YOJIMBO (The Criterion Collection) (Blu-ray)
Coinciding with what would have been director Akira Kurosawa's 100th birthday, the Criterion Collection presents Yojimbo on Blu-ray.
By the flip of a branch, a samurai (Toshiro Mifune), who gives his name as Sanjuro, comes to a town ravaged by two warring gangs, evidenced by the slightly comical image of a dog scurrying away with a severed hand in its mouth. Brothel owner Seibei Manome (Seizaburo Kawazu) is on one side. His former right-hand man Ushitora Shinden (Kyu Sazanka) on the other. Ushitora left when he learned Seibei was leaving everything to his son. Criminals and fugitives fill both their ranks, leaving the casket maker the only person in town making money.
Sanjuro shows himself to be a masterful swordsman and plays both sides by constantly outwitting them. At first, it looks like he is doing this to double his income, but the audience is frequently shown money has no bearing on Sanjuro's actions. He has a higher purpose and everything else is subterfuge.
A truce is called but Sanjuro knows it means a bigger, bloodier fight is coming. The idea came from Ushitora's youngest brother, Unosuke (Tatsuya Nakadai), who has just returned from his travels. Unosuke is a match for Sanjuro's cunning and is emboldened because he owns the only pistol in town. Unosuke catches Sanjuro's double dealing and takes him prisoner. Sanjuro is beaten but eventually outsmarts his captors, setting up an eventual showdown.
Yojimbo is vastly entertaining. Kurosawa's entertaining samurai tale is influenced by Hollywood westerns, like those of John Ford, and is staged marvelously. His use of wind down the town's lone street augments the visuals as dust and leaves blow around. They also hint at Sanjuro's goodness as a force of nature. Mifune is an engaging leading man, captivating every moment he is on screen. Through the character he exudes power and intelligence. The two men working together are arguably the greatest actor/director combos in the history of cinema.
The Blu-ray is given a 1080p/AVC MPEG-4 transfer and is presented with a 2.35:1 aspect ratio. The black and white cinematography looks exquisite offering strong contrast and sharp details. Shadow delineation earns high marks as well. The main flaw is a minor one. More film grain than the rest of the film can be seen in the smoke during a fire at Seibei's. Likely very difficult to clean up. The audio comes in two options: DTS-HD Master Audio Perspecta 3.0 and Linear PCM Mono. I prefer the authenticity of the mono track but the 3.0 track allows Masaru Sato's score to be fully appreciated.
Film historian and Kurosawa scholar Stephen Prince delivers the audio commentary. He gives an insightful dissertation not just on the film and Kurosawa's techniques but also the historical context of the story. Criterion presents yet another installment from the Toho Masterworks series Akira Kurosawa: It Is Wonderful to Create. Coming in at 45 minutes, it naturally focuses on the making of Yojimbo and features interviews with cast and crew. There is also a theatrical trailer, and teaser trailer, a stills gallery of set photos, and liner notes with an essay by Alexander Sesonske as well as notes by Kurosawa and his collaborators.
Yojimbo is a classic and has been imitated many times, including Sergio Leone's A Fistful of Dollars, which Kurosawa filed a lawsuit over to receive credit and compensation. If you don't own it, you owe it to yourself to see it. Criterion has made it available separately and in a set paired with Sanjuro.