Yojimbo/Sanjuro: Two Films by Akira Kurosawa (Criterion Collection)
Akira Kurosawa’s Yojimbo and its follow-up Sanjuro have proved to be two of the most iconic and influential samurai films. On the heels of their recent Seven Samurai re-release, Criterion unleashes new, pristine editions of these two—for American audiences—seminal genre classics. From Yojimbo (Bodyguard) emerged Toshiro Mifune’s scruffy, sardonic ronin (masterless samurai). With a hand occasionally reaching out of his haphazardly worn kimono to scratch his grubby beard, Mifune’s first appearance shattered previous conceptions of the nobly composed, well-groomed, effete samurai warrior.
Kurosawa took inspiration from Dashiell Hammet (The Glass Key and Red Harvest), injecting noir elements into a black-humored jidai-geki (period piece). Kurosawa had become so comfortable with the paradigm of the western that he now made John Ford movies better than Ford. Yet in Yojimbo he turned the usually ordered moral universe of the traditional western upside down and in turn, laid the blueprint for Leone’s Fistful of Dollars, (which ignited the spaghetti western boom).
Yojimbo gets off to a rousing start (e.g. an inspired bit of visual metaphor that, without giving it away, sets the stage for all the ensuing violence and chaos). The second half feels less urgent, as it leaves behind the mayhem for a tedious pulp melodrama. Regardless, Yojimbo remains essential viewing for its stylistic innovations and gritty flavor.
Kurosawa loved dialectic structure—Rashomon was his definitive treatise on thesis, antithesis and synthesis. Yojimbo and Sanjuro are both dialectic meditations on class, order and human nature—and in classic Kurosawa efficiency they exist in antithesis to each other, making similar points in dissimilar milieus.
To his stately framing, suggesting an orderly world, Kurosawa introduces anarchic elements. Yojimbo follows rival, lowlife bands of gangsters who ravaged a desolate town, and the ronin who plays one against the other. Mifune’s character smoothly rafts along the anarchy the gangs created with their feuding and restores order. Considering all the bloodshed, order requires a high price.
In Sanjuro our scruffy hero stumbles into a well-to-do Samurai estate—one replete with elegant camellia flowers gently scattered about the otherwise symmetrical palace. Sanjuro, as our hero calls himself, helps a group of young, naive samurai rescue their master, who has been kidnapped by a rival. Sanjuro has given up propriety since he’s well aware that its folly brings only more bloodshed. While the young samurai look down at this unkempt wanderer who eschews samurai decorum, they are helpless without him. What makes this follow-up to Yojimbo both ironic and dialectic is that Sanjuro provides the chaotic element himself. He subverts the hierarchical, orderly Samurai clans, and his subversion seems the only hope of resolving conflict and restoring order. Tatsuya Nakadai plays the villainous foil to Mifune in both films. His presence is as charismatic as Mifune’s, if not quite so idiosyncratic. And wait till you see how they end their rivalry—possibly one of the most explosive film endings ever.
David Wilentz dreams in color.
The Greatest Films You’ll Never SeeBy Edward Mendez and Laura Valenza
DEC 22–JAN 23 | Film
Our goal is to raise awareness of movies on film in need of preservation, of indie or experimental films that don't get the attention they deserve, and even of bigger productions that were cast aside for unjust political reasons. With advice from our contributors, the film editors present you with our winter 2022 list of the greatest films youll never see.
Communion and Expression: “21st Century Japan: Films from 2001–2020” at Japan SocietyBy Jaime Grijalba
FEB 2021 | Film
Japan Society and the Agency for Cultural Affairs proposes a perfectly cinephilic survey of the century so far that favors the deep cut over the known masterpiece, with the likes of Naomi Kawase and Hirokazu Kore-eda sharing the spotlight with younger filmmakers to forward a Proustian snapshot of the past two decades of Japanese cinema.
Jia Zhangke: Three Films for the New Cold WarBy Daniel LoPilato
JUNE 2021 | Film
Jia Zhangkes signature blend of slice-of-life portraiture, documentary realism, and understated surrealism offers a salve to cinemagoers made weary by the revanchist Cold War nationalism taking hold over the US press and ruling class. In anticipation of his new film, three of Jias narrative features warrant revisiting for their remarkable ability to transform sites of globalization into humanistic meditations on alienation and exploitation.
Gordon Matta-Clark and Pope.L: Impossible FailuresBy Helena Haimes
MARCH 2023 | ArtSeen
Pairing iconic films and drawings by Matta-Clark with video, drawings, and an installation by contemporary multidisciplinary artist Pope.L, this exhibition is proudly, penetratingly loudvisually, aurally, and conceptually.