Movie Reviews: Kaze no Yojimbo

Some have described Kaze no Yojimbo as a remake of Kurosawa’s Yojimbo when in fact it’s something far better: a new version of the same source material. The original inspiration for Yojimbo was Dashiell Hammett’s novel Red Harvest, a hybrid of noir and Western pulp conventions that has spawned endless copies since. Kurosawa’s movie is just one of the many forms it’s assumed, and this anime, a 26-episode production for TV, is certainly one of the better ones. I watched it and admired it entirely for what it was, not what it tried vainly to remind me of (as was the case with the lamentable Samurai 7, another recent anime remake of a Kurosawa property that merely added length and nothing else).

“Harvest” was a simple enough story: a drifter comes into a town wracked by violence and plays both sides against each other to come out on top. In Yojimbo, the drifter was Toshiro Mifune’s sword-for-hire character, himself echoed and recycled into countless other movies—Clint Eastwood’s seminal Man with No Name, for instance, or Bruce Willis’s dour-faced gunman of Last Man Standing. The latter, incidentally, was a most direct remake of Yojimbo—Kurosawa himself got screenwriter’s credit—but the results were so lean and uninteresting, even hardcore fans of the original were turned off.

When outsider George Kodama blows into the little trouble-ridden hamlet of Kimujuku,
it shakes everyone up — especially the competing criminal factions.

Kaze, which comes to us courtesy of Bandai, reworks the original idea a fair amount but to good ends. This time the drifter is the twentyish George Kodama, a rough-hewn type who blows into the backwoods town of Kimujuku (“No-demon-Town”). What remained of the town’s tourism and mining industries have collapsed, and the place is now under the thumb of two competing concerns: the rich Tanokura family, growing increasingly nervous about their wealth and reputation (and not necessarily in that order), and the street-level Ginzame yakuza clan.

The Ginzame family, the Shirogane, resent outsiders, of course, and the Tanokura could use a hand. What’s not clear at first is Kodama’s own reasons for blowing back into town. For the most part he plays the role of the detached drifter, looking for whatever may come his way. When a few Ginzame thugs challenge him and he whips the tar out of them in front of old man Tanokura’s pretty daughter, he accepts—although with curious reluctance—a job as her bodyguard. He also manages to end up working for the Ginzame as well, where he ends up garnering both adherents and enemies: the first in the form of the eager-to-please and slightly meatheaded Raccoon—and the second in the form of the younger Shirogane sibling, Rin, a trigger-happy sociopath who just got out of prison and is itching to make trouble with anyone he can find. (Rin seems to be a parallel version of a character in Kurosawa’s movie: Tatsuya Nakadai’s amoral gunfighter, Unosuke.)

Among the characters vying for his attention: the young daughter of the well-to-do
Tanokura family, and Sanae, the older woman who runs the local inn and has ... secrets.

The more we find out about Kodama, the more interesting he gets. As much as he loves to fight, he doesn’t go so far as to put himself in danger, and frankly his mind is somewhere other than looking for a good fight to get into. He remembers a snowy night years ago, when his older brother, an SDF soldier, was on a train that pulled into town and somehow went missing with a whole boxcar full of gold bullion. The answer to that mystery is somewhere in Kimujuku, and Kodama has made a pledge to himself to resolve it. He also has to work to keep everyone at bay at once—Tanokura’s girl, Rin, and even Sanae Araki, the demure woman who runs the town’s hotel and has entirely too many secrets for one woman to keep. She and Kodama seem a likely couple, but this is the wrong time and place for them to grow close to each other, and they know it.

Kaze does one thing that this material needs, and that is it assumes its audience consists of thinking adults. This even extends down to the character design: In his overcoat and hat, with a scruff of slightly too-long hair and with whiskers always showing on his unshaven chops, Kodama most closely resembles the don’t-give-a-damn heroes of macho Seventies Japanese action cinema like Yusaku Matsuda. It’s a far cry from the preppy bishonen look that seems to be standard-issue for male heroes in anime, and a welcome relief. Kodama is also not invulnerable—he takes his lumps more than a few times during the show—but he has a great deal of raw cleverness that he can often use to sidestep having to take a beating in the first place.

Despite having good support from folks like the well-meaning but meatheaded "Raccoon",
Kodama also has to contend with the likes of the bloodthirsty (and trigger-happy) Rin.

Kodama isn’t the only character drawn (literally and figuratively) in such terms; the rest of the cast are similarly smart. Yes, even the bad guys, who are made all the more interesting by dint of them being savagely cunning when circumstances demand it, instead of just mindless sadists—although Rin, a gloriously nasty villain, has enough of that for any three TV shows. I also liked Sanae, both for the role she occupies in the story and the fact that there are precious few characters like her in anime at all: i.e., an older woman who’s seen sympathetically and not as a crone or a comical harridan. The more you know about her, the more you admire her (and the way she’s depicted), even if you don’t actually like her.

The show is just visually slick enough without getting distracting. Most of the emphasis is on character and plot, though, not action, and so the pacing is appropriately restrained. Much the same approach was taken by a wholly dissimilar show also produced by Bandai—Witch Hunter Robin, which unfortunately had too little real substance to justify its laggardly pacing. Kaze doesn’t make that mistake; it keeps up the pace right through the nail-biter of a climax. Even when it inserts a few episodes that are obviously meant to pad the show out or stall for time, they’re interesting on their own terms. It’s one of the few anime out there—like Paranoia Agent or Ghost in the Shell: Stand Alone Complex or Berserkthat embodies how anime is a storytelling method and not a “genre”, and one that can bring magnificent freshness to a story when used right.

Tags: Akira Kurosawa Japan anime review

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This page contains a single entry by Serdar Yegulalp in the categories Movie Reviews, Movies, published on 2006/03/03 20:53.

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