It took me all of four phone calls, but I managed easily enough to track down an available video copy of Akira Kurosawa’s 1961 samurai film “Yojimbo” (at the Hastings outlet on east Sprague).
Why, you may ask, was I interested in renting a film that is 35 years old? Good question, to which there are two answers - and they both involve the American filmmaker Walter Hill.
Hill, you see, is the man responsible for Bruce Willis’ latest theatrical vehicle “Last Man Standing.” As writer-director, Hill based his story on “Yojimbo,” which was written by Kurosawa and Ryuzo Kikushima.
“Yojimbo,” which is the Japanese word for bodyguard, is set in 1860 and tells the story of a wandering samurai, a member of the warrior caste that emerged as a respected part of Japanese society in the 12th century. Changing attitudes, however, have caused a decline in samurai status, and so many - like Kurosawa’s protagonist, Sanjuro - find themselves without a regular paycheck.
To make a living, then, Sanjuro walks the backroads, letting fate choose the direction he will follow. He eats, drinks and sleeps where he can find work - or at least a kind benefactor.
In “Yojimbo,” the work is profitable, if dangerous. Warring clans are struggling for dominance, and each wants the powerful swordsman on their side. Only problem is that Sanjuro, a scruffy street type with the ethics of a philosopher king, quickly decides that neither side is trustworthy enough to work for.
And so he plays both off against the other, ultimately settles the issue and - like the cowboy hero he so resembles - ends up walking off into the sunset.
So why would I want to see this film again? Because it is a stirring effort by one of the world’s great directors, and because it is so superior to the version directed by Walter Hill.
In terms of the storyline, at least, Hill’s version is a faithful adaptation. Even if he has changed the setting from a Japanese village to a Texas town near the Mexican border, Hill retains most of Kurosawa-Kikushima’s specific plot points.
The difference is mainly one of tone. Whereas “Yojimbo” crackles with humor, “Last Man Standing” is deadly serious. “Yojimbo” uses violence as a fencing master would, dispensing moments of deadly imagery (a dog gripping a dismembered hand in its mouth) instead of mere mass bloodletting; “Last Man Standing,” meanwhile, is one long death dance of bloody bodies gyrating to the tune of rapid gunfire.
The difference is also evident in the characterizations of the respective protagonists. Willis plays John Smith, a humorless man - “I was born without a conscience,” he says, ever so portentously - who, nevertheless, is both a crack shot with his twin .45s and no slouch with the babes besides. He is a 1950s type antihero carrying a definite 1990s appetite for overkill.
In contrast, Sanjuro (portrayed by the great Toshiro Mifune) is uncomfortable in the presence of women (which means, ultimately, that he treats them with the utmost respect) but totally comfortable when swordplay is called for. He may be a reluctant hero, but he knows a violation of societal codes when he spies one. And he isn’t the least bit reluctant about setting things right any way he can.
As for acting, well, Willis is perfect in certain films (“Die Hard,” “Pulp Fiction,” “12 Monkeys”), but he’s mostly wasted here. Mifune, one of the world’s great screen presences, says all he needs to with a single scratch.
Like his director, Kurosawa, Mifune could teach Hill and Willis all about economy of effort.
Before and After
Most parents at one time or another have asked themselves what they would do if their child were to get into serious trouble. This film by Barbet Schroeder, based on the best-selling novel by Rosellen Brown, attempts to answer that question. Liam Neeson and Meryl Streep portray parents of a teenager (Edward Furlong) accused of killing a young girl, and each acts according to his or her temperament: He accepts the boy’s guilt and moves to cover up the ostensible crime, while she trusts that truth is the only way out. What gets lost in their struggle is the boy (not to mention the dead girl) and what is best for all concerned. There is an inherent sense of drama in all this, which Schroeder develops nicely - even if a few filmmaking fumbles and unanswered plot questions detract from the final cut. The acting, especially by Streep and Furlong, is superb. Rated PG-13
If Lucy Fell
Sarah Jessica Parker and writer-director Eric Schaeffer play two twentysomething singles who enter a pact: If neither of them is involved in a “meaningful” relationship by age 30, they promise to jump off the Brooklyn bridge together. Despite the darkly comic preciousness of this “death pact” premise, and the occasional mugging by almost everyone, there is a spark of originality here. It revolves mostly around Parker, who shows here (as she does in “The First Wives Club”) that she is a talented comedic actress. And when she and Schaeffer are together, “If Lucy Fell” becomes the film that Schaeffer no doubt meant it to be all the time. Rated R
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MEMO: This sidebar appeared with the story: WHAT’S NEW TO VIEW Now available: “Bottle Rocket” (Columbia/TriStar), “If Lucy Fell” (Columbia/TriStar), “Oliver & Co.” (Disney), “Shopping” (New Horizons), “A Thin Line Between Love and Hate” (New Line), “Before and After” (Touchstone), “Two Much” (Touchstone), “Carried Away” (New Line). Available Tuesday: “Twister” (Warner), “Fargo” (PMV), “Great White Hype” (Turner), “Mystery Science Theater 3000” (MCA/ Universal).