Some people call Seven Samurai (1954) Akira Kurosawa’s finest samurai movie, but I’ll have to go with Yojimbo. One reason is the fact that unlike Seven Samurai, this one doesn’t have a bloated running time. But it is also a striking example of how the legendary filmmaker was able to take genuinely American ingredients and turn them into something unique that would have subsequent American filmmakers like George Lucas stand in awe.
Yojimbo is essentially a Western that ironically would be remade only a few years later as Fistful of Dollars. That movie is also a classic… but Kurosawa’s touch makes this one a decidedly more thrilling experience.
Sometime in 19th century Japan, a ronin (a masterless samurai) wanders into a town. The man (Toshiro Mifune) prefers to keep his name a secret and only introduces himself as “Kuwabatake Sanjuro”, meaning “Mulberry field thirty-year-old”. It is obvious already from the start that the town is tormented by a conflict that’s been running for a long time. Two crime families make money off of gambling and are fierce competitors. The samurai starts manipulating both sides and makes them understand that he’s a person to be feared and perhaps suitable for work as a bodyguard (“yojimbo”).
At the same time he befriends Gonji (Eijiro Tono), the owner of a local tavern, who tells him that his only sane option is to get out of the town before it’s too late. The samurai’s game is quite effective however… until Unosuke (Tatsuya Nakadai), son of one of the crime lords, arrives. With him he brings not only his wits but something that does not exist in the town – a gun.
Surprisingly taut and well paced
Prior to making this film, Kurosawa studied American films. He saw The Glass Key (1942), a gangster movie that was based on Dashiell Hammett’s novel “Red Harvest” (and he possibly also read the novel, which also had a hero with no name). The works of John Ford clearly influenced the director. Along with cinematographer Kazuo Miyagawa, Kurosawa added several shots of the two warring factions facing down each other on the main street of the town; initially the samurai takes the place of us, the spectators, by watching the showdowns from a perch above, but in the end he’s down there on the street, taking on one of the families. Those scenes are effectively shot from a distance, with dust blowing in the wind; the final battle is particularly exciting – and daring on the part of the samurai.
The story is surprisingly taut and well paced; in other movies Kurosawa had a tendency to wander, but not here. The focus lies on the game between the characters and how it eventually blows up in the samurai’s face, but Kurosawa (and Mifune) also give the protagonist a few very human qualities. He’s an enigma but relatable at the same time. Nakadai is also terrific as Unosuke, a much smarter (and deadlier) fellow than any of the other gangsters who live in the town; introducing a gun as a contrast to the expected swords in this environment is a stroke of genius on behalf of Kurosawa and his team. For the music score Kurosawa hired Masaru Satô who wrote something that could be described as jazzy; East meets West is the general idea, and the main theme is both exciting and catchy.
One can’t escape the feeling that Kurosawa had a lot of fun making this movie. Why else would he add a scene where the samurai is tossed around by a thug who must have inspired the makers of The Spy Who Loved Me (1977) to hire Richard Kiel as “Jaws”? Yojimbo is cruel at times, but it certainly also has a sense of humor that makes it a playful experience and perhaps the most accessible film to Western audiences that Kurosawa ever made.
Yojimbo 1961-Japan. 110 min. Color. Widescreen. Produced and directed by Akira Kurosawa. Screenplay: Akira Kurosawa, Ryûzô Kikushima. Cinematography: Kazuo Miyagawa. Music: Masaru Satô. Cast: Toshiro Mifune (The Samurai), Eijiro Tono (Gonji), Seizaburo Kawazu (Seibei), Isuzu Yamada (Orin), Hiroshi Tachikawa, Kyu Sazanka.
Trivia: Also remade in the U.S. as Last Man Standing (1996). Followed by Sanjuro (1962).
Venice: Best Actor (Mifune).
Last word: “Mifune had a kind of talent I had never encountered before in the Japanese film world. It was, above all, the speed with which he expressed himself that was astounding. The ordinary Japanese actor might need ten feet of film to get across an impression; Mifune needed only three. The speed of his movements was such that he said in a single action what took ordinary actors three separate movements to express. He put forth everything directly and boldly, and his sense of timing was the keenest I had ever seen in a Japanese actor. And yet with all his quickness, he also had surprisingly fine sensibilities.” (Kurosawa, “Something Like an Autobiography”)