Classic Review: Yojimbo

By contributor Patrick Zabriskie

Stars: ★★★★

Summary: An incredibly well made action film that set the bedrock for others to come.

Review: It wasn’t long after first viewing ‘A Fistful of Dollars’ that I found out that the landmark spaghetti-western was, in fact, a remake of a Japanese film made just a few years earlier. The film was 1961’s ‘Yojimbo’, directed by the master himself, Akira Kurosawa, and it is every bit as good as its western counterpart.

If you’ve seen ‘Fistful’, you know the plot of ‘Yojimbo’. A skilled warrior wanders into a small town engulfed in civil war and sets out to return peace in his own violent way. Most of the scenes, too, match up almost perfectly. The only major change is where the films take place. ‘Fistful’, obviously, was set in the Old West, while Yojimbo takes place some time during the lengthy samurai-period of Japan. Where Yojimbo truly differs is in its main character. He has all the skill, intelligence, and pure machismo of the Man With No Name, yet he comes across as more human. He’s more humorous and more prone to outbursts. I find him more entertaining, if not quite so iconic.

This film features great fight choreography, an impressive villain, and, what was then a fairly unique premise. It’s a smart and well-directed film with beautiful cinematography and an impressive score. I can think of few action films of this quality. It is a must see for fans of samurai films, action films, spaghetti-westerns, or just films in general. Akira Kurosawa proves once again in ‘Yojimbo’ that he is the master, plain and simple.

Buy It From Amazon: Yojimbo (The Criterion Collection) [Blu-ray]

Classic Review: Rashomon

Stars: ★★★★

Summary: An intelligent, philosophically influential, and emotionally resonant film.

Review:  “Long as I remember, rain’s been comin’ down…” The opening of Akira Kurosawa’s acclaimed 1950 film, ‘Rashomon’, immediately brought a song by Creedence Clearwater Revival to my mind.  Two men take refuge from a pounding storm beneath the ruined gatehouse called Rashomon.  One is a common woodcutter, the other a priest.  No words are spoken between them for the longest time, as the rain keeps comin’ down.  A third man joins them.  He manages to pry into the source of their despair; they have witnessed the story of a baffling murder and rape.  The priest’s faith in humanity has been severely shaken by the cloak of lies surrounding the events.  Slowly, all the versions of the story are shared and the conclusion is left ambiguous.  If there is one honest witness, we are left to decide for ourselves.

‘Rashomon’ is exactly the kind of film the world needs, and yet, of course, it is one of the most difficult to get made.  It is a film created from honest doubts, fears, questions, and a little faith.  The murder mystery angle makes it marketable, but the deliberately inconclusive, introspective ending will frustrate those looking for a quick fix.  ‘Rashomon’ is an artful entry into the discussion, not a hamhanded attempt at providing answers.

The film hews close to the minimalism and visual poetry of the silent era, yet has a very large number of shots, 407, which gives the action a similar flavor to postmodern hyperactivity.  It reinforces the fractured, frenetic, and confusing nature of the main event.  Kurosawa bucks common camera conventions, shoots directly towards the sun (something which wasn’t done at the time), and breaks the 180-degree-rule, a guideline for camera placement that prevents the audience from losing track of objects and location.  The murder and rape take place in the forest, which blocks out the sunlight, symbolizing the fragmentation of the truth, and the trees blur together with the camera motion, reinforcing the sense of frustration and spiritual wilderness.

‘Rashomon’ is an unforgettable, very emotional experience.  It’s a thinking person’s film.  It gave its name to the “Rashomon Effect”, which refers to the subjectivity of recollection.  It’s a must-see for cinephiles and philosophers.  “And I wonder, still I wonder, who’ll stop the rain?”

Buy It From Amazon: Rashomon – Criterion Collection