Another day, another live-review and I try to blast these puppies off my DVR in anticipation of turning it in for a new one…
The film opens with our hero, the Ronin played by Toshiro Mifune, coming across a troubled town in his wanderings. The town is besieged by two rival gangs, one run by Seibei and the other by Ushitora “Cow-Tiger”), and the only person in the town doing well is the casket maker. The old rice-house proprietor gives our samurai the rundown and advises him to leave town, but after hearing of the plight of the village, the samurai formulates a plan to rid it of both gangs.
As a show of force, he taunts some of the Ushitora gang, kills/wounds three of them, then heads over to Seibei’s to get hired on by Ushitora’s rival as a bodyguard. Seibei lowballs him (3 ryo, whatever that’s worth), but by threatening to go over to Ushitora he gets the price up to 50 ryo. Not a bad negotiator.
Seibei plots with his wife and son to use the samurai (now calling himself by the alias Mulberry Fields – but not forever) to defeat Ushitora, and then to kill him to avoid paying him the money. Mulberry overhears this, because he’s sneaky and all, but he didn’t expect any less. And since he’s working to play the rival gangs against each other, that’s nothing to him. At the public showdown (at high noon, no less) Mulberry publicly exits the fight over Seibei’s treachery and gleefully watches the fight from the rooftops. Unfortunately, a government official rides into town announcing an inspection and the turf war is called off. (These gangs aren’t doing it right.)
Sure enough, the rival gangs start lining up to secure the services of Mulberry. Meanwhile, Ushitora sends out two lackeys to murder an official in a distant town in order to get the government official currently camping out in town to leave. When Mulberry gets wind of this plan, he captures the lackeys on their return and hands them over to Seibei. This leads to a pair of prisoner transfers that doesn’t go too well for the lackeys, who are shot by Ushitori’s son Uno, who has the only gun in town.
Mulberry frees one of Ushitora’s prisoners (a captive wife of one of the villagers) and cleverly blames the deaths of the guards on Seibei, which leads to a serious escalation – Ushitora burns down Seibei’s palace, Seibei destroys Ushitora’s sake factory. Even the casketmaker is down now – “When a fight gets this big, they don’t bother with coffins!” And there’s still like 30 minutes left in this film!
Unfortunately for Mulberry, Uno figures out that it was he who freed the captive woman, and Mulberry is beaten and taken prisoner, where an acromegalous enforcer beats him to a bloody pulp. Mulberry escapes while doing his best Han-Solo-Just-Released-From-Carbonite impression, which is refreshing considering the modern action film video-game trend to forget that the hero is badly wounded immediately after he’s injured. In a short but brutal fight, Ushitora manages to completely defeat Seibei, with Uno treacherously killing both Seibei and his family after they surrender.
Meanwhile, the rice-house man and the casketmaker secret Mulberry away near the cemetery for a few days so he can recover his strength. When the rice-house man is caught bringing him food and medicine, the game is up and Mulberry faces down what is apparently the remaining ten of Ushitora’s gang and makes amazingly quick work of them. Of course, the town’s destroyed and there’s only about four people left in it, but who cares? The bad guys are dead. The end.
It’s a good movie, and it’s one of the last of the “big” films in Kurosawa’s career. It delicately walks the line of being action-packed and fun without straining credulity or asking its hero to do the impossible. There’s not really much suspension of disbelief required – a very good swordsman with a clever mind could probably have pulled this off, playing the rival factions off of each other without having to do too much of the work himself. An underrated aspect of this film is the soundtrack. I can’t really describe it, other than that it has this jaunty and cool beat – sounding at once both modern and ancient – and it drives the film along despite long stretches of inaction.