by Brek the David
Yojimbo (1961) – Directed by: Akira Kurosawa Written by: Akira Kurosawa and Ryuzo Kikushima Starring: Tirisho Mifune, Takashi Samura, Tatsuya Nakadai OSCAR COUNT (0)
This is Kurosawa’s second entrant in this countdown. See also: 54: Seven Samurai
[After killing two men and severing the arm of another]
Sanjuro: Cooper. Two coffins… No, maybe three.
Here we get supreme badass Toshiro Mifune playing ultimate badass Sanjuro. He’s a masterless samurai wandering a corrupt world just trying to stay alive. He’s like a gunslinger of the Old West. Interestingly enough, Yojimbo is an homage to American Westerns, as Akira Kurosawa was a huge fan of such films. Because of that, I count Yojimbo as a Western even if the proper term might be Eastern. It’s definitely one of the best Westerns ever made; this is Kurosawa we’re talking about here. In fact, Kurosawa does the Western better than almost everyone who has taken on one and it stands up to heavyweights like Unforgiven and Once Upon a Time in the West.
Sanjuro encounters a town plagued by two rival gangs. He sees these gangs are no good for the town so he decides to intervene. Playing against type of a stoic honor bound samurai, Sanjuro elects to use subterfuge and misdirection. He winds up playing the gangs against one another in a complicated, sometimes amusing, bait and switch shell game. Things get serious when one of the gang leader’s son arrives, a revolver in hand. Sanjuro, of course, is just armed with his sword. Even his incredible skill with the blade most likely cannot match the lethality of an accurate gun. Sanjuro is a deadly warrior no doubt, rightfully feared by all, but he can’t dodge bullets…or can he?
Beside the intrigue of the plot itself and unforgettable master performance by Mifune, Yojimbo exists in a world that is in transition. Gone are the days of constant war. Sanjuro has survived the wars only to find that the samurai’s place is no longer what it used to be. Instead of a revered warrior, he is relegated to a roving vagabond, offering increasingly unneeded services to whomever will pay him. Also, the appearance of a revolver, a gun from the West, shows just how much technology has passed Japan by and how much they need to do to catch up after being isolated from the rest of the world for so many years. Replacing the nobles are these gangs. With the power vacuum and extreme corruption, gangs have seemingly taken over the country. Japan is need of heroes, even if these heroes might be a bit shady and reluctant. Sanjuro proves to be one of the most amusing but also amazing reluctant heroes of all time.
Even though these are desperate times in Japan’s history, the film is light hearted overall with quite serious moments contrasting to perfection. As always, Kurosawa’s keen eye and brilliant direction keep Yojimbo dynamic and seamlessly flowing throughout every second; spectacular shots and lightning fast fight scenes never allow us to let down our guard. At any moment, Sanjuro’s blade could flash from his scabbard, as more bad guys succumb to his skill. There are no long drawn out sword fights. The fights end swiftly, a mere few seconds passing. Other times his cunning and wit wins the day. The ending sequence with the final confrontation exhibits this brilliance in ways rarely even approached by other filmmakers. Also, the setup to the final showdown is crafted to perfection. Actually there aren’t even that many fights. Sanjuro relies on his brains far more often than his brawn, and both are quite formidable. Sanjuro, however, is not invincible and without flaws. It’s a great thing that Kurosawa and Mifune teamed up for this (and thankfully they teamed up quite often besides Yojimbo). Yojimbo is an amazingly entertaining film and Yojimbo stands proud among the greatest films of all time.
FACT: Yojimbo means bodyguard. Sanjuro plays a false bodyguard to the gangs, while being a real bodyguard to the townspeople.
Also Sergio Leone later repaid homage to Kurosawa with A Fistful of Dollars, a remake of Yojimbo.