It ain't easy to follow in the footsteps of a movie as good as Yojimbo, as this anime demonstrated quite eloquently for Judge Sandra Dozier.
There are two sides to every war…
Kaze no Yojimbo is a modern-day retelling of famed director Akira Kurosawa's 1961 Yojimbo, starring the magnificent Toshiro Mifune. This classic spawned countless homages and an entire genre, when director Sergio Leone and young actor Clint Eastwood got together in 1964 to create the spaghetti western A Fistful of Dollars, and never fails to disappoint. The anime, although an ambitious undertaking, falls a little short of the glory shared by its big-screen bretheren.
Facts of the Case
George Kodama, the hero of our story, stirs up more than dust when he arrives in the tiny town of Kimujuku. He loses a chain that is important to him, witnesses the aftermath of a gang hit on a resident, and scuffles with gang members within thirty minutes of his arrival. He is searching for information on a man called Genzo Araki, and it becomes clear as soon as he starts asking around that the townspeople, who don't seem to know anything about Araki, are hiding something from him.
Further complicating things is the strict division of the town between two warring factions, both of whom are interested in the new stranger. When George decides to stay a while, things really start to heat up.
In the original Yojimbo story, a ronin (wandering Samurai) arrives in a small town that is ruled by two gangs and, for reasons that are never explicity stated, decides to play them against each other to free the enslaved townspeople. Whether a ronin or, as in Fistful of Dollars, a gun-for-hire, the mysterious stranger comes into town and makes his decision with very little explanation or talking, but our eyes are riveted on him. A lot depends on whether the actor can keep the audience interested. Mifune and Eastwood carry this off without even breaking a sweat; both actors are icons in great part due to their incredible screen presence. One hardly dares to blink when they are in frame.
This is where Kaze no Yojimbo fails: George has no screen presence. What is obviously an attempt to show calm skill and poise during the first fight scene is ruined by his self-satisfied smirks of pleasure when he pulls a fast one on the local yokels. He comes off more like a bored punk who is letting off a little steam. Also, George comes to town with a purpose and and arc—half the appeal of the ronin in Yojimbo is that you never know his past or what motivates him to help the townspeople. George is not a mystery man with uncertain intentions, and he is therefore reduced from mythic status. I also felt that the story introduced other characters too early on. Part of establishing the larger-than-life image of the ronin is to make him the central focus for the first part of the story, with only peripheral attention paid to the other characters, or even the plot, until he is firmly established.
There is a lot to distract George once he settles in, including two potential love interests—the young daughter of one of the gang leaders, and the more mature mistress of the other boss. All of it spells trouble of the best kind, but I found the obligatory teenage girl character (the daughter) to be a disappointing attempt at pandering to the audience. In fact, the lingering focus on her girlish crush and George's ambiguous responses only served to undercut the story even more. Plenty happens, but it took me a while to warm up to it and to care about any of it.
Having originally run in 2001, Kaze no Yojimbo has a very clear and crisp transfer to DVD, with a gorgeous, warm color palette that is shown off nicely. I really liked the animation for this series, despite some flashy-looking "TV static" backgrounds and scene overlays that I could do without. Fortunately, these all-flash-no-substance techniques are pretty much abandoned after the first couple of episodes. Sound quality is also very good, with a lively stereo mix that makes good use of cross-channel movement and has a good deal of ambient noise that comes through clearly and distinctly. Aside from the awful opening and ending themes, which were sung with a high nasal whine in a voice that I found extremely irritating, I very much enjoyed the music score, which had an interesting flavor—it seemed like an homage to both the original movie and the spaghetti western made from it, like a cross between the two. This disc was light on extras, unless you count pr! eviews, but made up for it with a total of five episodes.
One thing of note: I was not happy with the English dub for this title and preferred to listen in the original performances in Japanese. I felt that some of the parts were a little exaggerated, and George sounded more bored than thoughtful. Also, I don't think it was wise to rename the character from Joji (pronounced "Gee-oh-Gi") to George. It's just such a nondescript name, which is perhaps the point, but it makes him sound more like a banker than a cool loner.
The Rebuttal Witnesses
Pretending, for a moment, that this isn't based on Yojimbo and seeing it as its own work, I still have trouble connecting with the bland George, but the overall story is engaging and well done, with interesting characters and situations. I especially like the mysterious Sanae Araki, who owns the inn and is mistress to one of the gang leaders (and possibly something else to the other boss). I want to know her story. Also, by the time episode five is over, there is a major event, and enough of a mystery that I want to see more.
Fans of Yojimbo may want to check this out just to see a new take on a classic, but don't go in with expectations too high. This is still an enjoyable series if you don't put too many hopes on the presence and charisma of leading man George.
Barring any future tomfoolery, Kaze no Yojimbo is free to go, but there will be a fine if that nasty theme music is used in the next release.
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