Our first sight of him, he steps into the frame with his back to the camera, the explosive Masaru Sato score already telling us this figure is a force of nature. He scratches his head and swaggers with that world-weary gait in no particular direction until the opening credits finish. The score then momentarily shifts in tone, from intensity to a kind of cheerful lightness. The masterless samurai, portrayed by the venerable Toshiro Mifune, has come to a pause in his meditative stroll to pick up a stick from off the ground. He tosses it in the air and when it lands, he proceeds to walk in the direction it points. He shrugs his shoulders and introspectively squints his eyes and immediately there’s a resonance. We don’t know anything about this character, but we feel compelled to him. Mifune conveys so much in a single gesture that the sum of his gestures in just the first five minutes suffuses the ronin with a depth and vitality that does nothing but draw us in. Then he follows the stick’s desultory guidance into an iniquitous town and the real magic begins. The soundtrack reverts back to its restrained intensity and one of the first images we get is of a stray dog with a human hand in his mouth, running past Mifune. It’s just an inkling of this film’s disturbing beauty.
This is the most western of all the great Akira Kurosawa movies. His inspiration is clearly rooted in the films of John Ford and other American Westerns, but Yojimbo is far from conventional and refuses to surrender to cliche. By the end, we are not given any messages or social commentaries to ponder about. Yes, there is a layer of insight into the dark side of human nature, but the tone is blunt and played out more for black comedy than to leave people with a lasting thought or futile motivation to better oneself. The movie is nihilistic in its bones and adopts the notion that some people are despicable and beyond repair. And everyone in this bizarre town, and the movie, is just that. Even the hero’s morality remains ambiguous, which makes it all the more powerful when we root for him and his blood soaked mission.
When he comes to the village, he takes refuge with the owner of a restaurant. The owner is one of the few members of the community not involved in the upheaval of violence that has plagued it. Instead, he remains an indifferent spectator, dejected by the state of things but with no inclination to do anything about it. He warns Mifune that civil war is imminent between the two rival factions and tells him to leave immediately. Mifune rubs his chin and mulls over it. He decides he can do some good. Not by acting as a diplomat, but as a catalyst in getting everyone to kill each other so that the town can have a fresh start.
This is when the emotional rawness of Mifune’s performance begins to show. He meets with the leaders of the two factions, deceptively pitting them against one another by offering his services to each. All the members of this society are enthralled by the mysterious stranger and try to make him part of it, but Mifune is not interested. When asked his name, he lets out a sigh and says to call him Sanjuro, the thirty-year old mulberry field. Of course, this is not a society anyone would strive to be a member of considering the vastness of its corruption, but we realize that Mifune is dispirited with human beings in general and chooses to remain in the margins of society wherever he is. There are no attempts to shine any light on this by exploring his back story, but we don’t need it. Everything is in his performance.
When a couple is reunited before his eyes, you can see the tenderness and warmth between them. MIfune only sees weakness, but you can still sense he is affected by it. Though he is misanthropic, he is very articulate about human nature. Because he is a man who is painfully honest with himself, you see a free spirit, an immortal archetype. He tears his way through this movie all the way to its final showdown, where you are both exhausted and interestingly affirmed by everything that has been experienced.
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