The Yojimbo Series By Mike White. I must be honest and say I’ve never been to the annual Top of the Park festivities during the day and I’m not even sure if anything goes on then...

I must be honest and say I’ve never been to the annual Top of the Park festivities during the day and I’m not even sure if anything goes on then. All I know is they show free movies at night in the open air projected onto one of the walls of the parking structure where the festival takes place (thus the name).

My housemates at college were almost always open to new things. I would bring home every kind of movie I could get my hands on from my job at Blockbuster and I would usually end up watching them with at least one of my housemates. Try to imagine nine U of M students sitting around their house watching a double feature of WHAT HAVE I DONE TO DESERVE THIS? and Delicatessen.

The only thing really strange about us going to see Yojimbo was that I had no hand in it. I think it might have been Buck that decided to go. In any case, I’m just really glad I went.

Even with a horrible 16mm flat print, Yojimbo is a really kick-ass movie. I was enthralled. It was something I had never seen before; a Japanese movie that completely appealed to my pop culture sensibilities. Until that night I had lived under the misconception that every Japanese movie was as heavy-handed and ponderous as a Bergman film.


Toshiro Mifune’s Yojimbo would feel right at home having a cup of sake or a high ball with Humphrey Bogart’s Sam Spade. Both live by their wits and enjoy making money. Both are observers who like to try and manipulate what they see. They act on their environment more than they are acted upon. They sit and chuckle at the dramas unfolding around them and throw monkey wrenches into the smoothly running narrative. If Sam Spade hadn’t stuck his nose into the death of his partner, what would the story of The Maltese Falcon have been like? The momentum of the events going on would have carried the story through to some sort of finish, but Spade is the catalyst for the real fun. The similarity between characters isn’t that much of a surprise when one takes into account that both The Maltese Falcon and Red Harvest, the basis for Yojimbo, were penned by Dashiell Hammett.

I know I’ve mentioned Yojimbo in the pages of CdC before—especially when talking about directors acknowledging their source material (pay special attention, Quentin). Yojimbo is the movie that A Fistful of Dollars was based on. Seems strange, doesn’t it? That a Western could be made out of a Japanese samurai film? But, the story translates easily. It’s a classic. Two warring factions operate in the same town, each trying to destroy the other. In comes the stranger who pits one against the other and then back again until only he and his pile of money are left.

No, I’m not giving anything away. The real fun is seeing how he does it.

Yojimbo might appear as just a shiftless, money-grubbing ronin opportunist, but there is always a bit of moral motivation behind his actions. Sometimes it might be way behind his thinking but it’s still there, nevertheless.

Like Clint Eastwood in Sergio Leone’s Dollars Trilogy, Yojimbo is truly a man with no name. Yojimbo simply means "bodyguard." When asked what his name is in Yojimbo, he looks out the open door and says his name is "Mulberry Bush." And in Sanjuro, he changes it to Camellia Sanjuro (camellia thirty years old).

Yes, like A Fistful of Dollars, Yojimbo was popular enough to merit a sequel. Sanjuro is not, however, the Japanese equivalent to For a Few Dollars More. It is, instead, more of a palace intrigue story where Yojimbo’s loyalty remains firmly in place and he is not involved with the other characters just for their money.

Through an act of bad timing, Yojimbo gets involved with nine young and rash samurai. He takes pity on them and becomes their abusive mentor. As they learn to trust this ronin samurai, he begins to get more in touch with his humanity. No, this isn’t a three-hankie Samurai movie, the changes in characters are subtle. No, subtle isn’t a euphemism for "dull." It’s all very well done. This is Akira Kurosawa we’re talking about, after all.

Kurosawa really does a job with Yojimbo and Sanjuro. I think Sanjuro might be one of his most over-looked movies. Sure, the story is somewhat simple but his relatively straight-forward direction and Mifune’s terrific acting really elevate it to a great film.

Mifune is fantastic! Every little facial gesture and body movement tell give you a sense of a real person. But he knows that ticks do not a character make. You don’t watch him and say he’s a great actor because you don’t realize it unless you saw him in something else. It would be only then that you would realize that he was actually playing a role and not just Yojimbo.

Toshiro Mifune has got to rank up there with some of my favorite actors. His performances are always great, even when he might just be content with walking through a role. He’s probably best known to Americans from his work in the TV mini-series, Shogun. But it’s really worth one’s while to check out some of his other roles. I’ve mostly seen him being directed by Kurosawa and can recommend him in High and Low, The Hidden Fortress, The Bad Sleep Well, Throne of Blood, Rashomon and Stray Dog but I’ve hardly made a dent in Kurosawa’s filmography (shame on me).

For people still hungry for more of Mifune as Yojimbo after Yojimbo and Sanjuro, you’re in luck! Kind of. Mifune reprised his role at least two other times. He went up against another very popular character who has had his own movie and television series, Zatoichi, the blind swordsman in Zatoichi Meets Yojimbo (original title, huh?). Unfortunately, Zatoichi is the main character and Yojimbo isn’t his usual playful self. There’s really only one cool scene in this film, in my opinion, and I'll tell you about it to save you the trouble of renting it.

At one point in the film, Zatoichi falls and is hanging off a flight of stairs. Yojimbo watches as the blind man panics, not knowing how far he might fall. Zatocichi feels around and finds an object that he throws over his shoulder to judge the distance to the floor. Yojimbo catches the object and holds it for a few seconds before letting it go, thus making Zatoichi panic and think that if his grasp doesn’t hold that he'll fall a few stories and not the four feet to the ground.

There, that’s it. I just saved you three dollars. Now I'll save some of you $30.

I can’t even begin to relate how excited I was when I got Samurai Video’s catalog with its listing for Machibuse (aka Ambush at Blood Pass) which was noted as the "final in the [Yojimbo] series."

I had never seen this film listed anywhere else and was so excited to see Toshiro reprise his role one more time. Little did I know that disappointment was on the way.

I didn’t care that the print had a few scratches on it and that the subtitles were often thirty seconds behind the action (sometimes people would be outside, walking away, while the conversation they had indoors was still playing itself out on screen). No, it’s just that Yojimbo really wasn’t very Yojimbo-y. He seemed more like my dad than a semi-scoundrel/wandering ronin samurai.

The film starts with Yojimbo meeting with The Crow. I don’t think we find out that that’s his name until almost the very end of the movie. Crow tells him to go to an inn and stay there for four or five days, drinking sake and gambling. We all know that’s right up Yojimbo’s alley and he certainly doesn’t mind getting paid to do it. After that time he'll receive a letter with further instructions—either go to Sanshu pass or take the Nakasen Road and wait for something to happen.

Sounds complicated, huh? I have to say, though, that I was waiting for something to happen throughout this entire movie. Long story short, he goes to the inn, gets the word to go to the pass and something kinda happens—he sees a cop chasing a criminal. They both take a tumble down a mountain side so Yojimbo takes them back to the inn and waits some more.

From there it seems like a play. We have one set, a lot of different characters whose lives are all interdependent. Even Yojimbo has some stake in what goes on, instead of being the lone outside observer. But, it’s not even that we’re aware of how deep his involvement goes until just about the end.

I’ve seen plays turned into movies that have turned out rather interesting. But, damn. I don’t know if this film originated on the stage or if director Hiroshi Inagaki (who directed Mifune through the Samurai trilogy) just doesn’t know how to breathe life into a movie. I mean, as what it is, it’s...okay, but as a Yojimbo movie, it’s a real yawner.

Machibuse reteams Mifune with Katsu Shintaro (Zatoichi) and doesn’t really get into the typical Yojimbo-ish plot until an hour and fifteen minutes into the film when we discover that The Crow is not that much of a well-intentioned employer. But, by that time, I really didn’t care. All the intrigue and back-stabbing was just expected and pretty lame. What really amazed me is that Machibuse’s bodycount was only up to four people by the beginning of act three. What’s up with that?

The resolution of the film is one of the strangest I’ve seen since those moralistic tags placed on gangster movies like Howard Hawks’ Scarface (where a faceless antagonist, who we’re supposed to think it’s Scarface but they couldn’t get Paul Muni to reprise his role, is tried and executed. Justice is served). Machibuse ends similarly with a short scene where Yojimbo comes across a eight or nine guys on the road and kills them all. He then kicks over one of the bodies and we see it’s the Crow. Well, that was convenient, wasn’t it?

I could see Machibuse being the second in the series since it seems like a sophomore slump. But, then again, I guess comparisons should be made more to fourth installments of the Rocky and Superman films.

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