Year 1961

Toshirô Mifune   as  Sanjuro Kuwabatake / The Samurai  
Eijiro Tono as Gonji the Sake Seller
Tatsuya Nakadai as Unosuke
Seizaburo Kawazu  as Seibei
Isuzu Yamada as Orin
Daisuke Kato as Inokichi
Hiroshi Tachikawa as Yoichiro
Director - Akira Kurosawa
Screenwriters - Akira Kurosawa   
    Ryuzo Kikushima   

If you're a Clint Eastwood fan, then you've got to watch this movie.  If you're a fan of spaghetti Westerns, then you've got to watch this movie.  If you're a fan of Akira Kurosawa, then you've got to watch this movie.

That's a lot of "ifs".  Not a lot of people realize it, but A Fistful of Dollars, the Eastwood movie where he pits two warring families in a small town against each other, is a remake!

Spaghetti Westerns did not exist until Sergio Leone crafted A Fistful of Dollars which is a scene by scene, nearly line by line, remake of Yojimbo.

Akira Kurosawa is one of the great directors of the last century.  He wanted to try and capture the Hollywood feel, especially in the horse opera "genre", for his Japanese movies.  When he succeeded, he gained fame everywhere except in his own country.  The man was definitely an avant-garde visionary.  You know the kind.  The poor guy didn't get the credit he deserved when he needed it early in his career but he pushed on regardless.  In the end, his legacy is heroic.

Originally a novel by Dashell Hammett called Red Harvest, Kurosawa renamed it Yojimbo which is the Japanese word for "bodyguard" and gave it a Japanese setting.  The name of the main character, Sanjuro Kuwabatake (Toshirô Mifune), translates to "thirty year old mulberry/camelia field". He is a samurai without a patron - a ronin.  He picks up work where he can.  When he stumbles upon a small town held hostage by two warring families, he figures he's hit the mother lode and he earns money by working for, and simply working, each family.  Then, his honorable side kicks in and he's undone by a good work.  In the end, there's a showdown in the street - Western style. 

This movie was popular enough to spawn the sequel Sanjuro.

Sanjuro, the character and not the sequel, is a likable enough scamp, always scratching at something.  If it's not his rarely shaved stubble, then it's his chest. And it's always by taking his hand from his sleeve and poking it up through the center of his samurai robe.  It's not that he itches, it's that he has to scratch in order to think.  He's so pragmatic that he's cynical.  At least, that's what he wants everyone to think.

There are some great lines and great images.  Everyone who's seen the movie remembers the dog running through the streets with the severed hand in its mouth.  Even more effective for me was the tolling of the bell to call people into the street whenever there was a confrontation.  The bell meant death for someone.

My favorite scene begins with a street shot. The town crier can be heard. As the camera pulls away, the viewer realizes that he's been looking through the legs of a trussed up and tortured man. That's the left part of the screen. To the right is the town crier who spies someone in an alley and runs away frightened. The object of his fear, Sanjuro as Yojimbo, has arrived. Truly a masterful set of images.

A quick comparison between Dollars and Yojimbo.  Eastwood obviously did his homework on this one.  Because Mifune's portrayal has such a perfect pitch for his character, Eastwood did not improve upon it.  He took Mifune's attitude, mannerisms, and delivery almost as a whole for his portrayal. 

When the truce between the warring families takes place, it makes more sense in Yojimbo than in Dollars.  In the former, a government official comes to town and everyone needs to "make nice".  In Dollars, I'm still not sure why they had to have a truce. In Yojimbo it's because the official can end the illicit dealings.

In Dollars, after Eastwood is beaten to within an inch of his life, he escapes under the city.  The trouble is that he needs to crawl on dirt before he gets to a town on stilts.  In Yojimbo where the entire city is raised because of Japanese architecture, the under foot escape makes more sense. 

Finally, in Dollars the showdown is between Eastwood and a man with a rifle.  In Yojimbo, the showdown is between a samurai sword and a pistol.  There's an old versus new sub-element in Yojimbo that's missing from Dollars and makes this aspect of the latter inferior to the original.

Sanjuro attempting to pick a fight. You're all tough then?
Gambler: What? Kill me if you can!
Sanjuro: It'll hurt.
Sanjuro: I'm not dying yet. I have to kill quite a few men first.

What's wrong with this movie?  Well, for starters it's in Japanese with English sub-titles.  My wife won't watch it and wants to know why they didn't dub it like they did with Godzilla.  Funny question.

It's also in black and white.

Also, there's some overacting in it, which is made all the more annoying because Mifune's portrayal of Sanjuro is so low key.

This is a movie you've got to watch if you're at all interested in the founders of spaghetti Westerns – Kurosawa and Mifune.

Just a quick note on the sequel Sanjuro since I probably won't comment on it elsewhere.  It's not as good as the original and drags a lot.  Plus the highlight of that film is the "battle" between two samurais and that's at the end.  It's a western quick draw that takes place in less than a second.  Nice stuff but debatable about whether it's worth the wait.

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