This town is full of men who deserve to die.
– The Samurai to the inn-keeper in Akira Kurosawa’s masterpiece Yojimbo
As we were watching Akira Kurosawa’s Yojimbo (1961), an eerie feeling of seeing one of Sergio Leone’s spaghetti westerns crept over us.
You know, a stranger drifts into a small town where bad things are happening and bad men are on the ascendant.
Along with the stranger comes an uneasy wind that sends fallen leaves scattering, the people rushing inside and curious, hopeful folks peering through windows and half-open doors.
Soon the velocity of events, mainly the intensity of violence in the town, accelerates.
Ultimately, the stranger triumphs, turns his horse away from the town and rides off, leaving the bad elements kissing the dust.
Ha ha ha, a bit of research provided the reason for our uneasy déjà vu while watching Yojimbo.
Sergio Leone had blatantly stolen Kurosawa’s Yojimbo and remade it as A Fistful of Dollars.
Sure, A Fistful of Dollars was pleasing to the eye and Ennio Morricone’s music euphony to the ears.
But stealing is stealing, right?
An angry Kurosawa was not amused and sent a letter to Sergio:
Signor Leone, I have just had the chance to see your film. It is a very fine film, but it is my film. As Japan is a signatory to the Berne Convention on international copyright, you must pay me.
When Sergio demurred on paying up, Kurosawa did not hesitate to sue. He won and got the Italian thief to fork out 15% of the worldwide collections of A Fistful of Dollars.
So don’t let anyone fool you that Indian film-makers are the only thieves lurking around tinseltown!
Yojimbo was our first full movie from the Japanese director Akira Kurosawa.
Ryuzo Kikushima and Kurosawa wrote the screenplay for this acclaimed film.
And soon as the movie was over, we took a birch cane and unmindful of our shrieks flagellated ourselves mercilessly blue and red for the temerity of ignoring this master director for so long.
Moments into the movie, as the Samurai is walking down the main street of the town a dog comes running in the opposite direction with a severed human hand in its mouth, stunning both the Samurai and the viewers.
In that brief scene, Kurosawa provides the chilling history of violence in the town more powerfully than any other character in the movie can do so later – the inn-keeper through his angry exclamations to the Samurai, the constable through his nutty antics or the villagers staying inside behind closed doors.
Set in the 1860s, Yojimbo centers on the violence in a small town betwixt two criminal factions led by the brothel-keeper Seibei and his one-time henchman Ushitoro.
Before long, gamblers, criminals, drifters and fugitives have joined both sides in unleashing mayhem in the town.
But the town will soon get a fresh start thanks to the Samurai and his sword.
The great Japanese actor Toshiro Mifune plays the Samurai a.k.a. Ronin, who’s drifted into the town, with a magnificence rarely seen on the screen.
Bearing a stoical demeanor, a regal carriage, ruthless with the sword when necessary, and sporting the rare bemused smile as he eyes the pusillanimous foot-soldiers on both sides from a chair high above the street, the tall Mifune towers over the film.
The side actors are a treat to behold providing as they do the comical aspects of the film.
Eijirō Tōno as the inn-keeper Gonji and Ikio Sawamura playing the nutty constable Hansuke throw in remarkable performances.
Yojimbo also owes its enduring appeal to its extraordinary photography.
In my not-so-humble view, over 75% of directors forget that movies are a visual medium meant to feast the eyes foremost.
Here’s where the film’s photographer Kazuo Miyagawa comes in with his keen eye for the right angle in sync with the theme of the movie and context of the scene.
The film is an extraordinary amalgam of wide-angle and closeup photography.
The Samurai is always shown as towering whether it’s against the snow-covered mountains in the distance or walking in the main street of the town, a symbolic suggestion of his moral superiority over his surroundings.
After all, Kurosawa was a director for whom moral themes were precious in an amoral world.
To say that Yojimbo’s soundtrack offers glimpses of heaven would be no exaggeration.
Masaru Sato has wrought a magic that’s completely in tune with the tone of the movie.
A fusion of Western classical and Asian tunes reverberate throughout the film multiplying the viewer’s joy a thousand-fold.
Recommending a movie like Yojimbo to the Indian troglodytes who revel in garbage like Himmatwala, Rowdy Rathore, Ajith’s Billa or Dabanng is a sin of which I shall have no part!