Yojimbo is one of many quintessential and highly influential samurai films directed by Akira Kurosawa. Remade most notably by Sergio Leone as A Fistful of Dollars, the basic storyline has been used and reused throughout the years. Released in 1961, Yojimbo is both an amazing technical accomplishment as well as a damn good time. Unlike many of Kurosawa’s other foreign acclaimed films, perhaps due to it’s generally light-hearted nature, Yojimbo was one of Kurosawa’s most successful films domestically. Due to it’s success, Kurosawa made a rare sequel, Sanjuro, an underrated and stellar followup to this classic.
Toshiro Mifune plays a wandering, nameless ronin, sarcastically labeling himself as Sanjuro. With no money or any particular goals, Sanjuro tosses a piece of wood into the air to determine his next destination. He arrives in a dusty town, reminiscent of American and Italian spaghetti westerns films, completely overran by two rival factions seeking control over the town. The rest of the town is made up of officials who have all been forced to choose a side, the lone holdouts being the tavern keeper, Gonji, and the coffin maker (who makes coffins indiscriminately). Stopping into Gonji’s tavern for food and drink, Sanjuro is quickly recommended to get the hell out of town. Up until this moment, we know next to nothing about Mifune’s character, his gruff and dirty demeanor completely at odds with the traditional samurai image. In his first decisive moment, Sanjuro rejects Gonji, and decides to stick around. This moment of decisiveness instills some confidence into us about his heroic potential. What ensues is the delightfully black comedy of Sanjuro manipulating the gangs into mutually assured destruction.
While undoubtedly fictionalized in a similar way to a western, 1860s Japan brings a unique context to a Japanese audience, that is largely lost to western audiences. From 1600 to the mid 1800s Japan was stuck in a stagnant state. Devoid of outside influences or any significant battles or wars, it was virtually impossible for a samurai or farmer to distinguish themselves and move up in society. However, with the arrival of Commodore Perry in 1854, the stagnant society of the Tokugawa shogunate quickly and suddenly dissolved into chaos before the more modern Meiji Era emerged (and with it, the end of the samurai). It is in that brief period of chaos that Yojimbo takes place.
Yojimbo is quite possibly Kurosawa’s most fun film. Mifune is perfect for the role of the rough and tumble ronin, who takes a particular joy in pitting the two factions against each other. The supporting characters are all colorful, particularly the outlaws, which include a sumo wrestler, dentally hygienic Daisuke Kato, and a scarf-wearing, gun-wielding Tatsuya Nakadai. Unosuke, partially representing the incoming wave of western influence to come, is over-the-top and flamboyant and acts as the perfect counterpoint to the dirty, unkempt Sanjuro. His gun frames him as the potential combat equal to Sanjuro, who has already demonstrated his vast superiority in swordplay to a few unlucky yakuza.
This is a great film to introduce friends to the samurai genre if you want to avoid the 3.5 hours of Seven Samurai. Yojimbo represents Mifune/Kurosawa at the peak of their collaboration featuring a great score, gorgeous black & white cinematography, and a breezy accessible story.