Yojimbo (Japan, 1961)

A movie review by James Berardinelli

Of all the great foreign film directors to obtain U.S. releases for their movies, Akira Kurosawa can arguably boast the highest number of viewers. One of the reasons for this is that Kurosawa was heavily influenced by Hollywood - as can be seen in many of his best-known pictures - and this made his features more accessible than those of, for example, Ingmar Bergman. Kurosawa's trademark was to blend artistry with action. Many of his movies can rightfully be termed adventure films - an arena in which few "serious" directors dabble.

Yojimbo was made at the end of Kurosawa's most fruitful period of movie-making. Over the span of eleven years, he crafted more than a half-dozen memorable motion pictures, beginning with Rashomon and including such classics as The Seven Samurai and The Hidden Fortress. By the time Yojimbo was released, Kurosawa was a well-known name around the world. He never made a film in America, but his properties were coveted by the major U.S. studios, as can be seen by the number of Hollywood re-makes of Kurosawa's films.

There's a sense of symmetry surrounding the development of Yojimbo. The movie was conceived and designed as an homage to that most American of films - the Western. From the empty, windswept street stretching the length of town to the arrival of the stoic stranger, images familiar to viewers of '40s and '50s Westerns abound. One can be forgiven looking for the O.K. Corral. Fittingly, a mere three years later, Yojimbo was remade for more widespread Western consumption by Sergio Leone as A Fistful of Dollars, the movie that introduced the world to the "Spaghetti Western" and made Clint Eastwood into a star. This was not the only remake of Yojimbo. More recently, Walter Hill took a crack at it with the ill-advised Last Man Standing. Regarding A Fistful of Dollars, Kurosawa has always maintained that he liked that treatment of his story.

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.

Sanjuro is pretty much a superhero, but, like every Superman, he has his Kryptonite. Despite his seeming amorality, he proves that he possesses a conscience, and a single act of compassion nearly costs him his life. His enemies think that depriving Sanjuro of his sword renders him helpless, but they ignore their adversary's formidable intelligence (possibly because their own is so low). Even without a sword, Sanjuro is a force to be reckoned with. With one, he is unstoppable.

It's not hard to empathize with Sanjuro. Aside from him and a few timid supporting characters, the film is populated by nasty individuals. Between Seibei and Ushitora, there's an ongoing battle to determine not only who will emerge victorious, but who is the least principled and most despicable person. Ushitora has two brothers who are no better than he is. Inokichi (Daisuke Kato) is fat, brutal, and stupid. Unosuke (Tatsuya Nakadai) is far more dangerous. He's sly and smart, and is the only one in town possessing a revolver. For Sanjuro to defeat Unosuke, he must find a way to get close enough without being shot.

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. Much of the movie's understated wit is the result of Sanjuro's openly mocking approach to the pettiness surrounding him. The former samurai has fun playing games with the two bosses by allowing each to believe that he has the advantage over the other, then using that information to provoke a clash. On one occasion, after providing the catalyst for a battle between the two sides, Sanjuro finds a high vantage point, and watches the skirmish with amusement. And, as is often the case with idiots, Inokichi is good for a laugh or two.

Yojimbo never takes itself too seriously. There is one instance of brutal torture, but it occurs off-screen to blunt its impact. We see the results, but not the actual event. Nevertheless, that point marks a shift in tone. The comedic undercurrent seeps away and the movie becomes a tale of revenge. From that moment until the conclusion, lighthearted moments are few and far between. And the return of the superhero feels more grim than grand.

With his relaxed disposition and his teeth chomping on a toothpick, Sanjuro is the living picture of coolness. The character is played by the great Japanese actor, Toshiro Mifune, who would go on to reprise the part in Kurosawa's sequel, Sanjuro. For a decade and a half, from the early 1950s until the mid-1960s, Kurosawa and Mifune enjoyed a profitable working relationship. The two made many of their best films together, and Mifune was De Niro to Kurosawa's Scorsese. (Or should it be the other way around?) Sadly, a falling-out in 1965 ended their period of collaboration, but they left behind an impressive body of work. Yojimbo stands out as one of Mifune's best acting efforts.

Yojimbo 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. Clint Eastwood's "Man with No Name", a character whose influence has stretched far and wide over the past four decades, is a direct descendent of Sanjuro. It is fair to say that, without Yojimbo, certain key aspects of Western cinema would not be the same today.

Yojimbo (Japan, 1961)

Director: Akira Kurosawa
Cast: Toshiro Mifune, Eijiro Tono, Seizaburo Kawazu, Kyu Sazanka, Tatsuya Nakadai, Daisuke Kato
Screenplay: Ryuzo Kikushima, Akira Kurosawa
Cinematography: Kazuo Miyagawa
Music: Masaru Sato
U.S. Distributor: Seneca International
Ranked #68 in Berardinelli's Top 100
Run Time: 1:50
U.S. Release Date: -
MPAA Rating: "NR" (Violence)
Subtitles: Japanese subtitled English
Theatrical Aspect Ratio: 2.35:1