The incomparable Toshiro Mifune stars in Akira Kurosawa's visually stunning and darkly comic Yojimbo. To rid a terror-stricken village of corruption, wily masterless samurai Sanjuro turns a range war between two evil clans to his own advantage. Remade twice, by Sergio Leone (A Fistful of Dollars) and Walter Hill (Last Man Standing), this exhilarating genre-twister remains one of the most influential and entertaining films ever produced. Criterion is proud to present this Kurosawa favorite in a new, high-definition digital transfer.
Akira Kurosawa’s Yojimbo gets a stunning high-definition upgrade on Blu-ray, presented in the aspect ratio of 2.35:1 on this dual-layer Blu-ray disc. The transfer is presented in 1080p/24hz.
Criterion originally released the film on a practically barebones DVD back in 1999 and then re-released it in 2007 with a new digital transfer and more supplements. I have not yet seen the re-issued DVD so my basis of comparison is still the original, non-anamorphic DVD. I have to say how amazing it is how time can change one’s view of a transfer. When I first picked up the original Yojimbo DVD from Criterion I was incredibly pleased with its transfer. Looking at it now (and at least getting past the non-anamorphic issue) it’s fairly weak, looking soft, loaded with artifacts with poor contrast, and a large number of print flaws that constantly rain through the image. So I can’t say what it’s like to jump from the 2007 DVD to this Blu-ray, but jumping from the original DVD to this new Blu-ray is definitely a huge leap.
The high-def image found on here is near-perfect, up with the best of Criterion’s black-and-white transfers. Contrast is perfect, presenting solid blacks, strong whites, and distinct gray levels, and the image is crisp with excellent definition and detail. Patterns don’t present any issues and the transfer is solid as a whole.
The only issue is some minor problems with the print, though certainly not to the level that was evident in the original DVD. The restoration on this has been fairly vigorous and many of the scratches have been removed along with dirt and debris. I noticed a vertical line in a couple of instances, what appeared to be frames missing, and there is some slight flickering, but all of instances of these source flaws are few and far between and in the grand scheme of things all minor issues. The film also retains its film look so it doesn’t look like anyone went overboard in cleaning this up digitally, though it’s evident they still put a lot of work into this.
In all very impressive, an absolutely stunning, crisp transfer that I’m sure will blow everyone away.
Criterion presents two audio tracks, both in Japanese: a linear PCM mono track, and a 3.0 DTS-HS Master Audio track, taken from the film’s original Perspecta track (probably best described as a sort of fake stereo.) Both sound to have been cleaned up extensively, though of the two the 3.0 track is the more robust one if still limited to the front speakers. The mono track is fairly good, though sounds a touch hollow and weak, while the 3.0 track is far livelier and more dynamic with sharper music, voices, and effects. In the end it will come down to preference but for me the 3.0 DTS-HD track is the way to go.
As I mentioned earlier I’m coming to this release directly from the original 1999 DVD release, which only had a theatrical trailer as a supplement, so anything more would be a serious upgrade. Unfortunately I have to say the upgrade from that to this is fairly mild in terms of supplements. All video supplements, other than the photo gallery, are presented in 1080i/60hz.
The big feature, and the one I was looking the most forward to, was the audio commentary by Stephen Prince. Prince has done quite a few commentaries for Criterion, including a handful of other Kurosawa titles, and he’s also responsible for what I consider one of the best commentaries I’ve ever had the pleasure of sitting through; the track for Criterion’s Straw Dogs. Unfortunately this one (along with the track he does for Sanjuro) comes nowhere near the excellence of that one. Following a pretty standard formula for scholarly tracks, Prince simply covers the technical aspects of the film, Kurosawa’s technique, his editing and framing, covers the history of the production, Kurosawa’s working relationship with his actors over the years, and gives brief bios to a variety of performers that show up. He opens in a similar vain to how he opened Straw Dogs with a set goal (where he worked to prove it as Sam Peckinpah’s masterpiece) where in this case he is determined to prove that Yojimbo is more than just an entertaining samurai film, almost like there’s something wrong with a film simply being just “entertaining.” He does end up making some decent insights, and giving some historical context here and there is also rather nice, but it’s unfortunately, despite some good aspects, relentlessly dry overall.
Next up in the remaining set of supplements is another segment from the Toho Masterworks series Akira Kurosawa: It is Wonderful to Create. It runs 45-minutes. Like the other episodes in the series (found over the various Criterion releases for Kurosawa’s films) it offers an excellent “making-of” gathering together interviews with various members of the cast and crew and behind-the-scenes footage. It offers a bit on the film’s score (which was originally a test score,) the use of a telephoto lens, which apparently helped make Mifune’s actions look even faster, and then a small portion covering the two big stars of the film: Toshiro Mifune and Tatsuya Nakadai. I’ve always enjoyed these segments and this is another excellent one, certainly worth viewing.
Rounding out the supplements are a theatrical trailer and a teaser trailer, the latter of which offers some behind-the-scenes footage. Closing the disc supplements is a very small photo gallery with only a few photos showing Kurosawa on the set.
The included booklet offers some value, though, first opening with a statement made by Kurosawa on Yojimbo. Alexander Sesonske’s essay that appeared in the insert found in the original DVD release again appears here, though with a few slight modifications, but still making for an excellent read. The booklet then concludes with notes from a few members of the cast and crew including actor Tatsuya Nakadai, DP Kazuo Miyagawa, and script assistant Teruyo Nogami. The three recall Kurosawa, the shoot, and the finished film.
While certainly an upgrade from the original DVD, I have to admit for me I still felt underwhelmed. The documentary was good, but the commentary track proved to be a bit disappointing, and considering the lack of much else (the excellent booklet still not making up for this) I found this the only lacking area of this Blu-ray release.
Supplements did little for me as a whole, and the small number make this release feel a touch overpriced, but the disc still comes with a very enthusiastic recommendation from me: the high-def transfer looks absolutely stellar and the 3.0 soundtrack offers a decent kick. I don’t think anyone fond of the film should hesitate at all in picking it up.