YOJIMBO: THE CRITERION COLLECTION – Blu-ray review

[This dual review of “Yojimbo” and “Sanjuro” references the 2010 Blu-Ray release of both films, and has been cross-posted for each title. The main body of the review is identical for both, but the Video, Audio, Extras and Film Value sections are different.]

With a twitch of the neck, a scratch of the beard, and a roll of the shoulder, Toshiro Mifune became the most iconic film samurai of all-time, and Akira Kurosawa produced a film that would help to transform cinema in multiple genres across the globe.

In “Yojimbo” (“bodyguard”) Sanjuro (Mifune) is a ronin (a masterless samurai) who rolls into a backwater town where rival gangs duel for control of the local gambling business. A helpful townie advises Sanjuro to leave before all hell breaks loose, but hell is just the business opportunity he’s been looking for. With typical economy, he assesses the situation: “I’ll get paid for killing, and this town is full of people who deserve to die.”

And die they do, darned near every one of them, but despite its reputation as one the grandfathers of the modern ultra-violent samurai film, very little screen time is devoted to actual swordplay. There are only a handful of fights in “Yojimbo,” the largest of which occur partly off-screen. And when action breaks out, there is little elaborate choreography, just the snicker-snack of a few lightning strikes from the whirling dervish hero and a stack of corpses left behind.

The real pleasure in “Yojimbo” stems not from the violence, but the joy that Mifune takes in playing one gang off the other. He agrees to work as a bodyguard for one but indignantly returns their money when his honor is offended and works for the other, only to play double agent back to the other side. If you take Sanjuro at face value, he’s doing it strictly for the money, but mercenary though he may be, it’s obvious that his real reward is watching these twits cut each other to shreds while he cackles from his hightower perch, not just a superior fighter but a superior being to this rabble.

Many of Kurosawa’s films have provided fodder for Western filmmakers. “The Seven Samurai” became “The Magnificent Seven.” “Hidden Fortress” provided major inspiration for “Star Wars.” But none of his films have been emulated as often or as blatantly as “Yojimbo.” The basic structure of the story – a rogue of ambiguous moral values working both sides of the fence in a corrupt town – is so pliable it was easily transferred (i.e. copied shot for shot) by Sergio Leone in “A Fistful of Dollars” which, in turn, helped to launch the spaghetti Western genre, replete with numerous copycats of Leone’s copycat. “Yojimbo” also provided the template for later films like the unfortunate Bruce Willis vehicle “Last Man Standing” (1996), the idiotic gangster film “Lucky Number Slevin” (2006) and Takashi Miike’s nifty “Tsukiyaki Western Django” (2007). Different genres and periods all, but the “Yojimbo” model can be used in almost any milieu.

Kurosawa had almost single handedly turned Japanese cinema into a viable global commodity in the 50s, but “Yojimbo” proved to be one of his biggest hits yet, and helped burnished the already considerable reputation of Mifune. Therefore, Kurosawa decided to modify a script he had already been working on, one based on the book “Peaceful Days” by Shugoro Yamamoto, and re-work into a sequel.

“Sanjuro” sees the wandering ronin in a more benevolent mode. He adopts a group of committed but clueless young samurai who seek to rescue their chamberlain who has been kidnapped by local thugs seeking to wrest control of the clan. Sanjuro plays the prickly pear once again, but it’s easy to see the teddy bear inside. He grumps and mocks and pretends to be aloof, but settles happily into the role of a mentor who can’t hide the affection he has for his new charges.

Still, while “Sanjuro” is pitched as a gentler, more whimsical version of “Yojimbo,” it is, in some ways, even more violent. Sanjuro literally cuts down an entire room full of guards in a matter of seconds, and the film’s denouement features a geyser of blood that ushered in the splatter-era, somewhat to Kurosawa’s chagrin. This final duel is one of the greatest pieces of staging in any Kurosawa film. Sanjuro and his opponent stand completely motionless for more than 30 seconds, and the fight starts and ends in a single perfectly executed stroke. Measure twice, cut once.

“Sanjuro” is usually seen as the somewhat watered-down sequel to “Yojimbo.” The only truth in that assessment is that Kurosawa and his writers depict Sanjuro fighting for a righteous cause instead of playing the trickster god of “Yojimbo.” But it’s still a splendid film and on viewing it again for this Blu-Ray release, I think I like it as much as the first one. Mifune is in fine fettle in both films. As long as he’s got that shoulder roll working, he really can’t be beat.

Furthermore, Kurosawa makes brilliant use of widescreen in both films and arranges action on multiple planes with a natural grace that makes it look deceptively effortless. The scenes in “Yojimbo” with Sanjuro sitting high above the two warring factions massing on each side of the frame, or the compositions with the nine young samurai lined up behind a prowling Mifune provide copious amounts of audio-visual pleasure. Even though Kurosawa doesn’t utilize elaborately staged battle scenes as in “The Seven Samurai” (1954) both films are loaded with tense, dynamic sequences.

“Yojimbo” and “Sanjuro” were released by Criterion in their early days on sub par transfers with no extras. Many Criterion enthusiasts consider them among the worst titles in the collection. Both were re-released in 2007 as a set with digitally restored transfers, a commentary track and other extras, marking a vast improvement. Now Criterion has released the films in Blu-Ray, both individually and, at a slight discount, in a boxed set.

VIDEO

“Yojimbo” is presented in a 2.35:1 anamorphic transfer. The Blu-Ray is, as expected, a step-up from the 2007 digitally restored SD release though it is not quite as significant an improvement as some of Criterion’s best Blu-Rays (like “Days of Heaven” and “Last Year at Marienbad.”) The contrast is sharper and the image generally looks brighter with characters standing out more distinctly from the backgrounds – frequently white walls that can cause characters/objects in the foreground to blur a bit on the SD (esp. in the awful original release.)

AUDIO

The DVD is presented in PCM Mono and is also offered with a DTS-HD Master Audio Perspecta 3.0 stereo track. Perspecta was a short-lived technology which simulated stereo effects though it really offered mono sound on alternating channels. I prefer the Mono, but it’s great to have the option to hear it as some theater-goers would have during its original run. The lossless sound is clean and sharp with the major improvement being audible in the music Masaru Sato. Optional English subtitles support the Japanese audio.

EXTRAS

The extras are duplicated from the 2007 SD release. They are rendered in HD.

The commentary by Stephen Prince, author of “The Warrior’s Camera: The Cinema of Akira Kurosawa” was originally recorded in 2006 for Criterion. It is one of the most exhaustively researched and details tracks I have ever heard. Prince even identifies individual sword strokes by their proper terminology. He also devotes ample time to analyzing Kurosawa’s meticulous wide-screen compositions. This is a must-listen.

The only other substantial extra is yet another excerpt from the seemingly infinite Toho Masterworks’ series “Akira Kurosawa: It Is Wonderful to Create” which seems to be used on every Criterion Kurosawa release. This is a 45 minute episode devoted to “Yojimbo” and is up to the usual high standards of the series.

The Blu-Ray also includes a Theatrical Trailer, a Teaser and a Stills Gallery.

The insert booklet (also a repeat from the 2007 SD release) includes a short intro by Kurosawa from Donald Richie’s 1999 book “The Films of Akira Kurosawa,” an essay by Alexander Sesonske and brief statements by Kurosawa collaborators Tatsuya Nakadai, Kazuo Miyagawa, and Teruyo Nogami.

FILM VALUE

“I’m not dying yet. There’s a bunch of guys I have to kill first!”

Sanjuro may have only appeared in two films, but he will never die and his film progeny have killed plenty of guys over the past fifty years. “Yojimbo” ushered in a whole new era of films both in the samurai and the Western genre, and its influence still ripples through cinema today. “Kill Bill” certainly would not exist without it. Toshiro Mifune was blessed with an extraordinary physical presence that can’t be taught, and it’s never been on display more prominently than in “Yojimbo” and “Sanjuro.” Both films hold up very well to multiple viewings, and will appeal to a wide audience.

“Yojimbo” and “Sanjuro” have been released individually on Blu-Ray and are also available as a boxed set at a slight discount (just under $80 full retail for the two separate titles, $69.95 for the two-film set.) Obviously if you’re planning to buy both, the set (which includes both films in a cardboard slip case) is the way to go.

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