Yojimbo (1961)

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Released 21-Apr-2004

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Details At A Glance

General Extras
Category Action Main Menu Audio
Theatrical Trailer
Trailer-Eastern Eye Montage
Trailer-Kurosawa Documentary
Trailer-Seven Samurai
Rating Rated PG
Year Of Production 1961
Running Time 110:29
RSDL / Flipper RSDL (58:55) Cast & Crew
Start Up Menu
Region Coding 4 Directed By Akira Kurosawa
Studio
Distributor
Toho Company
Madman Entertainment
Starring Toshirô Mifune
Tatsuya Nakadai
Yôko Tsukasa
Isuzu Yamada
Daisuke Katô
Seizaburô Kawazu
Takashi Shimura
Hiroshi Tachikawa
Yosuke Natsuki
Eijirô Tono
Kamatari Fujiwara
Ikio Sawamura
Atsushi Watanabe
Case Amaray-Transparent-Secure Clip
RPI $34.95 Music Masaru Satô


Video Audio
Pan & Scan/Full Frame None Japanese Dolby Digital 5.1 (448Kb/s)
Japanese Dolby Digital 2.0 mono (224Kb/s)
Widescreen Aspect Ratio 2.55:1
16x9 Enhancement
16x9 Enhanced
Video Format 576i (PAL)
Original Aspect Ratio 2.35:1 Miscellaneous
Jacket Pictures Yes
Subtitles English Smoking No
Annoying Product Placement No
Action In or After Credits No

NOTE: The Profanity Filter is ON. Turn it off here.

Plot Synopsis

    A dishevelled wandering samurai reaches a crossroads. Picking up a stick, he tosses it in the air. He then follows the direction the stick points. Thus we are introduced to the hero of this film, and at the same time shown that he is a ronin, a masterless samurai with no ties. Arriving in a nearby village, he discovers the place to be desolate and windswept, with no obvious signs of life. But in fact there are two rival gangs, led by Seibei and his former lieutenant Ushi-Tora, trying to monopolise the local trades. Seibei has the silk and sex trades parcelled up, while Ushi-Tora controls the sake. After demonstrating his strength as a samurai, both sides want to hire him as a yojimbo (bodyguard) so that they can finish off the other gang and have everything to themselves.

    The samurai, whom we learn is Sanjuro Kuwabataké (though that is undoubtedly not his real name), has other plans for the village. He proceeds to play one side off against the other in an attempt to destroy both.

    If you have not seen this film before but the story sounds familiar, then perhaps you have seen the uncredited and unauthorised Italian remake A Fistful of Dollars, which helped propel Clint Eastwood to international stardom. Or maybe the more recent version Last Man Standing, which threatened to do the opposite to Bruce Willis' career. Yojimbo may have itself been inspired by the 1929 Dashiell Hammett novel Red Harvest, which has the same basic plot situation.

    Yojimbo is a jidai-geki (period drama) set just before the Meiji Restoration of 1868, which ended the Shogunate and the feudal era in Japan, leading shortly thereafter to the abolition of the samurai class. In fact, this film falls into a subgenre called chambara, which in effect means "swordplay". Prior to Yojimbo, the chambara was a heavily stylised type of film, influenced by Noh drama, where the protagonists were characters who were not particularly realistic. They would be clean-cut romantic figures, wearing pristine kimonos and engaging in ritualised swordfights where no blood ever seemed to be spilled.

    In Yojimbo, Akira Kurosawa subverts the genre to create a realistic and satirical narrative. Sanjuro (Toshiro Mifune) is not the blue-blooded matinee idol type familiar to Japanese cinemagoers in the person of Kazuo Hasegawa or Mifune himself in the Musashi Miyamoto films. He wears a dirty kimono, is unshaven and spends a lot of the time scratching himself (presumably due to lice). His behaviour is outside the usual parameters of samurai behaviour, and when he kills someone they bleed, though not as profusely as they do in the sequel Sanjuro, or in countless other chambara films made since the early 1960s.

    Kurosawa leavens the goings-on with large dollops of humour. I have seen this film several times on the big screen and also on TV and DVD, and I never fail to laugh at Mifune's reaction when he sees the giant gang member with the mallet. He also comes out with a great deadpan line when one of the gang taunts Sanjuro into trying to kill him: "It'll hurt."  The gangsters or yakuza are played for comic effect most of the time, particularly by suggesting how dumb and cowardly they are. Daisuke Kato as Inokichi is made up to look like a wild boar, with thick eyebrows and large protruding teeth.

    Like several major Japanese filmmakers, Kurosawa copied ideas and situations from American films, particularly westerns and gangster films. You can see the influences clearly in this film, where the windswept village is much like any frontier town in a western. There's the cooper, greedily rubbing his hands but barely able to keep up with the number of coffins needed. And of course the villainous gunslinger, in the character of Tatsuya Nakadai's Unosuke. Not only American films though: the early scene with the dog carrying a body part could easily have come straight out of Bunuel.

    It is hard to find anything to criticise about this film. The performances are all superb, from Mifune down to the tiniest role, most of which include Kurosawa's stock company of players. The care taken with casting shows in having one of Japan's greatest actresses, Isuzu Yamada (incorrectly identified in the credits subtitles as "Izusu Yamada"), in the vital but relatively small role of Seibei's wife, and Kurosawa regular Takashi Shimura in the even smaller part of Tokuemon. The screenplay by Kurosawa and his usual collaborators is a model of construction and wit, with a lot of the story told visually. Needless to say the direction is near perfect, the cinematography (Kazuo Miyagawa) is fine and the score (Masaru Sato) brilliant.

    Yojimbo is a masterpiece, one of many made in the 1950s and 1960s by this great filmmaker. Very highly recommended. Note that the sequel Sanjuro is scheduled for release by Eastern Eye in late 2004, as is another Kurosawa jidai-geki The Hidden Fortress.

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Transfer Quality

Video

    The film is presented in an aspect ratio of 2.50:1 and is 16x9 enhanced. The original aspect ratio was 2.35:1, and the image seems to have been cropped slightly at the top and bottom. Some of the right and left of the frame is lost due to overscan on my TV.

    I was hoping that this transfer would be much better than it actually is. The black and white image is not ideally sharp, though it is reasonable. The indoors scenes are a little dark and shadow detail is not the best.

    Blacks are reasonably dark, but I did notice some low level noise in a few scenes. Otherwise, the look of the film is pretty good.

    There is a considerable amount of aliasing present, most noticeable when the camera pans. This also reveals some judder in the image. While the image generally is very detailed, some detail is lost during camera movement due to a motion blurring effect.

    Film artefacts are not as severe as I have come to expect from watching this film. A good job has been done of cleaning up any major artefacts, though there is some flecking apparent, and some faint scratches appear from time to time. The source material used was obviously in good condition.

    Optional English subtitles are provided in white with black borders. These are grammatically correct, displayed for long enough to be read and appear along the bottom edge of the frame.

    The film is presented on an RSDL-formatted disc with the layer change occurring at 58:55 during a fade to black between scenes and is not disruptive.

Video Ratings Summary
Sharpness
Shadow Detail
Colour
Grain/Pixelization
Film-To-Video Artefacts
Film Artefacts
Overall

Audio

    Two audio tracks are provided. The default track is Dolby Digital 5.1, and there is a Dolby Digital 2.0 mono mix as well, both in Japanese.

    The original audio track for this film was neither of the above. It was released with a three channel stereo soundtrack called Perspecta, which spread the sound across two side channels and a centre channel. The 5.1 mix would seem to approximate this more than the mono mix, but it is not exactly the same.

    I listened to the 5.1 track and it is pretty well done. There are not many directional effects, with the rear speakers only seeming to be used for music. The subwoofer gets a little too much of a profile for my liking.

    Audio sync seems to be out by a fraction, but this is the case on the UK Region 2 disc as well. It has been alleged that this is a problem with all prints of the film due to a glitch in the original recording, but this does not seem to be the case with the Region 1.

    This film has a great score by Masaru Sato. Strongly influenced by occidental music, sometimes it sounds like the start of one of Liszt's Hungarian Rhapsodies, but with a Japanese flavour. The opening theme is particularly memorable, and the score often seems to be ironically commenting on as well as complementing the action. This is a score worthy of an isolated music track if ever there was one.

Audio Ratings Summary
Dialogue
Audio Sync
Clicks/Pops/Dropouts
Surround Channel Use
Subwoofer
Overall

Extras

Main Menu Audio

    Music from the film is played when the menu is displayed.

Theatrical Trailer (2:38)

    This trailer has several shots that do not appear in the film and seem to have been shot especially for the trailer. It has optional English subtitles and is presented in an aspect ratio of 2.35:1, 16x9 enhanced. If anything, the video quality is superior to the main feature.

Eastern Eye Montage (2:21)

    This is the standard series of clips from various Eastern Eye releases that comes on all of their discs that I have seen, with the original audio from these clips replaced by some techno-style music. If you've seen it once...

Trailer - Kurosawa Documentary (1:53)

    A trailer for the upcoming Eastern Eye release of the 2001 documentary Kurosawa, which is fascinating and worth seeing. In widescreen but not 16x9 enhanced.

Trailer - Seven Samurai (3:56)

    This film needs no introduction. The trailer is in poor condition and has burned-in subtitles.

R4 vs R1

NOTE: To view non-R4 releases, your equipment needs to be multi-zone compatible and usually also NTSC compatible.

    There are a number of releases of this film in other regions. I have the Region 1 release from the normally reliable Criterion, but this is not one of their better releases. The video is in widescreen but not 16x9 enhanced. It looks fine on a 4x3 television, but on a 16x9 display the shortcomings of the transfer are revealed. Zooming the image in to fill the whole screen of a 16x9 TV shows a marked lack of clarity and detail. It also reveals that the subtitles are not 16x9 friendly and appear somewhere in the ether below the bottom of the television. Compounding the problems is the aspect ratio which is about 2.05:1, not the 2.35:1 advertised on the slick. There is obvious cropping at the right of the frame in comparison to the Region 4 release. There also appear to be more artefacts on the Criterion version than on the Region 4. And the Dolby Digital 2.0 mono track has a noticeable amount of hiss.

    The sole extra on the Criterion is the same theatrical trailer as on the Region 4, though there is an essay provided in a small leaflet.

    The UK Region 2 release is from the British Film Institute. This version has burned-in subtitles and the contrast level apparently has problems, with the image being dark and lacking shadow detail according to the reviews I have read. It does contain an audio commentary, plus cast and crew biographies and a stills gallery.

    The Japanese Region 2 disc apparently has restored video and audio with a widescreen enhanced transfer, but the lack of English subtitles will be a barrier to most viewers. The audio is Dolby Digital 2.0 stereo, and the disc includes a making of documentary (which is possibly an episode from the documentary series Akira Kurosawa: It Is Wonderful To Create.)

    The French Region 2 disc is widescreen enhanced and contains a video introduction to the film as well as a director biography, but has non-removable French subtitles and obviously no English subtitles.

    There is a Region 0 disc available from Mei Ah in Hong Kong, which is not widescreen enhanced but does have English subtitles. Judging by several releases in their Kurosawa series and other assorted discs from this company that I own, I would not recommend this disc. The video quality tends to be poor and the subtitles are often incomprehensible, apparently due to having been translated from Japanese into Chinese and then into English.

    While the Region 4 is not perfect by any means, it would seem to me to be the clear winner at the present time. The Criterion is seriously flawed, and while the Region 2 release has an apparently superb commentary track, the lack of 16x9 enhancement and the apparent flaws with the video transfer mitigate against it.

Summary

    A great film.

    The video quality is good but could have been better.

    The audio quality is good.

    The extras do not amount to much.

Ratings (out of 5)

Video
Audio
Extras
Plot
Overall

© Philip Sawyer (Bio available.)
Sunday, June 13, 2004
Review Equipment
DVDPioneer DV-S733A, using Component output
DisplaySony 86CM Trinitron Wega KVHR36M31. Calibrated with Ultimate DVD Platinum. This display device is 16x9 capable.
Audio DecoderBuilt in to DVD player, Dolby Digital, dts and DVD-Audio. Calibrated with Ultimate DVD Platinum.
AmplificationYamaha RX-V596 for surround channels; Yamaha AX-590 as power amp for mains
SpeakersMain: Tannoy Revolution R3; Centre: Richter Harlequin; Rear: Pioneer S-R9; Subwoofer: JBL SUB175

Other Reviews
DVD Net - Jules F
impulsegamer.com - Sacha Chambers

Comments (Add)
Thanks for a very comprehensive review - RichardP
A fine review with helpful comparisons. - NickM
Trailer Quality - Mauro
Another vote of thanks - Bran (my bio, or something very like it)