August 12, 2003

Sanjuro the Cowboy

yojimbo.jpgA mysterious stranger wanders into a deserted town. The fearful innkeeper informs him that two rivals gangs are at war and that the stranger best eat his meal quickly and get the hell out while he can. The stranger eats his food in silence and then informs the innkeeper that he's here to stay. A premise that sounds like it could be the start of any number of Westerns, this is the opening of Akira Kurosawa's Yojimbo which played as part of the on going Return of Kurosawa & Mifune (originally shown at Film Forum last year) at BAM Rose Cinemas, a series well worth checking out as it continues throughout August.

Kurosawa has this wonderful ability to create real characters out of his motley crew of actors, many with mugs only a mother could love, like the seriously furry brows on one gangster's dumb brother (Daisuke Kat). Unless of course, you're a mother in a Kurosawa movie, then you're a complete domineering bitch. Unlike Throne of Blood or Ran (both excellent Kurosawa's in their own right but very earnest), Yojimbo and its main character Sanjuro the mercenary samurai (Mifune), both have an excellent wit and sense of comic in the tragic. The plot winds around the large cast as Sanjuro double crosses and then double crosses again the townfolk, getting them to act just as he plans, but constant throughout are the unexpected laughs.

Most curious perhaps in the movie is the fight scenes, wherein the bumbling thugs hack at each other with their swords as though they were brutal machetes, not skilled instruments. Even Sanjuro wields his as an object to be used with power, not finesse, but only after he's worked every mental machination possible first. Another ronin carries a gun, a long thin phallus he aims from out of the middle of his robe, but he comes off as a misguided hot head not playing fair having a fire arm. Like all good Westerns, his death can be read as oddly homoerotic, as he pleads for Sanjuro to hand him his gun. He feels naked without it, he gasps. Sanjuro obliges but that's because he doesn't need a penis substitute, he's a real man who saunters out of town as the credits roll. It's true, Westerns just are better when they're set in the East.

Yojimbo and the sequel Sanjuro are also available on Criterion DVDs.

Posted by karen at August 12, 2003 6:36 PM