On Episode 118 of Drink in the Movies Michael & Taylor Rescreen John Cassavetes’ A Woman Under the Influence and provide a First Impression of the next Rescreening episode title, Akira Kurosawa’s Yojimbo.
In a fleet-footed adventure, two clownish peasants with a comical love-hate relationship (famously the inspiration for C-3PO and R2-D2) accompany a princess in disguise and her samurai guard on a trek through enemy territory. In exchange, they’ll get a piece of the gold that they help to haul… that is, if they don’t succumb to temptation and try to steal it before journey’s end.
Mostly light in mood, it shows Kurosawa playfully poking fun at human greed and the distrust it can sew between people, making up for a lack of complexity in character with captivating use of widescreen compositions (you wouldn’t know from the splendor of it that this was his first time employing the format). Most memorably striking are the high and low angle shots of the towering, jagged mountain peaks that the titular fortress is nestled between, where the peasants first meet their royal companions.
For laughs, the movie does rely heavily on the peasants quarreling and quickly becoming selfish, but for me, it stopped short of growing tiresome. It’s the blend of comedy and action that makes this a rip-roaring ride. The action is spectacularly staged, from the large set pieces (such as the early sequence in which a mass of imprisoned peasants revolt and flee from their captors) to the more contained confrontations (such as the spear duel between the guard and an old friend turned foe). The latter scene is shot with patience and deliberation, and is another clear inspiration for Star Wars, the spears reminiscent of lightsabers.
On another in a long line of sweltering summer days in post-war Japan, rookie cop Murakami (Toshiro Mifune), exhausted from a night without sleep, boards an uncomfortably packed city bus after leaving the gun range, and upon deboarding, realizes his colt has been pickpocketed. On foot, he chases after the man he suspects is the culprit, but loses him. Murakami is an honest, upright new recruit, so he immediately reports the incident to his chief, who isn’t anywhere as concerned as Murakami is about there being one more gun out there amid the general public. From the chief’s perspective, the difference is marginal, but to Murakami, it’s devastating. Any blood drawn by the gun will be on his hands, and the guilt bearing down on him is as oppressive as the brutal seasonal heat.
Initially, Murakami seeks out the thief on his own. A colleague helps to lead him to the realization that there might have been an accomplice, and sure enough, when Murakami sifts through mugshots of previously booked pickpockets, he recognizes a woman from his miserable bus ride. He tracks her down and tails her around the city in one of two extended montages in which Kurosawa dexterously condenses action down into a suspenseful string of shots. The second such montage comes shortly thereafter as Murakami puts on dirtied up civilian gear and prowls the backstreets and alleyways of downtown, hoping he’ll be approached by a pistol dealer. Murakami picks up a trail that looks like it could lead him to the thief, and joins up with the more experienced officer Satō (Takashi Shimura, another Kurosawa regular) to see the trail to its end.
The colt does indeed inflict harm before Murakami is able to retrieve it, and that only strengthens his single-minded determination to find the criminal. But how much violence or illegality is he really preventing even if he does get the gun back in his holster before it’s been emptied of bullets? With his obsessiveness, it’s as if he thinks all crime and wrongdoing rested squarely on his shoulders, and there’s something heartening about his optimistic albeit naive thinking that he alone can prevent so much suffering. The culprit, after all, turns out to be a desperate veteran, only one of many in the aftermath of traumatizing war. A commentary on the social ills of post-war Japan thus lies beneath what on its surface is an expertly crafted film noir.