Two of Akira Kurasowa's masterworks, masterfully presented in high definition.
Movie Grade: A
DVD Grade: A
The film and extras reviews are by Jon Danziger
Of all the great directors, Kurosawa may be the most approachable, and of all of his films, none are more crowd pleasing than this twin pair of samurai tales featuring the director's leading man of choice, Toshiro Mifune. Kurosawa's existential meditations are articulated more clearly in some of his other films, but nowhere else are they dramatized with the swift, severe action of these moviesóit's almost as if the director himself wishes to be judged by the samurai code, for he is a man we understand not by his words but his deeds. But even if you don't want to get all philosophical when you fire up the DVD player, these are a great pair of pictures to watchódramatically taut, occasionally horrifyingly funny, violent but never nauseous, a great old fun time at the movies.
Yojimbo has almost the setup of myth: Mifune plays Sanjuro, an itinerant samurai, who wanders into a town essentially paralyzed by the preparations for war between two rival camps. It's a gang fight, more or less, the two sides led respectively by Seibei (Seizaburo Kawazu) and Ushitora (Kyu Sazanka), and if they're at the moment in an uneasy truce, it's only because the violence is about to escalate. Sanjuro smells a business opportunityónot only could he hire himself out to one side or the other, but he could make himself the object of a bidding war, for the faction with the lethal samurai on its side is surely to triumph.
The influence of American Westerns on Kurosawa's work may be overstated, but there's no doubting the affinity between a movie like this and the work of John Fordóthe principal setting of the movie, the barren center of town, could be a set ready to be dressed for a gunfight with a few fewer kimonos, and a couple more pairs of chaps. As with other Kurosawa samurai pictures, this one is set in a period where the law is an afterthought, a centralized government still generations awayóit's a Hobbesian world in which things can be nasty, brutish and short, and it pays to have a way with the sword. (One striking early image shows a stray dog approaching Sanjuro, a severed hand in its mouthóit tells us all we need to know about the consequences and ubiquity of violence in this world.) Yojimbo is also about the forces of change, and how they're frequently for the worse: one character, back from his travels, returns with a handgun, and though we never truly fear for Sanjuro, we know that an arms race, even on the small scale of this single village, is inevitable.
There are many pleasures in watching Kurosawa's films, one of which is seeing how he deploys the actors in his de facto stock company in story after storyóseeing familiar faces like Takeshi Shimura and Tatsuya Nakadai is like meeting up again with old friends, not unlike the manner in which Preston Sturges used the same character actors time and again. But the hub of the wheel is unquestionably Mifune, who strides through the story like a grand movie staróhe's as close to John Wayne in this as he ever is. And certainly Kurosawa's technical mastery is unrivaledóhis use of the widescreen format for group portraits can be startling, and he favors high angles for his camera here, letting us know that bad things are sure to happen to those who play so close to the fire. The flattening of space that's characteristic of his later films (e.g., Kagemusha) hasn't quite taken hold here, but certainly the foreboding sense of anarchy and lawlessness very much anticipate the moral world of a movie like Ran.
The financial success of Yojimbo made a sequel an attractive proposition to all involved, but characteristically Kurosawa sought out a new challenge, and Sanjuro, made a year later, isn't simply more of the sameóit's lighter in many respects than its predecessor, and in some ways more overtly moral. Now the title character has latched on to a renegade band of nine who fear that their clan is being corrupted by the pernicious influence of the greedy branch of the familyótheir hearts may be in the right place, but Sanjuro quickly realizes that as warriors they're not only wet behind the ears, they're flat-out idiots. Kurosawa takes advantage of his audience's knowledge and provides very little setup, launching us right into the story; and his filmmaking style here is more kinetic, almost frantic with its moving camera and frames within frames, showing characters in doorways, watching one another over fences, eavesdropping through paper-thin walls, and so on.
Sanjuro's strategy starts out as similarly cynicalóif he can play the sides against one another in order to maximize the violence, he can drive up his price. But he's soon won over by the earnest commitment and stupidity in warfare of the renegades, and the movie takes on the tone of The Perils of Pauline, with one improbable escape fast on the heels of another. This being a samurai story, the movie isn't without its share of violence, and it's the conceit of both Sanjuro films that not only can the great warrior take on a dozen men at once, but that his future victims will stand idly by and wait for their turn to be the next lamb sent to the slaughter. The final showdown is brief but particularly graphic here, featuring an arterial spray that lashes out with the full fury of a firehose having at a five-alarm jobóit's both comical and gruesome, and as the film's penultimate image may be the one that stays with you. But it's only a prelude to Sanjuro's final retreat, the warrior alone, his destination known to him alone. These are about all you could ask of a couple of samurai pictures, and then some.
The Discs: Both films make their HD debut, and manage to eclipse the previous (quite excellent) DVD re-issues by a wide margin. Though still exhibiting he natural film grain you'd expect for 50-year-old films, these transfers offer increased definition, clarity, and depth to the black-and-white images. The original mono and a remastered DTS-HD track are also included, though the latter is perhaps overkill for such aged audio elements, especially since most of us will be reading the subtitles rather than paying attention to the dialogue.
Both films have been previously released by Criterion on DVD several times; the Blu-rays incude all of the previous extras, including commentaries from Kurosawa scholar Stephen Prince. As you might anticipate, there's a lot of compare and contrast to thisóbetween the two films, between Kurosawa's work and Ford's, between these pictures and earlier and later Kurosawa movies. Prince is particularly strong on the technical aspects of Kurosawa's filmmaking, and he's got lots of great observations on the director's influenceóBonnie and Clyde, for instance, was probably unthinkable without Yojimbo. This is another strong effort from Prince.
Each disc also includes a trailer and a teaser for its respective title, along with a stills gallery showing the director at work on the set; and each also includes the appropriate episode of Akira Kurosawa: It Is Wonderful to Create, the film-by-film retrospective series produced by Toho Studios. The emphasis is not just on the making of the films, but on how they reinvented the samurai genre and influenced action filmmaking generally; filmmakers on both sides of the camera are interviewed, and especially winning is composer Masaru Sato.
Both titles come with accompanying booklets as well, featuring the director's thoughts on the films (from interviews with Donald Richie); recollections from members of the production team; and essays by Alexander Sesonke (Yojimbo) and Michael Sragow (Sanjuro).