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Yojimbo & Sanjuro

Posted by admin | Posted in Movies | Posted on 14-10-2010

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Thanks to perhaps the most indelible character in Akira Kurosawa’s oeuvre, Yojimbo surpassed even Seven Samurai in popularity when it was released. The masterless samurai Sanjuro, who slyly manipulates two warring clans to his own advantage in a small, dusty village, was so entertainingly embodied by the brilliant Toshiro Mifune, that it was only a matter of time before he returned in a sequel. Made just one year later, Sanjuromatches Yojimbo’s storytelling dexterity, y… More >>

Yojimbo & Sanjuro

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Yojimbo and Sanjuro are great movies for diverse reasons.

Yojimbo (The Bodyguard) is a samurai movie based in the detective novels of Dashiell Hammett – particularly Red Harvest. Akira Kurosawa wanted to bring the best of literature and interpret it into Japanese cinema. Its interesting that the two main influences in this process were Hammett’s hard-boiled detective fiction and William Shakespeare (Ran, Throne of Blood). The always-excellent Toshiro Mifune plays the nameless title character who schemes and plots of take down an entire town of gamblers and gansters. I won’t recap the story, suffice to say that his plans lead into several battles and some beautifully choreographed sword fights. Yojimbo was later made (nearly scene-for-scene) into A Fistfull of Dollars by Sergio Leone with Clint Eastwood as “The Man with No Name.” Bruce Willis brought the character back to it’s ganster/detective roots with the not-so-good “Last Man Standing.” Yojimbo is awash with cinematic violence, but the charm infused into the movie by the cynical, yet obstinately principled, hero surprised me when I first saw it. The performances of the supporting cast, as usual with Kurosawa’s films, add depth and wit to each scene. For what its worth, Yojimbo has gradually become one of my favorite movies.

If you end up enjoying Yojimbo, check out The Seven Samurai, Sword of Doom, Miller’s Crossing, The Maltese Falcon, and The Thin Man.

The sequel, Sanjuro, is a departure of sorts from Yojimbo. Kurosawa and Mifune return as we find our nameless hero assisting some naive samurai who have been backed into a corner by corrupt officials in their clan. Played more for laughs but still brimming with cynicism and wonderfully orchestrated fights (the final scene will leave you afraid to blink), Sanjuro is a worthy but unusual follow-up to the cynical Yojimbo.

Criterion did an excellent job with their recent re-release of Kurosawa’s The Seven Samurai, and it appears that they are giving the same treatment to Yojimbo & Sanjuro. A new (and improved) translation, commentary from Steven Price, as well as documentary film focusing on Kurosawa during the time he was making these great movies, and a booklet with info about the two movies, sadly nothing from Mifune (he did have an essay in the Seven Samurai DVD re-release). I can’t wait to get ahold of it – should be well worth the purchase!
Rating: 5 / 5

MOVIES:

Introduction:

When you talk about an Akira Kurosawa film there is very little to say because his films speak way more than what any reviewer can write. Any filmmaker or film enthusiast can tell you that Kurosawa is one of the greatest directors to have ever made films. Not only is he able to tell grand and epic stories but he is able to keep his characters intimate with the audience. He is probably the single most influential director to have ever lived. Now the good folks over at Criterion have blessed us with remastered editions of Yojimbo and Sanjuro, two classic samurai masterpieces by the great director. Criterion wowed us last year with their remastered release of Seven Samurai, which was my favorite DVD of the year. This release, while not as extensive as the Seven Samurai three disc set, is still something to jump over. Since Sergio Leone is my favorite director you can assume that Akira Kurosawa is close behind in my taste in film, especially these two films. The two films can be purchased separately, but I highly recommend buying this box set as it will not only save you money but save you shame when you tell people that you own one but not the other.

Yojimbo:

The thing that surprises me the most about Yojimbo was that it was a film that was inspired by American westerns yet was even a bigger inspiration for the genre after it was made. The story is about a masterless samurai who wanders into an old town looking for food and shelter, maybe a job if he can find one. He notices that the entire town is deserted and the first thing he sees is a small dog happily trotting down the dirt street with a severed human hand in its mouth. That image right there sets the entire tone for this fun adventure film with a slight comedic side to it. The masterless samurai who is known as Sanjuro then realizes that the town is in the middle of a gang war with two feuding sides. He takes refuge with an old shopkeeper and decides to use this feud to his advantage. He plays both sides and manipulates each of the gangs in hopes of ridding the town of both groups and making a little profit during the process.

Even though the film was made in 1961 it’s still as accessible today as any other film would be. Kurosawa was ahead of his time when it came to pacing films and structuring them. His characters were also so boldly developed that they became unforgettable. His visual style is probably the most unique of any director. The reason why Sergio Leone is my favorite director is because of his appreciation for cinematography and Akira Kurosawa had the same appreciation. While Leone may have been inspired by Kurosawa it was Leone who pushed the limits of the widescreen frame in terms of composition. Kurosawa was never as extreme as Leone was, but his films were nonetheless interesting to watch due to the brilliant cinematography. The final showdown at the end of the film is breathtaking all due to what is captured within the frame. Truly impossible to describe, it must be seen.

When you talk about iconic actors you always come across Toshiro Mifune who embodied the role of the masterless samurai to perfection. Just the mannerisms he uses in the film are entertaining to watch. He’ll scratch his beard leisurely in the tensest situations, or even roll his shoulders around as he walks about. While Clint Eastwood without a doubt created his own icon in the Leone westerns, it is without a doubt heavily inspired by Toshiro Mifune.

Sanjuro:

With the immediate success of Yojimbo in Japanese cinema it was inevitable that a sequel was wanted by the studio. When Akira Kurosawa was approached to do a sequel he assured them that he didn’t want to do any old sequel, and he didn’t. Sanjuro has no relation to the previous film except for the main character. The first scene of the film finds a group of nine samurai in a small abandoned house waiting to be contacted and all the while discussing the state of their clan. Of course our “hero” is sleeping in the closet and ends up hearing their situation. Sanjuro emerges from the closet and tells them they are about to be betrayed and since they are blind to the world he decides to help them weed out the evil and corrupt members of their clan. Sanjuro is slower paced than Yojimbo, and I suppose there are less swordfights. However, just because there are less swordfights in the film does not mean the film has less action. Kurosawa cranked up the intensity of the battling and it makes the scenes all the more exciting. The film also keeps up with the comical side that we saw in Yojimbo. In the end it all dials down to one final samurai duel that will leave you breathless.

Kurosawa paced this film a little differently than Yojimbo. We are almost thrown right into the action with no detailed introductions to our characters. We already know our main hero well, so there is no need to introduce him again. The nine young warriors almost act as one character so just explaining their situation was enough. Sanjuro teaches these young warriors the way of honor and to be weary of their surroundings. It’s truly a magnificent film. By the end of the film you will know exactly where Tarantino got his inspiration for Kill Bill and for the style of blood used in the film.

VIDEO: The highlights of these brand new sets are definitely the new high definition transfers, absolutely flawless in every sense of the word. The image could not get any better. Grain and dirt are practically non existent and no signs of any digital flaws. The image itself is not faded and textures come through crisp and clear. I never knew black and white could look so good. Both films are presented in their full 2.35:1 anamorphic widescreen aspect ratios.

AUDIO: Sound is almost as perfect as the picture. We have included the original mono track in Japanese as well as a little bonus. Criterion knows that more and more homes are getting bigger and badder surround systems, but mono tracks on such a big screen may feel uninvolving for today’s audience. So, we have an optional 3.0 Dolby track that was created to preserve the original Perspecta simulated stereo effects.

Perspecta was a technology that embedded three separate audio tones into a mono track. It was a cheap alternative at the time since projectors did not need a new sound head. So the DVD is basically using 3 speakers to simulate this early technology that was used during the films’ theatrical distribution. Bravo Criterion. Bravo. I’d also like to applaud the effort to provide newly translated and more accurate subtitles for both films.

SPECIAL FEATURES:

Yojimbo’s Special Features:

Commentary by Film Historian and Kurosawa Scholar Stephen Prince:

The audio commentary is chock full of important facts and great analysis behind certain techniques used in the film. A must listen for film students and film enthusiasts because I bet anywhere else you’d pay lots of money to hear a professional speak at a seminar or a class to get information like this.

The Making of Yojimbo:

A 45-minute in depth documentary that goes behind the scenes of Yojimbo. There are plenty of interviews with crew members. They speak so much about Kurosawa that by the end you may feel like he was interviewed too. Lots of info such as using a telephoto lens for most of the film to get the look that Kurosawa wanted. Plenty of fun stories from crew members, an especially interesting one from the focus puller.

Theatrical Trailer & Teaser:

The original theatrical and teaser are included. They are nothing like what we know now as the theatrical trailer. It’s fun little extra.

Stills Gallery:

Lots of pictures from the set of Yojimbo.

Booklet:

Includes an essay written by critic Alexander Sesonske and some notes from Kurosawa and his cast and crew.

Sanjuro’s Special Features:

Commentary by Film Historian and Kurosawa Scholar Stephen Prince:

The audio commentary is chock full of important facts and great analysis behind certain techniques used in the film. A must listen for film students and film enthusiasts because I bet anywhere else you’d pay lots of money to hear a professional speak at a seminar or a class to get information like this.

The Making of Sanjuro:

A 35-minute in depth documentary that goes behind the scenes of Sanjuro. There are plenty of interviews with crew members. They speak so much about Kurosawa that by the end you may feel like he was interviewed too. Lots of info such as using a telephoto lens for most of the film to get the look that Kurosawa wanted. Plenty of fun stories from crew members, especially one story about painting flowers for the highly demanding Kurosawa.

Theatrical Trailer & Teaser:

The original theatrical and teaser are included. They are nothing like what we know now as the theatrical trailer. It’s fun little extra.

Stills Gallery:

Lots of pictures from the set of Sanjuro.

Booklet:

Includes an essay written by critic Michael Sragow and some notes from Kurosawa and his cast and crew.

BOTTOM LINE: As a filmmaker and a film critic, I am simply floored by this set. I love Kurosawa’s work, but these films especially since they went on to inspire my favorite director. Sergio Leone remade Yojimbo as A Fistful Of Dollars and added a whole new element to the story to make is just as great as the original. Leone used elements of Sanjuro for For A Few Dollars More and then he created his personal masterpiece with The Good, The Bad & The Ugly. Walter Hill remade Yojimbo with Bruce Willis taking the lead role in Last Man Standing. So, you can see that Kurosawa is simply one of the best filmmakers to have ever lived. Criterion continues to raise the bar in terms of home video distribution of important classic and contemporary films. This set is a must buy.
Rating: 5 / 5

Got my pre-order a day early!

The HD treatment on these classics can be described in one word…WOW! Exceeded my expectations in every way! Great contrast and lighting with a 3 dimensional pop. Facial detail and expressions are thrilling to watch. Criterion’s previous re-release was an excellent DVD translation but this blu-ray version is phenomenal. 99% of the film is gorgeous but there are a few scenes where detail seems low rez. It doesn’t feel like a movie made nearly 50 yrs ago but one filmed recently due to the HD restoration.

I have both a 1080p screen and a 720p screen and I honestly can’t tell which has better picture quality. There are 2 audio options, the original mono and a new HD DTS 3.0 perspecta and both are very good but I prefer the original. I’ve watched these films many times and this is the first time I’m noticing details I’ve not seen before such as fine details on actor’s faces, clothes, props, and actor’s facial expressions and backgrounds.

The extra features are slim and is probably the only thing that’s lacking. Kurosawa’s “It is wonderful to create” featurettes as well as an excellent commentary by Stephen Prince is very informative yet his tonal quality can be dry at times.

The set comes in a box exactly like the DVD version but smaller in size and included booklets of 19 pages.

I found Yojimbo to have better picture quality than Sanjuro which has an overall softer look.

I commend Criterion for an excellent job on these films and can’t wait for Seven Samurai on blu-ray which was supposed to be ready in march but will be delayed till end of this year due to the magnitude of the HD treatment.

Even if you have the DVD version, this HD version seems like a whole new experience. Must have!

Blu-ray restoration wish list:

All Kurosawa films

The Sword of Doom

Harakiri

Samurai Rebellion

Samurai Trilogy Musashi Miyamoto

Rating: 5 / 5

I’ll admit up front I consider myself a Kurosawa fanboy so writing this is hard as I’m constantly trying to keep myself from degenerating into a fanboy rant. I’ll just say with the nice price and the remastered video updating the problems with their original releases, this is a great release for those looking to get into Kurosawa films, or chanbara in general. Both films have a lighter tone and are shorter and funner than Seven Samurai and Ran and I loved the films plots over The Hidden Fortress.

First up Yojimbo, like Seven Samurai one of the most copied of Kurosawa’s films. This is fun film, that has a streak of black humor that the two remakes A Fistfull of Dollars and Last Man Standing lack. Mifune had a humorous quality to his acting that came up greatly in his role of Sanjuro the wandering ronin who strolls into town after hearing about it from a farmer quarreling with his son. With Mifunes performance, intelligent writing, Kurosawa as usual makes full use of panavision. The opening where Mifune walks into town where all the residents peek out from behind windows and doors is just awesome with the way the camera captures all the small actions. Theres not much more I wanna say except with the opening listen to the confrontation between Mifune and compare it to a certain scene in Star Wars A New Hope. Lucas not only copied many of Kurosawas movies but cribbed scenes from this one and others as well.

Sanjuro is viewed by some like all sequels as inferior to the original. Personally its not a Matrix/Matrix Reloaded situation. Sure it doesn’t feature a deep story like the previous film, but it does have the writing that I always like from Kurosawa and the humor in scenes that are great and add depth to the characters. Plus just one of the best endings ever. I’ve seen the film five times and I’ve always been suprised by it.

Anyway this whole thing is a great package with excellent video, the usual essays that come from Criterion and the usual documentaries from the Its Wonderful to Create series produced by Toho that have been on other Kurosawa releases, and a cracking commentary from Stephen Prince who gives a in depth commentary definitely worht a listen. Its a great package well worth the price.
Rating: 5 / 5

This is a review of the Criterion Blu-ray release of Yojimbo & Sanjuro.

These are the first Blu-ray Criterion releases that I’ve been disappointed with. This isn’t to say that the transfers are bad, but I feel that a better job could have been done.

With both films it looks like too much grain was removed. It’s no where near as bad as the John Carpenter version of “The Thing” where there was so much noise reduction that it looks like someone airbrushed the film, but the crystal clear look of the transfers makes it look more like TV and less like a 35mm film. Compare it to Criterion’s Blu-ray of “The Third Man” which is awash in beautiful grain.

The very hot, even harsh lighting in both films comes off as looking like someone boosted the the contrast way too high.

Finally, in some shots in “Sanjuro” it looks like a second generation negative was used — these shots are soft and washed out.

Now, there are also a lot of good things about the Blu-rays. In both films Kurosawa takes full advantage of the large real estate cinemascope provided him. In “Yojimbo” there are many scenes where he pacts as many of the gang members into frame, and throughout Sanjuro the actors are meticulously blocked so that all nine samurai and Sanjuro appear in frame. These films were made to be seen on the big screen, not on TV. On DVD, even when watching on a large screen TV, between the low resolution and the compression, a lot of detail was lost on these kinds of wide and extreme wide shots. Thanks to the higher resolution of Blu-ray, even in the very large crowd shots of the gangs in “Yojimbo” you can see the expressions on all the faces. Blu-ray also handles Kurosawa’s extreme depth of focus quite well. The shot in “Yojimbo” at the end with the old man hanging in the foreground, the gang in the middle of the street, and Sanjuro all the way in the distances looks fantastic — it would make for a great still photograph.

So what does this all mean in terms of buying this set? The transfers are by no means a disaster, but as I think I made clear, could have been better. But this is probably the best we’ll get for a while, and it’s acceptable.
Rating: 5 / 5

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