A lone warrior walks into town. The streets are empty. Dust blows about the streets. Townsfolk peer out from behind barred windows and doorways. A dog appears with a severed human hand cradled in its teeth. The music stops. Something important is about to happen. Such scenes have become a staple in cinema, a conventional introduction to the various dirty towns that lone gunslingers ride into on horseback before meting out justice. It is a convention of the western so familiar that when it appears at the beginning of Akira Kurosawa’s 1961 Yojimbo, we almost fail to notice that the lone warrior is a samurai, not a gunslinger, and that this familiar scene we are watching gave birth to a whole new kind of cinema.
Akira Kurosawa is often called the most western of Japanese directors and the greatest. He became internationally well known in 1950 when Rashomon won the Golden Lion at the Venice Film Festival and is best known nowadays for the various samurai films he made. Yojimbo was neither his first samurai film nor his last. With Yojimbo, Kurosawa abandoned the themes of morality and social change that permeated his other samurai movies – in Yojimbo the times have already changed and the honourable samurai is a thing of the past – instead focusing on a town where all the parties involved are bad and the hero is a roguish stranger with no identifiable morals or motivation.
Toshiro Mifune’s Kuwabatake Sanjuro – the name means “thirty-year-old mulberry field” – is an enigma. We are introduced to everything essential about his character in the opening shot of the film – an extended take that does not cut until the credits finish. His swaggering, unkempt, faceless figure shot from a low angle creates a mystery that entices us, and makes us ask who this character is, where he has been, and where he is going. This opening shot sets the tone for a film that helped define the cool antihero in modern cinema.
Yojimbo’s plotline is intentionally conventional. Drawing upon the westerns of John Ford and the hard-boiled detective novels of Dashiell Hammett, it follows the ronin (masterless samurai) Sanjuro as he attempts to clean up a town by manipulating its two rival gangs to destroy each other. As he takes a job as a bodyguard to one gang leader and then to the other – the film’s title simply means bodyguard – Sanjuro uses the greed and ambition of the two bosses, Seibei and Ushitora, to force them into open combat with each other. He knows that he can defeat the gangs if he whittles down their numbers because his dominance as a swordsman is unchallenged; when Sanjuro tries to convince Seibei to hire him, he is told to prove himself, and in response, casually walks down the main street to the other gang and effortlessly kills three of its members. Sanjuro has no qualms about killing – he makes a living off of it. As he explains to the local restaurant owner, “I get paid for killing. And this town is full of men who deserve to die.”
The clash in this town is between evil and evil. No gang is morally superior to the other and the townspeople are hapless folk hardly worth saving. The various townspeople that Sanjuro comes across – the spineless lawman, the corrupt city official, and the greedy undertaker – are taken right out of classic Hollywood westerns. Where Kurosawa differs from the Hollywood westerns is that there is no moral exemplar in this town. The closest thing to a moral standard is Sanjuro and we are not given enough information to make moral judgments about his character. In certain ways Yojimbo acts as a character-driven action film, and yet it lacks a character arc for its lead and is not interested in realistic portraits of Japanese townsfolk. The evils of the gangs are exaggerated, and Sanjuro is impossibly intelligent and skilled. Although lauded as a realist in his other films, Kurosawa is not interested in realism here. It is the question of how to end the constant struggle between opposing forces of evil that concerns him.
As the film’s agent of change, Sanjuro is a far more complex character than he seems. He may lack a character arc, but this is because we are withheld the information of where he stood to begin with. He is a bundle of contradictions: he says his motivation is money, but gives away his money freely; he works as a bodyguard but makes it his business to kill his employers. He denies a higher moral purpose, but risks his life to ensure freedom for a family indentured due to gambling debts. It is this last act of selflessness that causes him the most trouble and forces him to reveal his true nature to the gangs. Sanjuro is a man with no name (a role made famous by Clint Eastwood) and acts as a presence in the town and on the screen. Kurosawa once said that Mifune could show more emotion in less time than any other actor and it is this uncanny ability to physically emote that makes Mifune the perfect choice for Sanjuro. The way he carries his body, his ticks, and his amusement at the stupidities of the rival gangs are all conveyed physically. Sanjuro is a physically imposing character and it is fitting that he is played by an actor whose very presence onscreen is intimidating.
Beyond Mifune’s iconic lead performance, Yojimbo boasts gorgeous cinematography. The combination of deep focus to allow for maximum detail in the shots and to film during high noon to allow highest natural contrast creates a film where the images are visually complex but uncluttered. Kurosawa’s trademark perpendicular, medium-long shots abound, a visual aesthetic that became typical of the action genre and was mimicked by Kurosawa admirers, Francis Ford Coppola and George Lucas. The playful score by Masaru Sato brings energy to the action sequences and reminds the viewer that contrary to the violence onscreen, Yojimbo is not a very serious affair after all – it is an action movie with a undercurrent of dark comedy. Although it deals with serious themes, Yojimbo abounds with humourous characters like the cowardly town crier and Ushitora’s idiotic brother, Inokichi, and its earnest use of caricature undercuts any overly serious characters.
It is almost impossible nowadays to exactly determine all the ways that Yojimbo influenced cinema. Akira Kurosawa drew upon the conventions of the genre he loved and rewrote the very ways in which the genre worked. It is fitting that a film that was heavily influenced by the western genre was directly responsible for the rebirth of that genre in the form of the spaghetti western. Sergio Leone’s 1964 A Fistful of Dollars starring Clint Eastwood as the Man with No Name was an unauthorized remake of Yojimbo, and the popularity of the trilogy that film spawned was a result of Kurosawa’s brilliance. When watching the classic westerns of Clint Eastwood where the sun shines in his eyes, he chews his cigarillos like a toothpick, and he swaggers about dusty Mexican towns like he owns the places, remember that none of this is original; all this was done before and better by Kurosawa and Mifune. Remember that the cool, roguish antihero swaggering into town as men fight like dogs in the dirt is part of a cinematic tradition that Akira Kurosawa gave birth to.