“Move Over Clint Eastwood. Here Comes Toshiro Mifune!”
October 7th, 2012
Akira Kurosawa was the greatest Japanese filmmaker who ever lived. His classics include "Rashomon" (1950) [which won an Oscar for best foreign language film], "Seven Samurai" (1954) [which was remade in the United States as "The Magnificent Seven" in 1960], "The Hidden Fortress" (1958) [whose two comedic buddy roles were the inspiration and core foundation of R2-D2 and C-3P0 in "Star Wars" (1977)], and "Red Beard" (1965) to name a few. All of them starred Toshiro Mifune who collaborated with Kurosawa on sixteen films.
The story centers on ronin Kuwabatake Sanjuro (Toshiro Mifune) who comes upon a town where two gangs fight for total control. Amused by their antics, he decides to play the two gangs against each other to see what happens, and then tries to mend the collateral damage created by his mischievous endeavor. If this plot sounds familiar, then it should. Sergio Leone remade the film and titled it "A Fistful of Dollars" (1964), which was so similar that it was released in Japan under the title "The Return of Yojimbo!"
At first what I perceived as bad acting on behalf of the supporting cast was actually meant to be clues for Sanjuro to know who he could or couldn't trust. Or more clearly, whom he could or couldn't con, as he pulls a few for extra funds. Or even more to the point, the townsfolk's sometimes over the top performances served as amusements to Sanjuro, who'd occasionally smirke and almost broke the fourth wall figuratively, as he is just as amused by these people as we are. And that makes us identify and route for Sanjuro much more than we did for the man with no name, whom likewise had very little to say, but did nothing to win our affection by anything other than default. But that's not the case with Sanjuro. He constantly finds ways to win us over throughout the film as you can imagine he'd just laugh at these people, but instead just nods and sips his soup. But you can tell what he's thinking. And for that I applaud Toshiro Mifune, as you can tell these things weren't scripted. Rather it was a very straightforward story like "Fistful of Dollars," except Mifune sp*ced it up to make it more interesting. For at face value, it's a pretty predictable tale. So Mifune makes for a better lead than Eastwood in this tale.
Akira Kurosawa's style is also unmistakeable. Unlike Leone who used many long dramatic shots to further establish the drama and stretch the runtime--as lets face it, Leone's style of shooting enhances the drama at the outset--Kurosawa only shoots what he needs and there's nothing in the film that you think could've been shorter, nor any shot that they didn't need or was unnecessarily prolonged. Ergo, the pacing remains decent. Although, it doesn't flow as quickly as Leone's film. Though that's probably due to the fact that there was far less dialogue in this film than in Leone's. And that's a testament to Kurosawa's storytelling capabilities with images alone. You'll find that he repeated this process in nearly all of this films. And like many actor/director partnerships of Hollywood, you can tell that the partnership of Mifune and Kurosawa benefits the film in ways it wouldn't have had he cast a random actor for the part, as the way Mifune takes advantage of Kurosawa's visual storytelling is obvious. Other actors probably would worry they hadn't enough to say or do, as much of Mifune's role involves him just sitting quietly and listening to what everyone else is saying. The worry was quite the opposite with Leone's film, though with this film as a reference point, then it's no surprise why. Mifune and Kurosawa really hit his strides with this one.
Overall, Toshiro Mifune made a better star for this story, and his swordsmanship measures up to Clint's quick-draw standoffs. Kurosawa also made for a better visual storyteller, but Leone's version was more streamlined in the dialogue department. So each has their own drawbacks or benefits depending on how you see it. But for me, "Yojimbo!" felt much more realistic than "A Fistful of Dollars" thanks to Mifune's acting making it believable that one man could conceivably pull off this con, and that makes the film all the more enjoyable. It's a true foreign classic that has withstood the test of time.