014 HipClick Designs LLC
Scales of Justice
* 2.35:1 Anamorphic
* Dolby Digital 3.0 Surround (Japanese)
* Dolby Digital 1.0 Mono (Japanese)
Running Time: 110 Minutes
Release Year: 1961
MPAA Rating: Not Rated
* Commentary by Stephen Prince
* Akira Kurosawa: It Is Wonderful to Create Documentary
* Kurosawa on Yojimbo
* "West Meets East," Essay by Alexander Sesonske
* "First Encounter," Essay by Actor Tatsuya Nakadai
* "Yojimbo's Pan Focus," Essay by Cinematographer Kazuo Miyagawa
* "On the Making of Yojimbo," Essay by Script Assistant Teruyo Nogami
* Gallery of Behind-the-Scenes Photos
* Theatrical Trailer and Teaser