3.5 out of 5 stars

Akira Kurosawa’s Yojimbo is 60 years old, and audiences are still drawn to this classic of the jidaigeki genre. They may come to it for different reasons, but most will find satisfaction in its quirky mash-up of styles; mixing familiar tropes from period drama, gangster, film noir, political allegory, western, satire, and dark comedy. It’s also a star vehicle, showcasing memorable performances from two of Japan’s great actors, with Toshirô Mifune in the lead as ‘the samurai’ and Tatsuya Nakadai as ‘the gunfighter’. It’s probably best known outside Japan as the inspiration behind Sergio Leone’s seminal spaghetti western, A Fistful of Dollars (1964) which was a not-so-loose remake. As was another classic of that genre, Sergio Corbucci’s Django (1966).

Interestingly, that east-west influence was part of a cycle that perhaps started decades earlier with Red Harvest, a 1929 novel by Dashiell Hammett about a detective who plays rival gangs and a corrupt police force against each other, nearly destroying a town in the process of cleaning it up. The book, which in 2005 was still listed in Time magazine’s 100 Best English-language Novels, has been cited as a major influence on Kurosawa’s first treatment for Yojimbo.

The director himself has said that another Hammett adaptation, The Glass Key (1941), starring Veronica Lake and Alan Ladd, was his main inspiration. Apparently, the screenplay for The Glass Key drew elements from a version of Red Harvest that began in parallel production but never made it to the screen. I haven’t read the book, but perhaps I should, as the Coen Brothers say it also fed into their Miller’s Crossing (1990), one of the greatest gangster movies, in which I see strong parallels with Yojimbo.

The use of western cinematic conventions that give Yojimbo such cross-cultural appeal is definitely deliberate. There are some visual quotes from classic John Ford westerns and Kurosawa explained that he also looked to High Noon (1952) and how Fred Zinnemann used the street to create a formal structure that the camera and cast moved along or across. The different buildings serve a similar function as the wings in a theatre for various characters to enter or exit the scene. It also lends a spatial element to the narrative by separating the two main factions so our protagonist has to physically walk from one to the other. It’s still difficult to keep track of all the characters, but this helps to clarify who’s on whose side.  

At times, Kazuo Miyagawa’s cinematography is decidedly noir in its dramatic contrasts, with glaring lamps casting expressionistic shadows. Generally, though, he keeps it more subtle and is particularly attentive to the array of interesting faces, bringing out every quirk, crease, and shift in expression. He was already a veteran of over 50 films when he first worked with Kurosawa on Rashomon (1950), which proved to be the international breakthrough for them both. Miyagawa is better known for his many collaborations with another of Japan’s great directors, Kenji Mizoguchi—the ethereal Ugetsu (1953) being the best example. Almost 20 years later, he’d work again with Kurosawa, as a visual consultant on the astonishing Kagemusha (1980).

All the influences imported from the Hollywood cinema help to broaden the appeal of Yojimbo. It can be enjoyed at face value, even if one doesn’t fully appreciate how clever Kurosawa’s reimagining of Japanese history really is. However, a basic knowledge of Japanese culture and context will bring with it much added value. It’s an allegorical fable that parallels the period setting of the mid-19th-century Tokugawa Era, with the post-war industrial expansion of mid-20th-century Japan. There are plenty of extra layers to be peeled back and at the core is Kurosawa’s eloquent and damning critique of contemporary capitalism.

Like so many samurai movies since, Yojimbo begins with a lone ronin wandering along a dusty road. He pauses, scratching his head through dishevelled hair. Only when he stops at a roadside shrine do we get to see the face of Toshirô Mifune, and this marked the eighth time he and Kurosawa worked together. Mifune’s nameless ronin finds himself at a crossroads. He may not be lost, but without a lord to serve, he has no direction. He’s the archetypal hero without a past, searching for his destiny. So, he picks up a stick and tosses it in the air taking the road indicated by how it lands. The road takes him to a run-down, dusty town that could just as easily be in the Wild West as the Far East. A stray dog trots past with a severed human hand in its jaws.

Masaru Satô’s score is already working hard to lighten the mood of this rather grim introduction. He’d worked for Kurosawa before, on The Seven Samurai (1954), and his distinctive music for Yojimbo is so bold that it’s often obtrusive. But, just like Ennio Morricone’s iconic themes for Leone’s Dollars trilogy, it’s part of what creates the distinctive mood.

The ronin-with-no-name isn’t made welcome by the local street hoodlums who jeer at him, likening him to the stray dog, but he keeps his cool and foists himself on the old inn keeper, Gonji (Eijirô Tôno), as his sole guest. The dilapidated inn is within earshot of the cooper’s workshop and almost immediately, the hammering starts up. It seems the arrival of strangers is usually the signal for ensuing carnage and so the cooper (Atsushi Watanabe) switches to making coffins instead of barrels.

He learns that the town’s in the midst of a turf war between two gangs that each protect, or rather exploit, the dominant industries. Tazaemon (Kamatari Fujiwara), the town’s nominal head man and silk-merchant, is controlled by the gang led by Seibê (Seizaburô Kawazu) and his scheming wife Orin (Isuzu Yamada), who also runs the brothel. Tokuemon (Takashi Shimura) the saké brewer is aligned with the rival gang, led by Ushitora (Kyû Sazanka).

Having assessed the gangsters that confronted him in the street as being no match for a trained samurai, the stranger sees an opportunity to capitalise on the situation. It seems the balance of power is so precarious, that whichever gang hired him would instantly have the advantage. First, though, he’ll need to demonstrate his skill, so he goes to challenge those who’d insulted him.

Mifune’s man with no name also cracks the same joke as Eastwood’s when he orders “two coffins” but after a moment’s consideration adds, “maybe three.” After effortlessly dispatching three assailants, he then offers his service to each gang boss in turn. He bides his time before deciding who to side with, hiking up the price each time and switching sides to join the highest bidder as the situation escalates.

Our ronin doesn’t remain nameless as when he’s later asked, he glances out of a window and simply says what he sees, “Sanjuro, Kuwabatake”–which subtitles as “Thirty-year-old Mulberry Field”, but he’s generally referred to as Yojimbo, ‘the bodyguard’. Despite the short sharp bursts of moderate bloody violence and escalating body count, the first half of the movie ticks along in a fairly light mood and, though I wouldn’t call it a comedy, it’s definitely heavy on satire with some broad physical acting. Even Mifune indulges in some comic-book eye-rolling and chin-rubbing.

Things get more serious when, during a bungled exchange, Unosuke (Tatsuya Nakadai) raises the stakes by using a pistol to execute the hostages. The new ‘law-of-the-gun’ looks like it will prevail over outmoded honour codes and swordsmanship of the samurai, as it did during the late Edo Period. However, when Sanjuro learns that the beautiful Nui (Yôko Tsukasa) is Ushitora’s mistress only because her husband and young son are held captive under threat of execution, he rediscovers his moral code and decides to risk all to unite the family and help them escape. He does this at great personal cost and is later captured and tortured in an attempt to force him to reveal their whereabouts. The brutality of the sustained beatings that Sanjuro suffers is all the more shocking after the ‘light-hearted’ violence of the first act. The satirical tone gives way to a revenge story of mythic proportions as he recovers and retrains in an abandoned temple shrine… another relic of the old ways.

With Yojimbo, Kurosawa rewrites a little piece of history where honour finally wins out against the inevitable corruption that comes with capitalism. Apparently, the word ‘yakuza’ began as slang for gambling addicts and phonetically sounds like the numbers ‘8-9-3’, which isn’t a good hand of cards to be dealt. In one scene, a gambler is shown to have a full torso tattoo when Sanjuro’s sword, instead of dealing a mortal strike, neatly removes his tunic—a Japanese audience would’ve recognised this as a yakuza trait and realised the plot revolves around the transitional period that marked the decline of the samurai class. Many ronin, having little else to offer apart from their fighting skills become yakuza, supporting merchant barons and local lords who, over the centuries, evolved into the industrial tycoons and politicians that were taking charge of the post-war Japanese economy.

Yojimbo may’ve been influenced by western literature and the cinematic conventions of Hollywood, but it added far more than it borrowed. Kurosawa has always been at the vanguard of any technical and stylistic innovations. He was quick to experiment with new lenses that were in development by simply using them in a counter-intuitive way. He employs a wide-angle lens for extreme close-ups and tight compositions of two or more characters, something that would become a trademark of the euro-western. As would his use of very deep focus to enable him to shoot a distant figure emerging from dust at one end of a long street, whilst capturing the reaction of another in close-up within the same frame. The visual effect was almost overwhelming for audiences of the time and an innovation much imitated thereafter.

Of course, these unconventional combinations of telephoto shots, ultra-deep focus and wide angles, is what gave Sergio Leone’s Dollars movies their distinctive style that seemed so radical at the time. If you’re a fan of spaghetti westerns, then Yojimbo is a must-see, although it may seem rather familiar! I love Yojimbo, though found it rather confusing the first time round. Luckily, it’s a film that stands up to multiple viewings and I thoroughly enjoyed revisiting it. So, it may be a cinematic sacrilege to admit that, actually, I’d still prefer to watch Fistful of Dollars again!

JAPAN | 1961 | 110 MINUTES | 2.35:1 | BLACK & WHITE | JAPANESE

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Cast & Crew

director: Akira Kurosawa.
writers: Ryūzō Kikushima, Akira Kurosawa & Hideo Oguni (story by Akira Kurosawa).
starring: Toshiro Mifune, Tatsuya Nakadai, Yoko Tsukasa, Isuzu Yamada, Daisuke Katō, Takashi Shimura, Kamatari Fujiwara & Atsushi Watanabe.