Yojimbo (1961)

Every western audience should be able to recognize the theme in the beginning shots of Yojimbo, Akira Kurosawa's most popular film in Japan. A ronin and a 'man with no name' played by the legendary Japanese actor Toshiro Mifune, walks into what appears to be an abandoned village with dust and leaves blowing across a wide, empty street as frightened faces peer from behind shutters. He is advised to leave because an upcoming civil war is imminent but he prefers to stay because it interests him. Kurosawa has always been considered the most 'western' of all Japanese directors and I believe Yojimbo was his way to show people just how Western he could be. Yojimbo's look and themes were in part inspired by the western film genre, in particular the films of the great John Ford who was Akira Kurosawa's favorite director. The main samurai could be a cowboy or gunslinger, it's location of wind-swept village could be in any frontier town and the local characters could have been lifted straight from John Ford's gallery of supporting actors. The cinematography also mimics conventional shots in western films, such as that of the lone hero in a wide shot, facing an enemy or enemies from a distance while the wind kicks up dust between the two. Like several of Kurosawa's films, Yojimbo was an inspiration for George Lucas's Star Wars; for example, in one scene in Yojimbo, Sanjuro chops off the arm of one of Ushitora's thugs. In Star Wars, Obi-wan Kenobi chops off the arm of an alien creäture in a bar in Tatooine, which was clearly an homage to Kurosawa's film.

And yet Kurosawa deliberately combines not only the American western into the fabric of Yojimbo's story, but the American gangster film as well. The look of the protagonist Sanjuro goes against the handsome, peaceful Shane like cowboy heroes who always choose the right side to help protect the weak. Sanjuro is pretty much a mercenary, a gun for hire who will protect who ever is the highest bidder. His attitude towards the people is more similar to the characters of Humphrey Bogart then of John Wayne; in which he cares more about himself and how things can benefit him in the long run. He scratches, twitches his shoulders, chews on a toothpick and loves to show off his lethal murderous talent. He does not hesitate one moment to kill a few thugs just to demonstrate his skill or double cross his own gang he was hired to protect just to watch gleefully as the two opposing sides kill one another. Critic Pauline Kael writes, he is "the bodyguard who kills the bodies he's hired to guard."

 

PLOT/NOTES

During the opening credits you see a ronin who calls himself Sanjuro who is a lonely wanderer who seems to go wherever life takes him. You see him take a stick and throw it up in the air and walk in the direction it points to. Before making his way into a small village he witnesses a young farmer boy leaving his poverty-stricken family to join a gang war.

"This battle is the chance of a lifetime!" the young farmer boy tells his father. His father tries to stop him knowing his son could be killed and his son tells him he would rather have good clothes and good food then live a life being poor and eating gruel. The son takes off and Sanjuro asks the father for some water. The father takes him to his farm and tells Sanjuro that, "everyone wants easy money," and blames his wife for their son's disobedience.

Sanjuro later that evening leaves and eventually makes it to an abandoned village with dust and leaves blowing across a wide, empty street as frightened faces peer from behind half-closed shutters. In the film's most iconic shot you see a dog running down the dusty road with a human hand in its mouth. A nervous little busybody named Hansuke darts out and offers to act as an employment service for Sanjuro: He'll get the samurai a job as a yojimbo...a bodyguard. He asks Sanjuro, "Which side would you take? Seibei Manome runs a brothel. All the women you want. But he's going downhill. I'd bet on Ushitora Shinden. The inn at the corner, that's his place. Tell him Constable Hansuke sent you."

Sanjuro walks down towards Ushitora's territory and immediately gets surround by several of Ushitora's men. "Go ahead! It's a public road! Even dogs pass freely!"yells one of the men as everyone starts laughing. Sanjuro turns and walks away as Hansuke runs back out and says to Sanjuro, "You won't get hired like that. You gotta act big, show 'em who's boss.They only look tough. Chop off one of their arms and they'll behave." Sanjuro ignores him and goes into a restaurant and meets Gonji, a peaceful restaurant proprietor, who advises Sanjuro to leave while he can. Gonji gives him the lowdown on the situation in the town telling Sanjuro that the town is being ruined by a gang war between Seibei and Ushitora. Ushitora used to be Seibei's right hand man until Seibei decided that his son Yoichiro would succeed him. Tazaemon, the silk merchant and mayor, backs Seibei, while Tokuemon the sake brewer is allied with Ushitora.

Sanjuro tells Gonji that the town would be better off with both sides dead, and that he intends to do the job. Gonji doesn't want that and tells Sanjuro that he's tired of all the fighting and just wants peace. Gonji and Sanjuro hear pounding next door and Gonji says, "the casket maker..the only guy in town making any money. Can't make coffins fast enough. One boss in a town we can tolerate, but two is a disaster." They both watch Ushitora's wild but stupid brother, Irokichi and a few thugs approach the casket maker asking him, "how many coffins did you sell while I was away last night?" The casket maker says two to his side and four to the other side. Irokichi being so stupid has to count on his fingers before realizing that those numbers meant his side is winning.

Gonji begs Sanjuro to leave the town as soon as possible believing the town is a disaster saying, "You'll gain nothing by getting sucked into this evil. Eat quickly and leave." Sanjuro calmly says, "I've had enough rice. Give me sake. I like it here. I'll stay awhile. Listen, old man. I'll get paid for killing. And this town is full of men who deserve to die. Think about it. Seibei, Ushitora, the gamblers and drifters...with them gone, the town could have a fresh start. I won't do it alone." Gonji says he is even crazier then the townspeople and asks him how he will accomplish this. Sanjuro says, "Sake...I'll think while I drink."

Soon after Sanjuro walks out and down the middle of the windy street and shouts out, "I want to talk to Seibei!" Seibei's thugs yell out who the hell he is and Sanjuro tells them that if Seibei's men hire him he will show them that he's worth it. He decides to demonstrate his skill to Seibei by walking back towards Ushitora's territory again as he this time mocks Ushitora's thugs by saying, "You guys have such cute faces. You talk tough but couldn't hurt a fly. Adorable." Several of the thugs try proving their toughness by showing Sanjuro a tattoo that they got in prison and another man says he is a wanted fugitive who has committed every crime in the book. "So you won't mind if I killed you?" Sanjuro asks them as he suddenly slices two men dead and chops of one of Ushitora's thugs arms off. When walking away Sanjuro sees the casket maker and says, "casket maker. Two coffins."

After that demonstration of taking out a few of Ushitora's men Seibei decides to hire him to be his bodyguard and finish off the rest of Ushitora's gang. And yet when the money they offer to pay him isn't high enough Sanjuro refuses and gets up to leave saying, "I'm going to Ushitora. I bet he'll pay more." Seibei keeps raising the price and when he gets up to fifty, Sanjuro accepts with twenty-five in advance with room and board. While staying with Seibei, his wife Orin and their son Yoichiro, he eavesdrop's on Seibei's wife Orin ordering their son Yoichiro to stab Sanjuro in the back after their victory so they will not have to pay him. Orin tells Yoichiro, "Kill one or a hundred. You only hang once. Treat him nice and he will let down his guard." Later that evening when having dinner with Seibei and his son Yoichiro, Seibei asks Sanjuro's name and Sanjuro tells him a name he reads off a sign he sees through the window and says, "Sanjuro Kuwabatakem (which means "30-year-old mulberry field.)"

Sanjuro is 30, and that is a way of saying he has no name. Seibei's gang plans to attack Ushitora and Irokich's gang the next day in broad day light and both sides get prepared. The next day when Hansuke is informed about the upcoming slaughter he sends out an alarm to alert the village, while Orin rounds up all the whores and locks them in a shed so they don't try and escape during the battle. Before the fight begins, Sanjuro watches Homma Seibei's most best right hand man flee before the fight as he hops a fence and runs out of town, smiling at Sanjuro before fleeing. Once the two armies come out onto the road to confront one another Sanjuro changes his mind and says to Seibei and Orin, "you want to fight? Do it yourself. I'm not interested. Sorry missus, but I don't intend to be killed after your victory." Here's your 25 ryo."

Shocking everyone, Sanjuro then walks up to Ushitora's army and asks for Ushitora. Ushitora steps forward and Sanjuro says, "Seibei has offended me. I've cut my ties with him." He then walks away and climbs up on top of a clock tower to watch the two go at war with each other but before it happens a man rides into town announcing that an inspector from Edo is coming. The two gangs decide to stall their battle and they all run from business to business and house to house to tell the people to act if things are calm and normal before the inspector arrives. Sanjuro watches the inspector across the way at Tazaemon's home from Gonji's restaurant and tells Gonji he is disappointed that Seibei and Ushitora's men didn't massacre each other.

Gonji gets angry at Sanjuro's horrible comments telling him, "You think they'll just overlook what you did. Ushitora and Seibei won't stand quietly by." Sanjuro knows they will both come for him eventually but the question is, who will show up with a pile of money first? During the inspectors stay Orin comes to apologize to Sanjuro begging for him to return to them, as Irokichi comes by offering him to work for Ushitora as well. A few days pass and Ushitora comes by Gonji's restaurant himself to offer Sanjuro to join him telling him that he hired two assassins to kill an government official many miles away to get the inspector to leave sooner. After Ushitora leaves Gonji's Sanjuro tells the coffin maker that the inspector's leaving which makes the coffin maker very happy knowing the slaughter will soon begin again.

Unfortunately for Sanjuro he later hears that the two sides are instead going to instead make peace with one another which makes Gonji very happy but Sanjuro and the coffin maker not happy. Sanjuro assures Gonji the fighting will still happen saying, "A truce is merely the seed for an even bigger battle...nothing is worse!" Gonji tells Sanjuro that Unosoke who is Ushitora's vicious youngest brother who had just returned from his travels was the one who made the peace-offering. Sanjuro looks outside and sees Unosoke with Hansuke as Unosoke pulls out a fire arm that he purchased on his travels and fires several shots at the belltower. Knowing that Ushitora hired two assassins to kill an officer many miles away to get the government official to leave, Sanjuro has an idea to stir up trouble between the two gangs by capturing the two hired assassins Kuma and Hachi and sell them to Seibei.

He captures the two of them while drunk and brings them to Seibei revealing to him of Ushitora's plans. Seibei now has legal proof to get Ushitora arrested for hiring men to murder a government official and Seibei's men ask Seibei, "But boss, what about our truce? Your son and Unosoke are negotiating at the mayor's place now." Seibei says, "So what. It'd be perfect if Ushitora got arrested during the talks. " Then Sanjuro goes off and finds Ushitora telling him that Seibei's men captured Kuma and Hachi after overhearing them drunk and blurting out Ushitora hiring them for a murder. "You don't get information like this for free," says Sanjuro as he holds out his hand for money. Ushitora gives him money and asks Sanjuro to be his bodyguard from now on. "This is enough for now," Sanjuro says, "I'll consider the bodyguard."

Ushitora then orders Seibei's son Yoichiro kidnapped and has Unosoke offer Seibei an exchange of prisoners, announcing to Seibei's men, "If you want him back, bring us Kuma and Hachi!" Satisfied on the new war he stirred up between the two sides Sanjuro rewards himself with some food at Gonji's. Gonji asks him, "What have you done? Did you write this new little drama?" Sanjuro says, "half of it. Unosoke just rewrote the other half." Unosoke calls to make a trade of hostages at 2:00 a.m. Hansuke sends out an alarm to alert the village of this thrilling exchange at 2:00 a. m. as the two sides confront eachother with each of their hostages. Suddenly Unosoke shoots the assassins with the only firearm in town, his beloved pistol, when they are brought to be traded.

Seibei, however, has now taken a beautiful woman who Tokuemon is infatuated with hostage and the woman is then swapped for Yoichiro. During all the drama happening between the two gangs on the street Sanjuro laughs hysterically while watching all of it unfold as he tells Unosoke afterwards, "that was amusing." That evening Gonji tells Sanjuro a story that the woman being traded is the wife of a farmer named Kohei. Ushitora cruelly seized her and Kohei's home as payment for a gambling debt. He then gave her to Tokuemon to gain his support. Kohei and their son moved near Tokuemon in a hut just to be close to his wife and yet Kohei watches helplessly as Tokuemon ravishes his wife everyday in the home the family once owned together; and the child can't see his mother out of Ushitora's orders. "Guys like that make me sick," says Sanjuro after hearing that horrific story.

Sanjuro thinks of a plan to save the woman and goes to Ushitora finally accepting him as his bodyguard asking for 30 in advance. Unosoke believes it's too steep of a price for him but Irokichi says that Sanjuro is worth it and if they don't take him he will go to Seibei. Unosoke says, "tougher than this," as he pulls out his pistol acting all cocky. Sanjuro tells Seibei that he believes they need stronger men guarding Tokuemon's woman. Him and Irokichi decide to go over to Tokuemon's home to make sure she is still there. Sanjuro then distracts Irokichi by lying and saying all six guards guarding the woman are dead and to go warn Ushitora. Irokichi of course believes this without checking for himself and stupidly runs off to tell Ushitora in a panic.

Sanjuro quickly runs into Tokuemon's home (while he isn't there) and takes out all six guards and releases Kohei's wife to flee with her husband and son. He gives them the money Ushitora paid him earlier and informs them to leave town and to never come back. When Ushitora, Irokichi and Unosoke arrive Sanjuro lies and tells them that the six guards weren't enough for Seibei's men. Believing Sanjuro's lies that this was Seibei's doing, Ushitora is infuriated and eventually all hell breaks loose as the two opposing sides go back and forth slaughtering one another, and at the same time destroying all their businesses, making the town a warzone for the villagers.

During all this war and bloodshed Hansuke asks the coffin maker why is he so glum because his business should be prospering. The coffin maker says, "when the fighting gets this bad, they don't bother with coffins." Gonji receives a note that was secretly sent over by Kohei which thanks Sanjuro for saving his wife and Gonji now looks at Sanjuro much differently. He now realizes that Sanjuro has a good heart behind all the anger and violence, but Sanjuro refuses to read the letter.

Suddenly Irokichi and Unosoke walk into the restaurant because Unosoke is becoming suspicious of Sanjuro. Unosoke tells Sanjuro while on an expedition he heard someone say they saw the woman and her son crossing the ridge the morning after their six men were killed; which means Seibei didn't kidnap them. Unosoke then accuses Sanjuro of killing his men and when it looks like Sanjuro is reaching for his sword Unosoke pulls out his pistol. Unosoke then sees Kohei's letter and when he comes to realize of Sanjuro's secret double dealings he and Irokichi beat Sanjuro unconscious in an attempt to find out where the woman is hiding. Sanjuro wakes up in the brewery with two of Ushitora's guards and when questioned again by Tokuemon on where the woman is Sanjuro refuses to tell them anything. Ushitora then orders his large bodyguard Kannuki on him to rough him up some more.

One evening Sanjuro manages to escape by hiding inside a chest and when arriving to Gonji's place all beaten up he tells Gonji, "I know I'm quite a sight, but could you do your staring later?" Gonji hides Sanjuro and tells Ushitora's men that Sanjuro went to Seibei to join him. After Ushitora's men leave, Gonji asks Sanjuro what he will do next. Sanjuro says, "go next door and buy a coffin." Gonji thinks he may be giving up and Sanjuro says, "You idiot! I'm not dying yet! There's a bunch of guys I have to kill first." While Ushitora's men are smoking out Seibei's place believing they are hiding Sanjuro they kill Seibei's wife Orin. Seibei and his son Yoichiro finally come out to surrender and Uno cold-bloodedly kills them with his pistol. In a humorous part of the film, Gonji hides Sanjuro inside a large barrel and heads toward the cemetery so he can slowly recover.

With Irokich's help because the coffin maker ran away in fear, Gonji and Irokich carry Sanjuro to the cemetary. (Irokich believes a dead body is inside the barrel.) When the three reach the cemetery, Irokichi leaves to join the others and Sanjuro gets out of the barrel. Gonji is shocked on how back Sanjuro looks and tells him he doesn't look like one of the living. Sanjuro smiles and says, "I'll come back to life with a few day's sleep." Days later after fully recovering in a small hut and practicing his knife throwing skills at a blowing leaf, the coffin maker heads to the hut. He tells Sanjuro that Ushitora's thugs took Gonji while bringing food and medicine to Sanjuro. They are holding Gonji hostage at Seibei's home as they've now taken over the entire town and patiently waiting for Sanjuro's return. Sanjuro decides to return to the town to confront the remainder of Ushitora's men and save Gonji but not before the coffin maker gives him a sword he got off a dead man.

During the final battle Unosoke fires his gun at Sanjuro but not before Sanjuro throws a knife into his arm and killing him and the remainder of Ushitora's men with the slash of his sword. He spares the last man's life who was the young man he had encountered at the beginning of the film, who had run away from a boring, poverty-stricken life as a farmer. The man screams for his mother, and Sanjuro spares him letting the man go but not before saying to him "Children shouldn't play with swords. Go home to your mother and live a long life eating gruel."

Before Unosoke dies he asks Sanjuro, "without my pistol...I feel sort of naked. I can't go to the other world without it. Please...let me hold it..." Sanjuro gives the pistol to him but when Unosoke fires the pistol it doesn't go off and Unosoke says to Sanjuro, "I' will be waiting for you...at the gates of hell." Unosoke dies and Sanjuro says, "Look at him. He died as recklessly as he lived." Sanjuro says to his friend Gonji, "It'll be quiet in this town now. Old man. See ya around," as he takes out his sword and makes one last swipe cutting Gonji's ropes; and walks out-of-town.

 

ANALYZE

If we adapt the language of horse breeders to the genealogy of films, one might write Yojimbo, by Shane out of Scarface.

But while this odd coupling does suggest the most obvious hereditary traits of Kurosawa’s black comedy, it fails to capture the joy with which he demolishes the clichés of the venerable genres he has appropriated.

A decade of achievement precedes this sport. After Rashomon had shocked both East and West by its triumph at the 1950 Venice Film Festival and became the first Japanese film ever seen by millions in the West, Kurosawa directed eight more films in the 1950s. Each was original in style, technically brilliant and visually arresting—films often suffused with moral purpose and social significance. They were exotic for the Westerners, but alive with characters who continually impress us with their humanity. Half of these films have been hailed as masterpieces: Ikiru, Seven Samurai, Throne of Blood, The Lower Depths. And surely our feeling of shared humanity with Kurosawa’s characters helped erase our cultural stereotypes about the Japanese created by World War II propaganda.

Yojimbo comes as a sort of anticlimax at the end of this prodigious decade. Kurosawa, often called the most Western of Japanese directors, now seems to have thought, “Enough moral fervor. I’ll show you how Western I can be,” and selected two typically American genres for this demonstration.

The lineage shows forth from the start. In a classic Western setting, with dust and leaves blowing across the wide, empty street that runs the length of a village, a lone stranger passes as frightened faces peer from behind shutters. Advised to leave because civil war is imminent, he prefers to stay, of course.

But Kurosawa’s protagonist, Sanjuro, hardly fits the pattern of the handsome, clean-cut, peaceful, taciturn American Western hero who invariably chooses the right side and only reluctantly exercises his skill as a gunfighter to protect the weak against the wicked. Sanjuro is quite frankly a mercenary, a sword for hire, available to the highest bidder, with an attitude more akin to that of Sam Spade than of Shane. He scratches, twitches his shoulders, chews on a toothpick, and obviously relishes the use of his lethal talents. He doesn’t hesitate to slay a few thugs just to demonstrate his skill or, once hired, to doublecross his gang and become “the bodyguard who kills the bodies he’s hired to guard,” as Pauline Kael writes.

As a ronin—or wandering samurai—he has no loyalty and in Yojimbo there is no right side; each is equally bad. The village antagonists are not spawn of the classic Western but of the gangster film and, appropriately, Sanjuro’s explosive bursts of violence have the impact of a submachine gun.

Two bands of cutthroats hired by bosses in a dispute over gambling territory terrify the village. Sanjuro seeks work as a hired killer, but the grossness of his would-be colleagues so offends his sense of propriety that he happily sets about to eliminate all of them, as quickly as possible and as deviously as necessary.

Kurosawa converts the impending melodrama to comedy by abandoning his quest for fully human characters. Sanjuro is a Supersamurai, a whirlwind in combat; the village gangs are so grotesquely wicked, they become ludicrous and enlist neither our sympathy nor our belief. By the film’s end most are dead, but we feel no regret at the slaughter, nor cringe at its execution. The exaggerated evil of the gangs leaves them no other appropriate fate, and theirs is achieved with such style and cinematic verve that we are exhilarated by the spectacle and not at all dismayed by its content.

Still, mayhem is the only work in his world. In classic Western style the whole film moves toward the final showdown in the dusty village street. But the actual violence either occurs offscreen or passes so quickly that you’ll miss it if you blink. We know from Seven Samurai that Kurosawa can create as powerful and convincing a battle as any ever filmed, but in Yojimbo the most sustained scene of violence has no human victims but occurs as stage setting.

Toshiro Mifune achieved international stardom in Kurosawa’s films of the 1950s, emerging as an actor of compelling power, capable of a great range and subtlety of expression. But as Sanjuro, no subtlety is necessary—sheer physical presence suffices. In a film in which a company of fine actors have become puppets and caricatures, Mifune’s Sanjuro is vital and almost credible, dominating the screen in a characterization conveyed centrally by a toothpick, a hitch of the shoulders, and the wholly assured swordsman’s walk whose rhythm and power are enhanced by the music that usually urges him forward.

Though Yojimbo lacks the intellectual challenge of Rashomon, the moral resonance of Ikiru, or the sweep and grandeur of Seven Samurai, it became Kurosawa’s most successful film in Japan and his most influential in the West. It also spawned a whole new genre and a major film career in 1964 when Sergio Leone copied it almost shot for shot in the first “spaghetti” Western, A Fistful of Dollars, with Clint Eastwood in Mifune’s role.

-Alexander Sesonske

Yojimbo's look and themes were in part inspired by the western film genre, in particular the films of the great John Ford who was Akira Kurosawa's favorite director. The characters—the taciturn loner and the helpless townsfolk needing a protector—are western archetypes and are reminiscent of Kurosawa's own Seven Samurai. The cinematography also mimics conventional shots in western films, such as that of the lone hero in a wide shot, facing an enemy or enemies from a distance while the wind kicks up dust between the two. Kurosawa stated that a major source for the plot was the 1942 film noir classic The Glass Key, an adaptation of Dashiell Hammett's 1931 novel. In particular, the scene where the hero is captured by the villains and tortured before he escapes is copied almost shot for shot from The Glass Key.

It has been noted that the overall plot of Yojimbo is closer to that of another Hammett novel, Red Harvest. Kurosawa scholar David Desser, and film critic Manny Farber claim that Red Harvest was the inspiration for the film; however, Donald Richie and other scholars believe the similarities are coincidental. When asked his name, the samurai calls himself 'Kuwabatake Sanjuro' (meaning "mulberry field thirty-year-old"), which he seems to make up while looking at a mulberry field by the town. Thus, the character can be viewed as an early example of the "Man with No Name" (other examples of which appear in a number of earlier novels, including Dashiell Hammett's Red Harvest). Many of the actors in Yojimbo worked with Kurosawa before and after, especially Toshiro Mifune, Takashi Shimura and Tatsuya Nakadai.

After Kurosawa scolded Mifune for arriving late to the set one morning, Mifune made it a point to be ready on set at 6:00 AM every day in full makeup and costume. At one point the hero, beaten, disarmed and left for dead, recovers in a small hut where he practices with his throwing knife by pinning a fluttering leaf. This effect was created by reversing the film: in reality, the leaf was pinned, the knife yanked away by a wire, and the leaf blown away. This was also the second film on which director Akira Kurosawa had worked with the great cinematographer Kazuo Miyagawa.

Like several of Kurosawa's films, Yojimbo was an inspiration for George Lucas's Star Wars; for example, in one scene in Yojimbo, Sanjuro chops off the arm of one of Ushitora's thugs. In Star Wars, Obi-wan Kenobi chops off the arm of an alien creäture in a bar in Tatooine which was clearly an homage to Kurosawa's film. In 1962, Kurosawa directed Sanjuro, in which Mifune returns as a ronin, who claims to have the same given name, Sanjuro (meaning "Thirtysomething") but he takes a different surname. In 1964, Yojimbo was remade as A Fistful of Dollars, a spaghetti western directed by Sergio Leone and starring Clint Eastwood in his first appearance as the 'Man with No Name.' Leone and his production company failed to secure the remake rights to Kurosawa's film, resulting in a lawsuit that delayed Fistful's release in North America for three years. In Yojimbo, the protagonist defeats a man who carries a gun, while he carries only a knife and a sword; in the equivalent scene in Fistful, Eastwood's pistol-wielding character survives being shot by a rifle by hiding an iron plate under his clothes to serve as a shield against bullets.

What makes Yojimbo unique and different from most conventional Hollywood westerns is that the bad guys aren't attacking the good guys because there are no good guys in the story. Critic Donald Richie says, "There is almost no one in the whole town who for any conceivable reason is worth saving." Kurosawa knows all the clique's of the western and gangster genre and in many ways I find Yojimbo to be more of a dark comedy with the lead character Sanjuro also in on the joke. Sanjuro is a very smart man and his strategy is an elaborate chess game where he pretends to want to help each side out but is purposely upsetting the board. He knows almost everyone in this town isn't really worth saving and he purposely manipulates both sides stupidity in getting them to destroy one another. He loves to create havoc between these two gangs, gleefully watching as they massacre one another; sitting back on a clock tower being greatly amused as the audience joins along with his amusement.

There is even one seen that is most obviously slapstick where Sanjuro hides out in a barrel as Gonji is trying to find the easiest way in getting him out-of-town without gaining suspicion of Ushitora's men. Sanjuro isn't a very likable character and his immorality is so obvious throughout the story. He seems to care only about money and not the people he is helping and so it's a little startling to watch him save the life of a farmer's wife who is held hostage and help her reunite with her husband and child. He even gives them all the money he recently received by one of his employers and we realize his brutal and non caring persona is somewhat of a façade. After watching him commit this good deed we see that deep inside this brutal and dangerous assassin is a somewhat good person; and a sad, lonely and tortured soul. The western themes are very apparent and even the way the samurai walk with their empty sleeves flapping at the sides and their arms folded inside their kimonos reminds me of Clint Eastwood in Sergio Leone's westerns in which he always keeps one hand under his poncho. And yet when the character of Unosoke is introduced he reveals in one of his hands a pistol which is one of the first guns that has ever been in their village. This now upsets the balance of power and the samurai film directly shifts towards the western and gangster genre. Whenever in a film you have a great hero, you need a great villain for the two polar opposites to face off with one another. Unosoke is such a villain, a young impulsive man who is reckless and believes he is invincible when his hands are behind that gun. That pistol gives Unosoke a cowardly self-confidence as he gloats with it from time to time and even occasionally will kill someone in cold blood just to show how dangerous he is. Sanjuro and Unosoke make for such interesting polar opposites that when it comes to the final showdown between the two, audiences are at the edge of their seats. The compositions in several of Kurosawa's shots in Yojimbo are either right angels or straight shots in buildings or down dirt roads. Scholar Donald Richie notices that Kurosawa uses very few diagonal shots in his films and the purpose could be to simplify the situation that's being presented on the screen. Critic Roger Ebert says, "Two armies face each other, the locals observe the main street as if it's a stage, and the samurai himself embodies the diagonal, the visitor who stands at an angle to everyone and upsets the balance of power. The wide screen is fully employed for dramatic compositions, as when the armies face each other across an empty space. And there is a dramatic sense of depth in scenes were Sanjuro holds the foreground while forces gather in the background." In the exciting climax to the film, Sanjoro walks back into town now fully recovered and quickly sees that Ushitora's thugs have tied up Gonji in the streets. Sanjuro has a stand-off with Ushitora and all his men including Ushitora, Kannuki, Irokichi and Unosoke; holding his pistol of course.  Not only is Kurosawa's Yojimbo a great action film but it's also a very funny black comedy that pokes fun at the genre and the cliques that fall within that genre. Sanjuro is a very unrealistic superman of a character, the village gangs are so grotesquely evil and after the films final showdown, we feel no regret on the bloodshed that we witnessed or the victims who fell prey to it. Even though the film is full of violence and mayhem, like all of Kurosawa's films the violence happens off-screen, in which the violence is more suggested then shown. Yojimbo is considered one of greatest achievements as it had a considerable influence on various forms of entertainment in Japan and in the West and is currently ranked at #95 in Empire magazine's list of the 500 Greatest Films of All Time. Even though it doesn't have the intellectual plot device of Rashomon, the emotional dramatic tragedy of Ikiru, the beauty and poetic power of Ran, and the large sweeping epic feel of Seven Samurai; Yojimbo is his most entertaining, and enjoyable film that can be watched countless times over.

Shares 0
Akira Kurosawa Featured Films
Copyright © 2017 — Classic Art Films — All Rights Reserved