Wednesday, March 10, 2010

Blu-ray Review: Yojimbo - The Criterion Collection

Okay, so I realize that this review isn't about anime and it really doesn't have anything to do with the format. What it does pertain to is Japanese cinema, and I personally feel that appreciation of both go hand in hand. Also this is my blog and I want to review Yojimbo so, yeah. If you're an otaku that hasn't experienced a Kurosawa film before, then by all means consider this a wake up call.

There's just something about the classics that never go out of style. They are every bit as fun to watch today as they were when originally released, and that holds especially truly for just about every film in Criterion's lineup. I can honestly say that I don't know of any other company with as much variety and quality as they offer in their catalog. One of the most popular lines of theirs, from the standpoint of collectors, has been the accumulation of pictures from famed Japanese director, Akira Kurosawa.

In fairness it's almost daunting to think about the quality Kurosawa pushed out through the 30 films he created, however, there were a few that stood out and really withstood the test of time. With the shift in format towards high definition the Criterion Collection has made the move to Blu-ray and has taken Kurosawa with them previously with their release of Kagemusha. Released later this month Yojimbo and Sanjuro will both avail themselves in 1080p. The titles will be packaged as a collection or individually. For the purposes of this review we're looking at Yojimbo specifically.
In 1961 Yojimbo was released and it quickly solidified itself as a darkly comic Japanese western. Starring legendary actor Toshiro Mifune, Yojimbo followed the exploits of a wandering samurai named Sanjuro Kuwabatake who has the misfortune of happening upon a town with some serious problems. Upon arriving he's greeted by a dog scampering down main street with a human hand in its mouth. From that point Sanjuro comes upon two warring gangs vying for control in the village, and eventually settles down in a small restaurant in order to get the dirt on what's happening.

It would seem that the guy who runs the brothel and silk factory is clashing against the man in charge of sake production. Bad blood has been going on between them for some time now and both have hired thugs and mercenaries in an effort to out do the other. As the restaurateur states, there's nobody making money at this point in the town aside from the guy who makes coffins. Both sides are losing men and the village has lost all hope. Naturally Sanjuro sees an opportunity here.

The samurai wastes little time unleashing his skills and showing both gangs why they want to go bankrupt to have someone of his caliber on their side. Sanjuro plays them off each other masterfully and creates a much stronger element of confusion and chaos. He brings events to a boiling point several times during the film, and each time it happens he sits back and watches the events unfold.
Eventually some other characters stand out to throw a wrench into Sanjuro's plans. The son of the sake brewer, Unosuke (Tatsuya Nakadai), is introduced into the plot as Sanjuro's rival. He's a pistol-toting badass who quickly asserts himself as a fearsome person, though he doesn't display much in the way of sword abilities. Inevitably the film comes down to a showdown between the dark forces of the town and Sanjuro, and naturally Unosuke is a part of that.

When examining Yojimbo as a film there are a few things that stand out almost immediately. For starters the atmosphere is undeniably unique. Kurosawa's vision brought through some incredible moments here and everything from the music direction to the cinematography and action comes together in an East meets West kind of ordeal that feels like no other. Adding to that layer of mystique is a darkly comedic vibe that uses dialogue and visuals for laughs, which really helps break up the foreboding tone that blankets everything.

Probably the biggest thing about Yojimbo that stands out as a shining reason to watch it is Mifune's portrayal of Sanjuro. Of course Mifune was a legendary Japanese actor, but his role in this film is downright iconic. From the awkward twitch of his shoulders to the way he carries himself and spits out dialogue, Mifune comes across as the ultimate badass. This is still the case even when Sanjuro is taking his lumps and up against seemingly impossible odds. Going along with the western motif in Yojimbo, Mifune's performance here could make light similarities to Clint Eastwood's character from "The Man with No Name" trilogy (though really since Sergio Leone was a Kurosawa fan, I suppose the comparison could be the other way around).
Whether you've seen Yojimbo before or not, all you really need to know is that it's classic Japanese cinema and a downright awesome samurai flick. It's a period piece done in a fashion that only Kurosawa could do and I dear say that Mifune absolutely makes this film as priceless as it is. It's a classic among classics and deserves to be in the collection of anyone who appreciates older films.

Criterion's remastered standard definition DVDs looked pretty darn good, but they hardly hold a candle to the spectacular transfer available for this Blu-ray release. Presented with its original 2.35:1 aspect ratio, 1080p resolution, and encoded with MPEG-4 AVC Criterion's Yojimbo is truly a force to be reckoned with. Seriously; for a film that was originally released in 1961, the cleanup job done for this disc was simply astounding!

From top to bottom the picture is crystal clear with hardly a moment that seems out of focus or flawed in any way. Every scene strikes an appropriate balance between blacks and whites, and every single detail from blades of grass, panels of wood, or even patterns on the costumes stand out. The image is free of dirt and scratches, there's no compression of any kind, and the only thing that's even worth mentioning is a minor flickering that takes place in a few scenes. I never imagined that Yojimbo could look as good as it does here. Hats off to Criterion!

The audio package on this release is downright awesome as well. When you approach Yojimbo keep in mind that there's not a bombastic 5.1 track or anything of that ilk. Instead, a Japanese DTS-HD Master Audio 3.0 and Japanese LPCM 1.0 are included here. The limited range in the sound field may be off-putting for some, but personally I felt this presentation retained the integrity of the original track. The quality is clear, concise, and downright free of any flaw. It's an improvement over the DVD release of the film, though not quite as grandiose as the video quality. English subtitles are included.
A good supply of supplemental content makes its way onto this Blu-ray release of Yojimbo as well. For starters there is a classy 22-page booklet packed in with the case. It features pictures and information about the film as well as musings on the genre by Kurosawa and other prolific personalities. Film historian Stephen Price provides a solid and informational audio commentary for the movie that is definitely worth checking out at some point. There's also a stills gallery, trailer for the film, and teaser as well. The biggest draw from the bonus feature menu (aside from the audio commentary) is a featurette created as part of the "Toho Masterworks series, Akira Kurosawa: It Is Wonderful to Create" (44:37). This is basically a scene by scene look at many of the film's better moments. There's also a fair amount of commentary provided by people who worked on the film.

Yojimbo's Blu-ray release is nothing short of extraordinary. Criterion went through a clearly painstaking process to get all the details right from the video to the audio. This release is a dramatic improvement over the original and stands as Criterion's best Blu-ray release to date, in my opinion. It's absolutely not to be missed by fans of the film. If you've never seen Yojimbo then consider this the best opportunity ever to check out one of Kurosawa's more iconic films.

Maki Rating:

Review material provided by Criterion. Screenshots in this review are from the standard definition release and are not indicative of the outstanding quality present on the Blu-ray disc.

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