Yojimbo is probably the second most popular of Akira Kurosawa's films (behind only The Seven Samurai). And, while the film's audience has been limited only to those who are willing to sit through a movie with subtitles, nearly everyone who has seen Yojimbo and its better-known remake, A Fistful of Dollars, agrees that the former picture is the superior one. Kurosawa's masterpiece has a sense of style that Leone's introductory Spaghetti Western fails to capture. Yojimbo is a plot-oriented motion picture. There are lots of small twists and turns, and much of the fun of watching the movie is finding out where they lead. Yojimbo is based on the American Western, but it doesn't mind having fun at the expense of its roots. For example, Toshiro Mifue's Sanjuro is no clean-cut gunslinger – he's a grizzled veteran with a macabre sense of humor who is willing to sell his sword to the highest bidder. Looking at the film in a wider historical context, it's impossible to ignore the central irony. Kurosawa designed Yojimbo as an homage to the Western of the 1940s and 1950s. The film was then re-made as a genuine Western, the success of which resulted in a new boom of the genre that took it through the 1960s and into the 1970s.
Plot Summary (Spoilers Possible):
The film transpires in 1860 Japan. The main character, Sanjuro (Toshiro Mifune), is a ronin - a samurai with no master. He is a mercenary making his way through the world using his two most potent weapons: his sword and his wits. During his travels, he comes upon a desolate town where two rival gangs are warring over control of the territory. A local sake seller, Gonji (Eijiro Tono), tells Sanjuro the story of how Seibei (Seizaburo Kawazu) and Ushitora (Kyu Sazanka) were once partners, but a rift developed between them and now they are at war. Sanjuro is intrigued, seeing the opportunity to profit by the situation and kill a great many of these worthless cowards. So he barters off his services to the highest bidder, then begins to play a dangerous game by seemingly aligning himself with both sides. His undoing occurs when he shows himself not to be as callous as he appears. By helping a captive woman to escape from Ushitora's clutches, he leaves himself vulnerable.
While there's plenty of action and adventure in Yojimbo, the film contains enough dry humor that some have hailed it as a comedy. Certainly, Kurosawa lampoons the conventions of the Western as often as he honors them. Yojimbo never takes itself too seriously, and does not cause viewers to ponder deep issues in the way Rashomon does, nor does it possess the epic grandness of The Seven Samurai, yet it must still be considered in the top tier of Kurosawa's films. Stylish, compelling, and involving, it became as much a blueprint for future productions as it is an homage to past ones. And, in Mifune's Sanjuro, we have an unforgettable protagonist – a super-samurai who, by the sheer force of his presence, elevates this movie to a level of greatness. It is fair to say that, without Yojimbo, certain key aspects of Western cinema would not be the same today.
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