For the third entry of our new My Favourite Film series, Richard Gray selects a Kurosawa classic.
Richard Gray

25 Aug 2010 - 9:40 AM  UPDATED 26 Feb 2014 - 4:08 PM

A colleague recently asked me to list my 'Top 5 English-language films of the last 50 years'. This cruel task was made easier by keeping my love of world movies at bay. So when asked to pick my favourite world movie of all time for this column, I knew I'd be fine as long as I could restrict myself to the world. Picking an 'all-time favourite' world cinema film is the equivalent of picking a favourite breath of air: it's time consuming and possibly insane. It's only fitting that I discovered Yojimbo (1961, Akira Kurosawa) because of an Italian director making films about the American West.

A masterless samurai (or ronin), portrayed by the great Toshirô Mifune (pictured), wanders into a small town run by competing crime gangs and their gambling rackets. Quickly making a name for himself, the ronin convinces both factions to hire him as protection. Skillfully playing one off against the other, he seeks to bring peace to the town, but only after the factions have wiped each other out in a spectacularly bloody fashion.

If the saga of the Man with No Name sounds familiar, you may have seen one of the many films 'inspired' by Kurosawa's taciturn hero. Sergio Leone's 1964 Spaghetti western A Fistful of Dollars was so similar that it prompted a lawsuit, although arguably led to Clint Eastwood's most career defining roles to date. This in turn was remade as Last Man Standing (1996) with Bruce Willis some thirty years later. The hero of Yojimbo names himself Kuwabatake Sanjuro (literally 'Mulberry bush 30-year-old') after spotting a plant when asked his name. Kurosawa regular Mifune reprises this role in Sanjuro (1962), although many would argue that Mifune had been working on this role since at least 1954's The Seven Samurai (also remade as a western, The Magnificent Seven).

What is perhaps most surprising about this bloody samurai film, one of the first to use such realistic depictions in the genre, is the sheer amount of comedy. Kurosawa seems to be answering his Japanese critics, who felt that he was too influenced by American filmmakers such as John Ford. This is somewhat ironic in light of the sheer amount of westerns that were subsequently influenced by Kurosawa's jidaigeki (period drama) films. Indeed, Kurosawa was also influenced by author Dashiell Hammett, lifting scenes directly from The Glass Key and some say Red Harvest. Kurosawa takes great pleasure in stripping away many of the clichés of the respective dramas.

This film was an eye-opener for me as it was indicative that nothing is created in a bubble. It is frustrating when people cry out that Hollywood is merely ripping off the cinema greats of Europe or Asia, when Hollywood has been just as influential. I discovered Yojimbo through Leone's A Fistful of Dollars, and in turn sought out Kurosawa's influences. While subsequent and grander masterpieces, such as the much later Ran (1985), are arguably more capably crafted, for me Yojimbo represents a strong thread in the ever-connecting radial web of world cinema.

Richard Gray

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