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Yojimbo (1961)



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In Japan, Akira Kurosawa is sometimes criticized for making movies that are too Western. I see this as more of an observation than a criticism, and how true it is, I don't know. A case can be made for Yojimbo, however; it's an adaptation of Dashiell Hammett's novel Red Harvest, with the setting transposed from 1920s America to 19th century Japan. In a nutshell, a wandering masterless samurai stumbles upon a town run by two warring crime factions, and he decides to dispatch them by playing one off the other. The story has been told in movies several times -- in A Fistful of Dollars as a gritty western, in Karate Warriors as a martial arts film, in The Warrior and the Sorceress as a swords-and-sorcery fantasy, and not until Last Man Standing in the novel's original setting.

Yojimbo is probably the best of these, though a case can be made for A Fistful of Dollars. Kurosawa is a master of filming adventure stories with themes of honor and justice, and Yojimbo is one of his most beloved movies, with fights, chases, and schemes aplenty, and enough time in between and during for building compelling nuanced characters. The cinematography is gorgeous and helps establish a unique flavor that is just right for this story: though the town is built out in the middle of a desert, the realm of the characters themselves feels claustrophobic. Law enforcement is a distant entity, respected on principle but ultimately ineffectual. In this town, if you want to do something about the badguys, you have to do it yourself -- small wonder most find it preferable to endure them instead.

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