Directed by Akira Kurosawa
Aspect Ratio: 2.35:1 1080p AVC codec
Running Time: 110 minutes
Audio: DTS-HD Master Audio 3.0 Japanese; PCM 1.0 Japanese
MSRP: $ 39.95
Release Date: March 23, 2010
Review Date: March 6, 2010
The genesis of the modern action comedy film can be found in Akira Kurosawa’s iconic Yojimbo. With its charismatic leading man facing off against a seemingly unstoppable foe, an expert amalgamation of violence and lighter material, and a number of action set pieces that feature breathless and heart-stopping direction that keep audiences on the edges of their seats, Yojimbo was the first and in many ways still ranks among the best. It’s a movie that never grows stale; indeed, the roots of cinematic action pictures which it establishes require periodic revisits, all the better to appreciate what marvels were accomplished by one of the cinema’s greatest artists.
An unattached samurai drifter Sanjuro (Toshiro Mifune) arrives at a small town where two lawless factions rooted in the village’s silk and sake trades are battling each other with neither of them clearly in control. The ronin offers to fight on the side of the highest bidder and watches amusingly as each side makes efforts to court his favor while also planning its own dastardly betrayal. The samurai’s ploy is actually to have both sides destroy each other so that the town can get back to its normal existence, but Sanjuro must constantly be on guard as he switches allegiances repeatedly to keep the sides off balance.
The film is a movie connoisseur’s delight with its epic widescreen frame consistently filled with Kurosawa’s interesting compositions. He sets the game in play early when the rival gangs crowd out into the village’s street with Sanjuro seated high above watching the standoff, Kurosawa placing the samurai on the extreme right or left of the frame above while he looks down on the gangs below occupying the center, a lordly position Sanjuro assumes throughout almost the entire film, either literally or figureatively. His fights with the gangs are so rapid, they’re practically over in the blink of an eye, and in one of the film’s most magnificent moments, Mifune’s Sanjuro kills six men and trashes an entire house (to make it appear a gang has killed the men and ransacked the house) in about half a minute, an amazing display of action and editing that simply numbs the brain for a few seconds. Kurosawa accomplishes similar miracles with the gang’s various late retaliations on a silk warehouse and a sake storeroom with a hypnotic fire blazing forward and a lustrous cascade of liquor raining down around the camera. And yet, the director also finds time to enjoy the whimsy of some of the idiotic locals from the corrupt mayor to the shrewish wife more devious than her husband. Even a local dog who trots merrily down the street with a dismembered hand in its jaws is looked on with smirking astonishment. The script by Kurosawa and Ryuzo Kikushima never lets us forget the ruthlessness of the men we’re sometimes finding so amusing, and the seemingly impossible mission Sanjuro undertakes can’t help but keep us riveted until the very end.
Yojimbo made Toshiro Mifune, already a highly popular actor, a revered international celebrity, and there are few words left to describe the impact he still has in this, one of his true signature roles. He’s an awesome, undeniable presence on the screen, even when he’s at his most beaten and bruised, truly one of the most charismatic stars in the history of world cinema. Also singularly impressive is Tatsuya Nakadai, also a big star in his day, as the engagingly psychotic younger brother Unosuke of the Ushitora clan. With his handsome good looks and that sinister Winchester revolver he secrets inside his kimono, he’s a lethal presence that must inevitably be dealt with. Eijiro Tono acts a fine Gonji, the restaurateur who offers Sanjuro shelter and sage advice. Isuzu Yamada makes her early scenes as the treacherous wife of the Seibei clan’s leader count for both comedy with her shrewishness and chills with her ruthlessness. Daisuke Kato offers more comic relief as the dunderheaded Ushitora brother who never quite realizes his role in the mounting mayhem.
The film’s 2.35:1 theatrical aspect ratio is faithfully delivered in a 1080p transfer using the AVC codec. With the exception of one or two late sequences which seem taken from a print a generation or two removed from the rest of the film’s master, this is a beautiful encode with excellent contrast lending a pleasing and impressive grayscale rendering. Sharpness is unusually excellent in most shots with great depth of focus bringing out details in both the foreground and backgrounds. With the plethora of tight line structures present, there is a great danger of aliasing and moiré rearing their ugly heads, but they never do. Black levels are a bit inconsistent ranging from merely average to very good, but shadow detail can be outstanding under the best circumstances. Criterion uses a pale white subtitle on their Blu-ray releases, and sometimes they’re a bit difficult to read when placed against bright backgrounds. The film has been divided into 26 chapters.
Criterion has provided both a DTS-HD Master Audio 3.0 sound mix in attempting to replicate the Perspecta Stereo sound offered with the original release. There is also a PCM (1.1 Mbps) 1.0 track. I listened to much of the film with the lossless stereo encode and greatly preferred it to the uncompressed mono mix. The DTS track features a nice spread across the front channels with Masaru Sato’s uniquely whimsical score coming through loud and clear. Dialogue in the center channel did seem pushed forward more than in some other 3.0 mixes Criterion has presented lately. The PCM track is also strong though in the quietest moments I could discern some light flutter and some distortion in the upper reaches of the music.
The audio commentary is by Kurosawa expert Stephen Price who does a thorough scene-by-scene analysis of the film and adds additional comments on Sanjuro.
All of the bonus video features are presented in 1080i.
“Akira Kurosawa: It Is Great to Create” is another in the series of television retrospectives of the master’s great works. Here, in 44 ½ minutes, cast (including co-star Tatsuya Nakadai) and crew members (art director Yoshiro Muraki, script assistant Teruyo Nogami) share memories of the production and the man behind it.
There are two trailers included on the disc. The teaser trailer (filmed while the movie was in production) runs 1 ½ minutes. The theatrical trailer runs 2 ½ minutes.
A brief stills gallery contains seven black and white photographs showing behind-the-shots of the director at work.
The enclosed 21-page booklet contains a complete cast and crew list, a chapter listing, a few grainy stills, a comment from director Akira Kurosawa on the movie, an appreciation of the film by movie author Alexander Sesonske, and reminiscences by actor Tatsuya Nakadai, cinematographer Kazuo Miyagawa, and script assistant Teruyo Nogami.
The Criterion Blu-rays include a maneuvering tool called “Timeline” which can be pulled up from the menu or by pushing the red button on the remote. It shows you your progress on the disc, the title of the chapter you’re now in, and index markers for the commentary that goes along with the film, all of which can be switched on the fly. Additionally, two other buttons on the remote can place or remove bookmarks if you decide to stop viewing before reaching the end of the film or want to mark specific places for later reference.
4/5 (not an average)
One of the great classics of international cinema created by one of cinema’s legendary grandmasters, Yojimbo makes a mostly magnificent Blu-ray release. With interesting bonus features and a startlingly good sound and video transfer, Kurosawa addicts should be in cinema heaven. Highest recommendation!