Guest blogger Shawn McKenna writes:
“Mifune’s Sanjuro and your Unosuke are like a stray dog and a snake.” — Akira Kurosawa to Tatsuya Nakadai, about the samurai combatants in Yojimbo (1961)
Akira Kurosawa is one of my favorite directors and Yojimbo (means bodyguard in Japanese) is one of my favorite films. I would consider this canon for any budding cinephile along with several other of Kurosawa’s oeuvre like Seven Samurai and Rashomon. It is fascinating and a testament to the universality of movies that Yojimbo, which was influenced by westerns, would later have copious influences on films worldwide. It arguably helped the Spaghetti Western craze go worldwide when Sergio Leone made an uncredited remake named A Fistful of Dollars* with a taciturn Clint Eastwood.
Kurosawa would later sue for copyright infringement and win.** It was also remade by Walter Hill as Last Man Standing and has had homages in countless films including Hill’s The Warriors and John Woo’s Hard Boiled. But beyond just its influence on directors and critics it is quite a fun movie.
Sanjuro (means 30 years old in Japanese) is a pseudonym for this surly and drifting ronin (the masterless samurai played by Toshirô Mifune) of the end of the Tokogawa period, who literally leaves his wandering path to random chance. He drifts upon a windy town (similar to Shane, a film that was quite popular in Japan; one could easily imagine a tumbleweed being blown through the streets; High Noon was another influence on this movie) and comes upon the foreboding scene of a dog carrying a decapitated hand – one of the most iconic scenes from Kurosawa. Two warring factions have decimated the population and put in hiding or exodus the good members of the town. It reminds me of the Jack Napier quote in Batman (1989): “Decent people shouldn’t live here. They’d be happier someplace else.” This town is a fabulous functional set that certain auteurs like to use, like Anthony Mann in The Fall of the Roman Empire. Kurosawa learned from Kenji Mizoguchi to use real props and authentic sets.
The dirty anti-samurai and atypical harbinger of righteousness is a man without a real name or an identified past but with unmatched skills with the sword, played with panache by Mifune. Almost all of the movie is seen through his presence. He is looking to rid the town of the two sides run by the sake merchant (Takashi Shimura) and the silk merchant (Kamatair Fujiwara) and their grotesque gallery of rogues apparently either just for fun, because he’s a little bored, and/or maybe for a little money. This character was the creation of Kurosawa who originally wrote it as somebody who would stand up against the world of the yakuza which had infiltrated business and other aspects of life. This character would not only be appropriated by Clint Eastwood but would be the main influence of John Belushi’s SNL character Samurai Futaba. There is a certain je ne sais quoi about this character that makes him one of my favorites along with Alain Delon in Le Samourai.
His initial plan is to play both sides until they exterminate each other. His plan begins to succeed until Sazanka’s younger brother Unosuke (Tatsuya Nakadai; I feel he is a seriously underrated actor) comes into town with a scarf (a western oriented clothing), a pistol and a nasty disposition. This would be the first starring performance for Nakadai in a Kurosawa film and he would go on to be another antagonist in Sanjuro and have starring roles in later Kurosawa films Kagemusha and Ran. Unosuke would tilt the side heavily to the sake merchant. But when Sanjuro saves a farmer’s wife from captivity his good deed goes punished as it leads to his getting captured without his sword. How will he get out of this?
Yojimbo was important for Japanese film because it was one of the earliest films to combine violence and comedy. It used realistic sounds for sword effects so the slashes sounded like flesh being cut. As Stephen Prince points out in his commentary on the film you can see a geyser of blood in the background during one battle. This arterial spurt would be taken further at the end of the “sequel” Sanjuro and the jidei geki (period film) would never be the same, much to Kurosawa’s chagrin.
It was a big hit for Toho. Also it is important to note how important the performance from Mifune was. You have this anti-samurai whose values do not fit within the existing Bushido code (which was on its way out during this time period), but helps push the idea of the antihero in Japanese chambara (swordplay) films.
I find so many positive aspects to the film that it is hard for me not to wax poetic with an abuse of hyperbole. It is one of the most exquisitely filmed movies. The use of chiaroscuro and composition, especially with the multiple frames, deep focus, multiple camera setup, perpendicular axis of movement, the right angle dominated cinematography and telephoto lens is so vast that there is a wealth of literature just on this aspect of production. This is in big thanks to the camera work of Kazuo Miyagawa (Ugetsu) who previously worked with him on Rashomon.
The musical score by Masaru Satô is also quite influential (another aspect that was copied in A Fistful of Dollars) and is an integral part of the enjoyment of the film. The combination of artistic elements, comedy, critic significance, memorable performances, storyline, importance on world cinema and general coolness makes this a must own for your cinematic library. It is a film I have re-watched many times and even imitate Mifune’s trademark shoulder shrug now and then.
The Criterion Collection has a very good release of this in both DVD (technically a rerelease) and Blu-ray. It comes with an outstanding and informative commentary from Stephen Prince, a 45 minute documentary from the Toho Masterworks series Akira Kurosawa: It Is Wonderful to Create, trailer, teaser and insert essays always worth reading. Be warned that there are some issues with the Yojimbo Blu-ray becoming possibly bronzed and/or peeling preventing playback. You can send any affected discs back to Criterion for replacements.
* A Fistful of Dollars was by no means the first western made in Italy or Spain. The film was of seminal importance in creating a popular trend.
** Contrary to what many people have wrote, and why you should always question sites even established ones like IMDb, this movie is not a remake of Dashiell Hammett’s Red Harvest. There are a couple of scenes influenced by Hammett, including the beating scene which is clearly from The Glass Key and there is possibly one or two scenes influenced by Red Harvest.
The Films of Akira Kurosawa 3rd Edition (1996/1998) by Donald Richie
Something of an Autobiography (1982/1983) by Akira Kurosawa
Kurosawa: Film Studies and Japanese Cinema (2000/2005) by Mitsuhiro Yoshimoto
Akira Kurosawa Interviews (2008) Edited by Peter Brunette
Criterion Insert Essays
Stephen Prince Commentary (2006): a fascinating and worthy commentary to listen to. I do not always agree with him on the political aspects where he goes too far into anti-capitalism rhetoric where he loses the fact that Kurosawa is criticizing yakuza first in this film not business first. He also misses at least one possibly place where Red Harvest seems to be an influence on a scene. He also tends to downplay the western influence on this film.
CriterionForums.com Thread: I argue about the differences between Red Harvest and Yojimbo, plus a variety of other posts including notes on the Criterion commentary.
Fistful of Dollars Lawsuit (and pictures)
Roger Ebert’s Great Movie Review: Unfortunately states that this movie was inspired by Red Harvest.
Shawn McKenna (aka masterofoneinchpunch in our Disqus forums) is obsessed with all things associated with movies and is an administrator of The Criterion Forums. When not making money as a software engineer, talking about movies at the gym or worried that his DVD/BD pile will one day collapse and suffocate him, he is actually watching movies.