Because I'd seen Yojimbo before, and thought it was a pretty fine film based on that original viewing several years ago, I wasn't quite prepared to be as thoroughly impressed, even overwhelmed, as I was after watching it again, a few more times, over the past week. Part of my enhanced assessment of Yojimbo's greatness is due to my first impression being unknowingly diminished by watching it in a badly letterboxed format on my old 27" CRT TV. Even with the decent job that Criterion did in upgrading the Yojimbo/Sanjuro box set from their original DVD release, I wasn't able to sufficiently appreciate Kurosawa's masterful widescreen compositions until I had a chance to see it on HDTV in Blu-ray - and I can only hope to have the chance to check it out on the big screen in a theater some day. But even more crucially, watching Yojimbo now, after I've made my way through all of the available-on-DVD Kurosawa films he made preceding this one, simply leaves me gape-jawed as I marvel at the great Japanese director's ability to set an objective for himself, his cast and his crew, then go right out and achieve it in such a way as to alter the course of cinematic history afterward.
By this point in his career, Akira Kurosawa could have easily, and without deserving admonishment, taken a comfortable path of least resistance, cranking out formulaic pictures of just about whatever sort came easily to him. But his restless creative ambition wouldn't allow that. Even as the Japanese film scene was going through a process of upheaval, with new voices and visions emerging from a generation just coming of age, Kurosawa found a way to break new ground, not content to let his trail of 1950s classics do the talking for him when facing the challenge of upstart rivals. The provocative roiling instigated by directors such as Nagisa Oshima, Koreyoshi Kurahara, Shohei Imamura and Seijun Suzuki, among others, clearly signaled a new era in Japan's cinema, but Kurosawa was still at the top of his game, as Yojimbo clearly demonstrated. Not only him - Yasujiro Ozu was operating at an exalted plane of artistic perfection, Mikio Naruse was at the height of his powers and Masaki Kobayashi had just established a firm foothold at the summit with his epic work on The Human Condition. This was an artistically verdant time indeed in Japan's movie culture.
As much as I enjoy and applaud the works just cited, I think it goes fairly without debate that Kurosawa's achievements in Yojimbo left a deeper, broader and longer lasting impact than any other film produced in Japan during this era. It turned out to be the most financially lucrative and widely popular movie he ever made. It served as a template for Sergio Leone's A Fistful of Dollars, basically launching the "spaghetti Western" subgenre and putting Clint Eastwood on his path to stardom that continues to bear fruit to this day (regardless of the dismal consensus generated by his most recent effort J. Edgar.) More crucially than that, I think a case can be made that Yojimbo essentially solidified the archetype of the modern antihero persona, a rootless drifter without a past or future, no relational entanglements to tie him down and unfettered freedom to fight or move on however he pleases, that is now so widely utilized in contemporary cinema that it's hard to imagine it ever having a specific beginning point in the not-so-distant past.
Of course there are precursors to Yojimbo's innovative blend of unfettered lethality, cocky insubordination and casual indifference whatever harsh reversals fate may have in store for him at the next moment of conflict. Maybe others who've done more research into the topic than I have can make the case more persuasively than I will here, but the lack of nobility and humility shown by Sanjuro, the wandering samurai who takes it upon himself to deal cold calamity upon the wretched gangsters he stumbles upon in his travels, marks a definitive break from more traditional hero figures who were routinely driven by an earnest moral impulse that never makes its presence felt here. An apt comparison from the samurai genre would be Hiroshi Inagaki's Samurai trilogy that Yojimbo's star Toshiro Mifune began seven years earlier. In those films, the protagonist Musashi Miyamoto was a relative paragon of virtue, despite the deadly efficiency with which he wielded his sword. By contrast, Kuwabatake Sanjuro marks a further plunge into cynicism somewhere past Musashi's self-denying idealism and the grim, duty-bound general Mifune played in The Hidden Fortress three years prior to Yojimbo. As great as those performances were (and let's throw in his turns Tajomaru in Rashomon and Kikuchiyo in Seven Samurai while we're at it,) Yojimbo turned out to be Mifune's career-defining role, one that he was called upon to reprise in the sequel Sanjuro, and more indirectly in the 1970 spinoff, Zatoichi Meets Yojimbo.
That's quite a bit said about Yojimbo's legacy without saying all that much about the film itself. My presumption here is that this is probably one of the most widely seen titles in the Criterion Collection, but in case you need a summary, here's one: The nameless protagonist, who impulsively names himself Sanjuro a third of the way into the film, is introduced with suitably awesome opening theme music and filmed from behind as he makes his way down a dirt path through the wilderness. Here's the American version of the opening credits (not available in the Criterion editions,) complete with a bit of spoonfed written introduction to set the stage:
Coming to a crossroads, he impulsively tosses a stick in the air and directs his steps in the direction it happened to point toward after landing. That trail leads him to a miserable little frontier town, circa late-1800s, that's being overrun by two competing gangs. Though Sanjuro has no serious intentions of settling down for the long haul, he needs to make a little money and get a bit of food in his gut. So he offers his services as a yojimbo (the Japanese word for bodyguard) to the gang bosses, smartly playing them off against each other as he patiently awaits the time when he can unleash his killer swordplay skills to dispatch the whole wretched lot of them. It's a task he calmly anticipates, becoming only more dedicated to its completion as he endures a hard beating, numerous taunts and despicable betrayals by the men who pledge their support to his face but plot his murder behind his back.
Criterion's commentary track is loaded with historical footnotes and detailed explanations of Sanjuro's martial techniques, Kurosawa's camera placements, the jaunty musical soundtrack composed by Masaru Sato and the disruptive cultural shifts that Japan went through as the nation transitioned from a rice-based to a money-based economy in the latter half of the 19th century. Stephen Prince's observations are helpful and well-informed to the extent that one is interested in the plethora of topics he raises, but Yojimbo is first and foremost an invigorating, highly entertaining blockbuster meant to be enjoyed on its own terms, before the scholars and critics start carving it up. Featuring a memorable first collaboration between Kurosawa and future mainstay Tatsuya Nakadai (taking on a villain role almost as an antidote to the excruciating martyrdom he personified so magnificently in The Human Condition) and appearances by faces familiar from many his earlier films, Yojimbo represents yet another mountain peak in the career of an artist capable of creating films of the most transcendent sort across a broad spectrum of dramatic settings. As averse as I generally am when it comes to listing my "favorite" movies, directors, etc., I don't think I can name a film maker who has impressed me more profoundly with the consistent excellence and grandeur of his works. Other Kurosawa titles hit more sublime and profound philosophical notes than this one, I'll make that clear. But this is the one that I think makes the best first introduction for a novice, and I doubt it can be beat in terms of the sheer confidence of its execution.
Among other notable highlights, Yojimbo stands out prominently among mainstream films of the era in its willingness to push blood and gore in the face of its audience, with severed limbs, spurting blood and rapacious killing sprees not only portrayed in greater graphic detail than most viewers of its time had ever seen, but also with dark comic effect. Kurosawa's boundary-pushing may not be as apparent when viewed by today's audience, accustomed as we are to that sort of bleak humor, but it's pretty noticeable, even when seen in the context of what his Japanese New Wave peers were doing as they explored the limits of permissible explicitness in their own way.
As Stephen Prince points out several times in his commentary, Yojimbo is a fantasy portrayal of a society that's gone badly off track but is at least partially capable of being restored by one tough, disciplined man who dispenses of the subtleties and takes care of business without stopping too long to ponder more diplomatic or merciful options. Reflecting the contempt for gangster values that informed his previous film The Bad Sleep Well, Kurosawa concocted a persona that dropped deadly vengeance on the crooked scumbags intent on exploiting the rest of us honest, law-abiding working class types. Given the corruption and fecklessness of so many around us, especially those who seem to have the most control over resources and their distribution, it's no wonder that a freewheeling character like Sanjuro continues to exert such a powerful attraction, and spawn so many imitators even to this day.