That’s right, Cinematic Doctrine listeners and readers: we only do foreign art films now! The heck with all this Marvel, DC, Star Wars crap. Next week we’ve got a three-hour episode on The Discreet Charm of the Bourgeoisie!
Just because it’s hard to detect sarcasm through text nowadays…that was a joke. CinDoc will proudly return to talking about stuff many of you actually care about not too long from now. But as long as I’m here I’m going to keep recommending this kind of stuff to you! Now, lest you think I’m some kind of snob who only watches art films, let me assure you I’m not.
You can find plenty of sources on my taste over on the Patreon portions of both episodes featuring me (Stephen!). In addition to that, I mean, look at my first article: it’s a sixties Godzilla movie. Doesn’t get more “low art” than that. Not that I actually believe in high or low art, necessarily; but let’s be honest in that there’s a distinction between Bergman and the Big G.
All this being said, you’ve seen the title of this article. I think after reading that and taking a look at whatever image Melvin pairs with it, you’re gonna think one out of a few different things. Maybe you’ll say to yourself, “Ah, yes, Yojimbo. I’ve seen that.” Then you’ll go off giving a remembrance of what you thought after watching said sixties Samurai classic. Maybe you’ll be like, “Oh yeah, I’ve heard of that. I need to watch that.” In that case, do! Check it out on the Criterion Channel or HBOmax, or buy its excellent Blu-ray. But there’s a third option here as well. “Yojimbo? What the heck is that?” And the thinker of that thought might wish we’d just get back to the tent pole movies. None of these thoughts are bad to have.
But if I can speak to those of you who haven’t seen Yojimbo, and maybe you’re less likely to give a black-and-white foreign film a chance (as maybe you did or didn’t with The Seventh Seal), you’re depriving yourself. And you’re not depriving yourself of an existential experience with thoughts about faith, doubt, and the whole religious system. Nope. Yojimbo doesn’t tackle that. What, then, are you depriving yourself of? Simple:
A kick-butt action movie!
That’s right, reader, Yojimbo is the cool-guy hard boiled action flick of foreign art cinema! Don’t believe me? Think about this: a lone man comes into town—carrying a freaking sword, mind you—and sits down at a bar. He has no name, or no real name at least. The man learns soon that there are two warring factions in this town, and they’re essentially gangs who terrorize one another and make life hell for every normal person living there. This man then coolly remarks that there’s money to be made here, and then starts to pit the two sides against each other. Oh, and I have to mention; battles for honor, sword-vs-pistol, passion, intrigue, and SAMURAI SWORD FIGHTS. If that’s not a freaking action movie, or at least the makings of one, I don’t know what is.
But plot aside, this movie is just great if you love filmmaking and cinematic history. This is an Akira Kurosawa flick, so if you’re familiar with anything by him, you’ll know some of what you’ll be getting: beautiful black-and-white cinematography, some poignant nature symbolism, the juxtaposition of honorable and debased men. All of these are present, plus some great use of sound design and music to enhance the visual and atmospheric power of several scenes. Plus, if we’re talking action, those scenes are fantastic. For example, at one point the main character battles against a six-gun wielding samurai with only his sword and a little trick up his sleeve. You’ll have to watch it to go further but trust me: it’s a fist-pumping moment.
On performances, it would be enough to mention Toshiro Mifune—the biggest Japanese star of the 20th century—plays the lead here. It would also be a foregone conclusion to say he gives a genre-defining performance. Look at Clint Eastwood in his Italian Westerns all the way up to the silent, brooding performances of Nicolas Cage in his smaller action films. Essentially, this performance paves the way for all “silent cool-guy action heroes” to come.
On the historical end of the spectrum, this movie is at the very heart of a controversy. Ever see A Fistful of Dollars? It’s one of the aforementioned Eastwood westerns made in Italy by master director Sergio Leone. Hopefully you’ve seen it, it’s fantastic. It’s also a total uncredited ripoff of Yojimbo! Or so Kurosawa claims.
Ol’ Akira makes some good points, too: from specific spoiler-bait set pieces to the overarching plot to the setup, Dollars is essentially a Western translation of the ultimate Samurai picture. But if you’re a real nerd for entertainment history, it actually goes deeper than that. Because, movie fans, the whole setup and overarching plot is actually lifted, uncredited, from a Dashiell Hammett crime novel! And here’s the thing: this isn’t that big a deal. Steal from the best, they always say! And maybe Kurosawa has a good argument considering Leone did lift things original to Yojimbo. But as fans, let’s not let any of that bother us. Both the movies and the book are really fun. Let’s leave it there!
But back to the subject of Yojimbo itself. It’s great. It’s influential. It’s fun. If there’s any criticism one could give to it, maybe it’s just a tad long. But other than Kurosawa’s Stray Dog, pretty much all of his films (if I’m counting only the ones I’ve seen) feel a bit long. I’ll even level that criticism against his canonical classic Seven Samurai. But let’s be frank here: it’s still shorter than most Marvel and Star Wars and Platinum Dunes movies. And it’s arguable Yojimbo influenced all those movies in one way or another! So yeah, maybe this sort of is homework, like Seventh Seal and Stalker. But this is a fun assignment. It’s also the first movie I’ve written about on this site that I’m giving a full 4/4 stars. This is a necessity. Watch it! And don’t forget a nice sake to pair with it!
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Stephen McFerron likes movies. It’s that simple. From the lowest depths of the drive-in to the highest peaks of arthouse; the grand golden age to superhero spectacles, he’s all in! Since watching Gremlins and Jaws at a young age, Stephen has had an appetite for the strange and fantastic, as well as the old! If you’re here to explore movie history, or learn more about the best of today, Stephen’s your guide! He may even say something mildly profound along the way… if he’s lucky!