Updated: Sep 28, 2020
Kurosawa's Yojimbo - The tale of a super-samurai
Director: Akira Kurosawa
Cast: Toshirô Mifune, Eijirô Tôno, Isuzu Yamada, Tetsuya Nakadai, Daisuke Katô, Takashi
Yojimbo is one of Akira Kurosawa's most popular samurai films of the black and white era. On the surface the story appears one-dimensional, but there is more to Yojimbo than meets the eye. Just like the main character Sanjuro, the film also hides its depth behind a facade of bold power plays and playful banter.
It might not be a realistic tale, but Sanjuro – portrayed by Toshirô Mifune – is too dastardly cheeky for anyone to care about realism. He wraps hoodlums around his little finger until he is opposed by another master instigator. (Tetsuya Nakadai – Ran & Harakiri).
Before Yojimbo, Kurosawa grabbed everyone’s attention with his innovative filmmaking in Rashomon (1950). Four years later, the epic storytelling in Seven Samurai dropped jaws around the world.
Finally Yojimbo secured everyone’s samurai addiction with sheer entertainment value. It was yet another take on the samurai genre. This time Kurosawa based his film on down-to-earth storytelling and the contrast between modernization’s greed and samurai integrity.
Not only is it interesting to see two legendary samurai actors perform in the same movie, it is also great fun to see them portray unusually questionable characters. Wrapped in a mix of sword slinging chambara and Hollywood western films, Yojimbo became an instant classic.
The story is set in a small town where two bandit gangs have taken control over the streets. The quarrel about the leadership of the town’s industry leads to daily bloodshed. The only business booming is that of the local coffin maker.
Then one day, the lowly ronin Sanjuro walks down the dusty main street, with curious eyes peeking out from behind every closed shutter in town. He quickly learns the lay of the land and plays one gang off against the other.
Like a master manipulator Sanjuro fuels the fire that keeps the intrigues going. Before long, bandits are dropping like flies. Under the pretense of pimping himself out as a hired bodyguard (Japanese: Yojimbo) he gets on the good side of the gang leaders, only to further infiltrate their dishonorable ranks.
«In order to thoroughly mess up these gangsters, I brought in the super-samurai»
Both the story and the characters are quite theatrical in nature, which is why the dark comedy and visual spectacles work so well. Sanjuro appears to be somewhat of an antihero when having no scruples about killing bandits, but at the same time caring about the innocent victims in the town.
The turning point comes when another ronin enters the town with a pistol in hand. Up til this point Sanjuro appeared unrivaled in both wit and swordsmanship. Suddenly he has to worry about more than where to find his next cup of sake.
Between the lines
Modernization is an obvious topic in Yojimbo. The age of the samurai came to an end when Japan opened its doors to the outside world. There simply was no use for powerful sword slingers in the new world, which is why many became masterless, unemployed drifters.
The Japanese sense of honor still endured, however. Rather than being cast aside, it seems like it evolved in line with the changing times. Sanjuro might indeed seem lawless and opportunistic, but underneath his rough exterior is a man of honor.
Why he is so hell-bent on suppressing his honor is an interesting question. Is it a defense mechanism for survival in the new world? Is it a symptom of denial of his true self? Or is honor a dying part of Sanjuro, due to him discovering the many joys of a nihilistic lifestyle?
His meaningless way of life is established in the beginning of the film, when he throws a branch in the air to decide which way to take. (Tiny spoiler!) Coincidence spins the story in motion, and Sanjuro’s exit is equally random. No fuzz, just goodbye, like nothing ever changed in town, in his character or in life in general.
Individuality is another aspect of the matter. Japan is built on a system of conformity. Honor is not usually believed to be hidden behind scruffy exteriors. Just like the innkeeper in town, people have a tendency to judge others based on first impression. Might the lesson be to not judge a book by its cover?
The world did indeed seem to be turned upside down when honorable samurais became drifters, orderly small towns became lawless, and the traditional society became modern. The only constant was perhaps humanity, but did it ever change?
Was true humanity suppressed before modernization, or did it evolve with the times? Both the bandits and Sanjuro prove opportunistic and cynical when faced with the challenge of being cast aside by society. Survival instinct might have led them down this path, but is it really human nature to forsake normal decency when pushed into a corner?
Sanjuro is the only «book» whose cover are not to be judged too quickly. He appears to enjoy his newfound life, which gives him freedom to do as he pleases. But when he encounters innocent people in need, he still proves honorable. As such, he perfectly fits the label of antihero, being the kindhearted demon he is.
The ever-present flicker of hope, when all appears meaningless, is perhaps a symptom of the human condition. But then again, Yojimbo might not have any other purpose than to entertain by bridging the old-school cinema of Japan with new school movie tendencies from America.
Yojimbo might not be Kurosawa’s most profound film, but it is beautifully shot, wonderfully cast and packed with top-notch acting performances. The pace is fast, the costume design is impeccable and the town has an atmosphere that appears to be a unique blend of Japanese and American culture.
The layout of the township is similar to towns from American western films. The dust flying thorough the streets and the rattling window shutters only add to this atmosphere. This makes the many samurai clashes in the main street very comparable to western duels.
Kurosawa was known for his humorous touch when dealing with rather serious content. Yojimbo takes this to a whole new level. Although the film becomes more serious in its latter half, the clumsy gangsters and tongue-in-cheek dialogue make for a rather light tone, even when beatings become brutal and limbs are flying.
The score deserves extra mention. It adds a lot of personality to the film, but to be fair, it is a bit much at times. On a few occasions it steels too much attention and takes us out of the story. That being said, the score perfectly underlines the inspiration taken from American cinema, and for the most part it enhances the unique atmosphere in Yojimbo.
When Nakadai enters the narrative as a worldly samurai who has witnessed the influence of western culture, and even fights his opponents with a classic revolver, the parallels to American cinema became more than just hints. At this point Yojimbo became an obvious homage to Kurosawa’s sources of inspiration.
Both the atmosphere of the town and the attitude of the hoodlums that inhabit it are like a tip of the hat to films like The Searchers (John Ford, 1956) and High Noon (Fred Zinnemann, 1952). In addition, Kurosawa pointed out The Glass Key (Stuart Heisler, 1942) as an inspiration for Yojimbo.
Considering that Kurosawa looked to Hollywood cinema for inspiration, it is amusing to discover that Hollywood western films thereafter took inspiration from Yojimbo. Especially noteworthy are the two remakes of the film: A Fistful of Dollars (Sergio Leone, 1964) and Last Man Standing (Walter Hill, 1996).
Seven Samurai and Rashomon might leave stronger impressions, but Yojimbo did it best at the Japanese box office. This is understandable, since it possibly is the closest Kurosawa came to making pure samurai popcorn entertainment. Yojimbo is an unpretentious, highly entertaining and timeless masterpiece that belongs in any serious samurai collection.
Deep Focus Review: Yojimbo
Roger Ebert: A Fistful of Samurai
Exploring Believability: Analysis: Yojimbo
Akira Kurosawa Info: Film Club: Yojimbo (1961)
Akira Kurosawa: Interviews