Fans of Yojimbo will already know of the restoration that the film has undertaken in previous incarnations from Criterion and the BFI, but Criterion's new Blu-ray transfer effortlessly trounces them all.
Fabulously filmic and wonderfully crisp and detailed, Yojimbo looks absolutely stunning in hi-definition. Presented in a 2.35:1 AVC encode this delivers a rock-steady image that makes the black-and-white photography appear absolutely gorgeous and reassuringly three-dimensional. Although multitudes of nicks and scratches have been rectified by Criterion's exacting restoration which, as usual, they detail in the accompanying booklet, damage still remains in the form of tiny pops here and there, and the expected flickering of the print. There are even a few tiny frame jumps dotted about. But there can be no denying that this looks splendid for a film from 1961, positively sublime in its detail and fascinatingly realised in terms of contrast. The blacks here are something to brag about - very deep, very stable and totally satisfying. Shadow-play is accurate and well-defined. There doesn't appear to be any evidence of crushing taking place even in the gloomier interiors or the night-time sequences. Long shadows look great and the contrast affected when we suddenly move indoors is consistently brilliant. Just look at the moment when Sanjuro first enters the restaurant and marvel at how finite those gleaming beams of sunlight cutting across the interior from the gaps in the wall-slats are. Contrast, overall, is excellent, although I will say that whites can sometimes appear a little hot and a tad too gleaming.
Detail is incredible. You really cannot complain about the level of texture that this 1080p transfer packs in. Strands of hair, the material on clothing, the leaves on the foliage, the weave on the wicker-caskets and the stones and pebbles on the road all reveal lots of new depth and detail. Now you can really see all the scratches in the masonry, the wood-grain in the walls and tables, the sheen on blades, the glint in the eyes - particularly Sanjuro's - which have a keenness that no other home video version has ever been able to boast of. Facial detail is very impressive indeed, with some of the grizzled and weird-looking miscreants presented here now resembling a veritable freak-show in practically surgical detail.
For lovers of the black-and-white image, this is a veritable banquet of luxurious depth and contrast. Grain is ever-present, though it remains consistently film-like. DNR has not robbed anything from this print and if edge enhancement may threaten to appear during some silhouetted moments of people seen before the bright background, then it is minimal and definitely won't distract. I did see some vague elements of shimmer on some patterned robes but, once again, this was minimal and doesn't detract from what is a magnificent transfer for such a classic film.
Along with The Third Man, Last Year At Marienbad, The Wages Of Fear and The Seventh Sign, Criterion's new BD presentation of Yojimbo is a work of art. A very strong 8 out of 10 from me.
Criterion offer a couple of audio tracks to choose from. We get an extremely clean and detailed original mono track, which sounds great, and a DTS-HD MA 3.0 “Perspecta” track that is actually much better. This latter mix has been created in order to preserve the film's original simulated stereo effects. Immediately louder and punchier, this is actually a lot of fun and quite demonstrative.
The score is particularly well boosted with vigour and spread. Dialogue is sharper and more vivid. Everything from insults to sword-slashes, and from windows and doors being slammed shut to the wind relentlessly blowing across the location is lent a more aggressive air that works in the film's favour. There is even a fair bit of detail in the fluttering of the dried-up leaves scuttling across the street in that ceaseless wind from Kurosawa's beloved,and over-worked fans. Far from sounding tacked-on and unnecessary, the extended lossless audio makes the experience much more dynamic, and not at all at the expense of faithfulness to the source because the film did sound like this in some theatres. There is obviously nothing emanating from the rears, but the bass levels are nice and deep and the frontal array bristles with activity. The film has that raised volume that you often get with foreign material, and this is true whether you opt for the mono or the lossless track. Although with the DTS-HD MA mix voices bark and the sound design becomes quite overt and hyper-realised. However, this is exactly how film is supposed to sound, so all those steroid-packed voices and exaggerated sword-swipes as well as the exotic musical instrumentation are deliberate elements that Kurosawa intended.
For example, listen to the cascade of rice from the overhead sacks when Sanjuro rips them open during his wrecking-spree after the slaying of the six guards - the resulting cacophony is tremendous. And if you want thundering bass, then you'll get plenty of that with the riotous footsteps that pummel the wooden floors that Sanjuro hides beneath during his escape. The sound of a knife thudding into a leaf fluttering about on the floor of a shack is also clear and resounding, but one of the more resonant and memorable effects is the crystal-sharp clokking of the time-keeper's wooden-blocks and their resultant echo across the barren street. So whilst this mono-mixed film, with its cute optional bonus of stereophonic dimensionality is hugely limited by today's standards, its presentation here is loud, bombastic and full of vitality. A big thumbs-up from me, folks, and nice 7 out of 10 for the efforts that Criterion have made.
Bringing over some familiar extras that adorned the company's previous SD edition, this Blu-ray comes with a small, but solid package of material. Criterion furnish the release with a typically informative and high-brow essay on the film from Alexander Sesonske in the accompanying 22-page booklet. This booklet also contains interviews with actor Tatsuya Nakadai, DOP Kazuo Miyagawa and script assistant Teruyo Nogami, who all offer insight into the production. And there's a nice quote from Akira Kurosawa about why he wanted to make this film.
The film carries a terrific commentary track from Kurosawa scholar Stephen Prince that unravels many of the director's intentions. He cites the influences that Kurosawa acknowledges with the film, as well as the meticulous care and attention to detail that he lavished upon it, from the set-building to the amazing cinematography to the stylised violence and the musical score.
The 45-minute documentary on the making of Yojimbo hails from the Toho Masterworks series and is entitled Akira Kurosawa: It Is Wonderful To Create. Full of more insightful interviews with the man, himself, and several of his hard-grafting crew and, once again, actor Tatsuya Nakadai gets his memories and opinions across, this is fine stuff. We hear about the makeup effects, especially about the severed hand that the slum-dog is happy to make off with, as well as about working with Toshiro Mifune and with the cold weather that prevailed during the shoot.
To complete the package, we also get a Stills Gallery of behind-the-scenes photos and both the film's teaser and theatrical trailer. It is not a bad selection at all, but somehow I wished for more.
One of the most influential action-dramas ever made, Yojimbo paved the way for the Spaghetti Western revolution which, in turn, allowed for the American Western to evolve. But Kurosawa's film remains a classic of see-sawing narrative and acute characterisation, as well as being a showcase of utterly dynamic cinematic flourishes and another great tour de force for the magnificent Toshiro Mifune. Full of black humour, vicious, over-the-top performances and excellently staged set-piece bravado, this film set the ball rolling for the action genre to move out of the clear-cut and into the more stimulating morass of the decidedly amoral. Mifune's Sanjuro is a classic, stand-alone hero who goes through a considered arc of development, the screenplay totally unafraid to show not only his arrogance but his vulnerability as well. Like Ridley Scott did with Russell Crowe in Gladiator, it is possibly just keeping the camera on the intense actor that is Kurosawa's single greatest achievement with Yojimbo - a film that already unveils something striking and inspired with each successive scene.
Criterion put together a fine package for the film's Blu-ray debut, retaining the extra features from their already outstanding SD edition, but adding them to a fantastic restored hi-def image and a very clean audio track with the almost irresistible option of that aggressive Perspecta mix. I would have liked more special features on the production and on Mifune, in particular, but the commentary and the documentary are definitely worth your time and effort.
All in all, Yojimbo is an absolute classic that no fan of the action genre, the Western, of Japanese films or, indeed, of Cinema, can be without. And seeing it shine in high-definition is a must.
Yojimbo, therefore, is very highly recommended.
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