film

Old School Review: Akira Kurosawa’s “Yojimbo” (1961)

Spoilers will be included in this review. You have been warned.

Written by Ryûzô Kikushima and Akira Kurosawa and directed by Kurosawa, “Yojimbo” is a Japanese Samurai film, set during the 1860’s, in which a lone Ronin (Toshiro Mifune) happens upon a small town that happens to be besieged by two warring clans with a blood feud. The Samurai then decides to play them against each other to free the town, and possibly make some money while doing so. As the opening credits scrawl by, our Ronin walks into frame as he wanders the countryside. He tosses a stick in the air when faced with a cross in the road, letting fate decide his path. He soon stumbles across a small farm in which he overhears an argument amongst a family. The son doesn’t want to work the hard but simple life of a silk farmer as his father before him and instead decides to join a gang as a hired warrior in a nearby town. The Samurai lets curiosity lead him and soon he’s sitting in a small tavern in that town ran by Gonji (Eijirō Tōno). The cantankerous old man lays out the situation for him and tells him he’s better off leaving town before everyone kills each other.

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Gonji reveals that Ushitora (Kyū Sazanka) and Seibei (Seizaburo Kawazu) are the heads of the two warring clans, though Ushitora used to be Seibei’s second in command until Seibei claimed that he’d eventually cede his land and power to his son Yoichiro (Hiroshi Tachikawa), a notoriously useless individual. Thus Ushitora broke away from Seibei and formed his own clan challenging the power structure of the town. Each patriarchal figure had made claims to power in the village, Seibei had the local silk merchant and mayor Tazaemon (Kamatari Fujiwara) in his pocket while Ushitora sought the local sake brewer, Tokuemon (Takashi Shimura), proclaiming him the new mayor instead. After listening to the current state of affairs in the town the Samurai decides that the whole town would be better off with both clans eradicated and begins to craft sly machinations between the two.

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The Samurai then proves his violent worth by making a spectacle in the middle of town by killing three of Ushitora’s men and then aligning himself with Seibei. Seibei then decides that with the new Samurai on his side he must defeat Ushitora and his hired men that very day. When asked his name the Ronin happens to be looking out an open door and responds with Kuwabatake Sanjuro, the first name meaning Mulberry field (The same type of field he was looking at), and the surname being a wry definition of the thirtieth son, but he implies that it’s closer to a meaning of his age-though he admits he’s “..actually closer to forty”. After they agree on a price for his help in the coming battle Seibei goes to discuss logistics with his wife Orin (Isuzu Yamada), which Sanjuro secretly listens in on. Orin devises a plan to simply kill the Samurai once the fight is over so they don’t have to pay his high costs.

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As both clans appear on the opposing sides of town, rabid and eager to end their feud in a bloodbath, Sanjuro walks across to Ushitora and announces that Seibei has offended him and that he declines the fight. Sanjuro then climbs the ramshackle tower in town to watch the two clans fight to the death with a gleeful smirk. Though before anyone can get the nerve to kill, a scout on a horse reels into town to warn that a government official is on his way to inspect the town and it’s wares of silk and sake. To the disappointment of Sanjuro everybody drops their swords and quickly rush to make the town appear as if everything is normal. The government official stays a grueling ten days until another government official is murdered a few towns away, forcing an early departure from the corrupted elite.

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Sanjuro overhears two drunken assassins talking too much at Gonji’s tavern shortly after this, revealing that it was Ushitora who hired them to commit the other official’s murder. Armed with this knowledge Sanjuro captures the killers and delivers them to Seibei for a price, after which he heads to Ushitora and tells him that it was Seibei’s men who captured the two. Ushitora, shocked by this reveal, pays off Sanjuro for the information and then orders the kidnapping of Seibei’s son Yoichiro. Things get out of hand quickly after this as Ushitora makes an offer for Seibei to retrieve his son in exchange for his two murderers, but instead he double-crosses Seibei by shooting the two killers before Seibei can reclaim his son. Seibei had expected this double-cross however and had preemptively kidnapped Ushitora’s claimed mayor Tokuemon’s prized prostitute, Nui (Yoko Tsukasa). Sanjuro later finds out that Nui isn’t truly a prostitute but a bargaining chip as her husband Kohei (Yoshio Tsuchiya) had owed a gambling debt to Tokuemon and couldn’t pay off his debts, so Tokuemon took Nui instead.

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Sanjuro ponders this and eventually tricks Ushitora into revealing where Nui is kept and investigates with Ushitora’s younger, and far dumber, brother Inokichi (Daisuke Katō). Sanjuro quickly kills the guards, while distracting Inokichi, and then sends Nui, Kohei, and their child away into the night with the gold he received from both clans. He shows Inokichi the dead guards and sends him back to Ushitora to warn him of the attack and that Nui must have escaped or been captured back by Seibei’s men. This results in a fast escalation of violence and sabotage in the town. First Tazaemon’s silk stock is set ablaze, then Tokuemon’s sake barrels are destroyed as the town’s financial industry becomes ruined and unprofitable.

Eventually Ushitora’s youngest brother Unosuke (Tatsuya Nakadai), the only gun toting gangster among the bunch, becomes suspicious of Sanjuro’s role in all of this and discovers evidence of his double-cross against Ushitora and beats Sanjuro without his sword. Jailed and bloodied, Sanjuro outwits Ushitora’s guards and crawls to Gonji for help. Gonji enlists the casket maker’s (Atsushi Watanabe) help in transporting Sanjuro out of town to heal in a small shrine in the cemetery, but before they leave they stop to witness Ushitora’s final attack against Seibei as they slaughter the opposing clan in entirety. As he recuperates Sanjuro practices throwing knives, but is pulled back into town when he hears that Gonji, who had been delivering food and ointments to Sanjuro, has been captured by Ushitora and his men. The final showdown is very reminiscent of the classic western trope of a showdown through the street on opposing sides as Sanjuro precisely and efficiently kills Ushitora and his remaining forces, he even bests Unosuke and his pistol, with his throwing knife. The final moment is given to Tazaemon though, who appears from the rubble beating a prayer drum, seeking his prey. Finally he finds Tokuemon and kills him, thereby ending the blood feud and violence. Happy with this conclusion, Sanjuro exits the town to the beginning of the credits roll.

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This was a great Samurai film from Akira Kurosawa. There was a lot to love with this film. The framing, cinematography, the performances and action, everything was a tightly knit piece of genre entertainment and I genuinely loved it. I started with this Samurai film after finding out that Sergio Leone’s first film in his infamous “dollar trilogy” A Fistful of Dollars (starring Clint Eastwood) was a remake of this film. You can definitely see the love of this film in Leone’s remake, and I really enjoyed recognizing how that transition was made between the two. If you’re looking for a classic Samurai film from one of the best filmmakers of the twentieth century, you can’t find much better than this!

Final Score: One Samurai, two clans, & a dog

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Old School Review: “Ikiru” (1952)

*This film was released in 1952-There will be spoilers*

Written by Akira Kurosawa, Hideo Oguni, and Shinobu Hashimoto and directed by Kurosawa in 1952, “Ikiru” (translated as ‘To Live’) is a drama that is considered by many to be Kurosawa’s finest achievement from his lauded filmmaking career. The story follows Kanji Watanabe (Takashi Shimura), a middle-aged Japanese bureaucrat that discovers that he has stomach cancer, a death sentence that forces him to search for meaning as he reflects on a life that he’s wasted stamping forms that only serve to waste people’s time. The beginning of the film perfectly sets up the roundabout rigmarole that goes on in the local government departments, proving the inefficiency of bureaucracy. A group of mothers are trying to get a cesspool in their neighborhood cleaned up and made safe for their children, but each representative in turn says that such a project would be better serviced by the next department until they’re brought back to where they started. Finally they lambaste the clerks in Kanji’s office and leave discouraged.

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Kanji learns that he indeed does have stomach cancer and initially tries to find meaning in the pleasures of life, but discovers in the midst of a nightclub that this is no solution. After befriending a young novelist (Yūnosuke Itō) in a bar Kanji admits that he’s worked his whole life for his savings, and now that he’s dying-he doesn’t know how to spend it. The novelist is entranced by Kanji’s story and whisks him away on a tour of the nightlife. Kanji enjoys himself for awhile, but at one of these parties a piano player asks for requests, and he responds with “Gondola no Uta”, or “The Gondola Song” an old romantic ballad, and the pianist begins to play as Kanji solemnly sings in a manner most soul crushing; “life is brief fall in love, maidens before the raven tresses begin to fade before the flame in your hearts flicker and die for those to whom today will never return.

Eventually Toyo (Miki Odagiri), the youngest member of Kanji’s section at the public works, tracks him down to get his stamp of approval for her to quit and move on to a more fulfilling occupation. They end up sharing the rest of the day in each other’s company as Kanji realizes that she despises the public works as much as he does. He clings to Toyo even after she leaves the public works because her youth and joy remind him of what he wants out of life. He eventually reveals his situation to her and she points out that she only gets happiness by working in a toy factory knowing she is making children happy-which is the realization that propels Kanji to do something meaningful with the remainder of his time on Earth. In one of the many perfect shots of the film Kanji rushes out of the cafe as a separate group sings Happy Birthday to a colleague as he descends a staircase in a representation of his rebirth, he has found his purpose.

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What I found to be particularly effective were the scenes without Kanji, where those closest to Watanabe, co-workers and family, talk and gossip about his actions and intentions. It brilliantly focuses on the reactions and suspicions of those in his orbit, who are unaware of his illness and the existential crisis that he is facing. Coworkers often cite the fact that the corporate world is full of competition and that many will likely look to fill Kanji’s seat at the head of the table after he misses his first day in thirty years. His son Mitsuo (Nobuo Kaneko) and his fiance are the unknowing culprits of the most painful things said to Kanji throughout the film. They are distant in nature and only seem to want to retrieve Kanji’s retirement funds to buy a house and start their own lives. Kanji even attempts to tell his son about his stomach cancer but the discussion turns sour upon misdirected assumptions about Kanji and Toyo. Which is all the more painful as earlier in the film there are several sequences that show the longing he has for Mitsuo as he was raising him, his wife and Mitsuo’s mother had died young, so Kanji provided for his son the only way he knew how. He worked long hours at a job filled with meaningless paperwork and never remarried for the sake of his son. Kanji clearly misses the closeness he once shared with his son and there are some effectively brutal scenes throughout the film that accentuate how far the divide has grown in that time. Once Kanji finds his purpose, to not only clean up the cesspool referenced earlier in the film, but to build a children’s park in its place, he effectively disappears from the film. We only see the fruits of his labor, and his path there, through flashbacks after his eventual death. Which leads me to the most satisfying portion of the film.

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My favorite part of the film is when we jump five months in the future to Kanji’s wake after the park has been built. We are soon informed that the deputy mayor and his aides have also attended Kanji’s wake after giving a rather self serving speech at the park’s opening ceremony. The wake is interrupted by a slew of journalists waiting outside as the mayor discounts Kanji’s efforts to get that park made, they scoff at the reporters who assert the local citizens’ opinion that Kanji Watanabe built the park. “They don’t know how government works!” they proudly defend, and that no one man could build that park. Since Kanji didn’t tell most people that he had stomach cancer the claim is made that even he didn’t know that he had the illness, thus having no clear drive or motivation to complete the project and thereby discounting the claims that he deserved credit for getting the park built. The whole sequence is intercut with flashbacks from the last five months in which Kanji visited every person and department possible to push and plead for people to simply do their jobs. Efforts to paint him as intruding on the jurisdiction of other departments fall short after several people point out that Kanji was threatened when he got in the way of powerful people wanting to build a red light district there. Others also begin to remember Kanji referencing that he didn’t have time, that he seemed intent on his goals before his time ran out. This effectively sets the record straight for the remaining bureaucrats and Kanji’s family as they realize that he knew that he was going to die the entire time. We then see the final moments of Kanji Watanabe’s life as he swings in the park in the snow. He looks content, tired, and full with happiness as he sings “Gondola no Uta” one last time, but with a joyful heart this time.

life is brief.
fall in love, maidens
before the crimson bloom
fades from your lips
before the tides of passion
cool within you,
for those of you
who know no tomorrow

Final Score: 1 brand new hat & the satisfaction of fulfillment in life

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