Yojimbo (1961)

“Cooper. Two coffins… No, maybe three.”

‘Yojimbo’, directed by Akira Kurosawa in 1961 is a truncated and less epic, but no less effective, version of ‘Seven Samurai’. It tells the story of a lone, nameless rōnin who finds himself embroiled in a power struggle in a small town. A precursor of Sergio Leone’s trilogy of Clint Eastwood westerns, it includes all of Kurosawa’s quirks and techniques: ‘Yojimbo’ is zippliy paced and kinetic, but also surprisingly philosophical. One thing that immediately stood out for me was the presence of a single gun. This seems to be a recurring theme in the Kurosawa action movies I’ve seen so far, for example in ‘Stray Dog’ and ‘Seven Samurai’, the gun takes on a subtext all of its own: in the former as the symbol of the policeman’s guilt and in the latter as the brutal incursion of modernity. The place of the gun in ‘Yojimbo’ is similar to ‘Seven Samurai’, it acts as a full-stop to the traditions of the past, in a way a symbol of Japan’s loss of innocence. It’s not much of a stretch to see traces of the atomic bomb in this metaphor: a weapon that ends a war with the cost of both lives and tradition. This is part of what these historical movies seem to be about with their ethereal swirling mists, archaic power-struggles, eccentric characters and chivalric heroes: not nostalgia or some attempt at reframing modern social or cultural issues in a simpler setting, but about the death of history itself. It also occurs to me that when Kurosawa is able to wring all this drama and subtext out of a single gun, the heavily armed, fetishistic approach of Michael Bay and Stallone suggests a disturbing lack of self-awareness.

Would I recommend it? Absolutely. You could watch in a double-bill with either ‘Seven Samurai’ or, more interestingly, ‘Stray Dog’. You could also take a step to one side and watch in a double-bill with ‘Bande à part’, a film that literally follows Jean-Luc Godard’s adage that to create a movie all you need is ‘a girl and a gun’. ‘Yojimbo’ certainly has the latter, it would be interesting to see how they compare.

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