After a flurry of wildly successful films in the 1950s, Japanese director Akira Kurasawa chose to go even further in his blending of Western culture with Japanese sensibilities. The path he tread in 1961 was a dusty and dangerous one, figuratively speaking, as the great master created one of cinema's most influential characters in the master-less samurai (or ronin if you want to start learning some cool Japanese words) Sanjuro (Toshiro Mifune) who wanders the countryside, traveling from town to town in the hopes of earning a living, temporarily, as a sword for hire. Near the beginning of Yojimbo, our seemingly calm but powerful anti-hero arrives in a town which for some time now has been under the constant threat of two rival gangs, one led by Seibei (Seizaburô Kawazu) and the other by Ushitaro (Kyû Sazanka). Gambling, brothels, silk factories, there is a lot of money involved in their battle of the wits, and whomever should control the most territory shall emerge victorious. Both the mayor and constable are helpless against the situation and, quite frankly, are cowardly and easily corruptible. Sanjuro sees an opportunity to play one group against the other...by essentially playing both for the fool, constantly shifting his allegiance from side to the other in a risky strategic manoeuvre.
This wouldn't be the first time Kurosawa mixed up styles and cultures together. A few years earlier, he and star Toshiro Mifune collaborated in their to produce their own version of Shakespeare's Macbeth set in feudal Japan. This outing would prove to be vastly different, with the plot, setting, pacing and even the cinematography strongly suggesting that this was a western, only set in Japan with the hero being a samurai rather than a lone gunmen riding into town on horse. Sanjuro himself is nothing like a kind and noble cowboy who saves the townsfolk at the last moment however. There is undoubtedly a degree of nobility about him for he opts to rid the town of people who are, for all intents and purposes, nothing but trouble. But the film doesn’t hide the fact that there is a darker side to his character than we’re used to in these types of movies. As the character himself puts it ‘I get hired to kill people.’ That’s his job. It’s what he does best. He’s also a pretty rough and tough bloke when push comes to shove and whips his samurai blade with a lethal precision, grace and quickness that makes others quiver and quake in fear when he approaches. Kurosawa wisely avoids bogging the film down with lengthy exposition for the plot at hand or any significant back story for his central character. Rather, Sanjuro, the man and the film, get right into things at about the 5 minute mark. Our devious protagonist serves as a vehicle for a film in which some people are simply good and others, such as Onu (Tatsuya Nakadai), member of the Ushitaro clan, are unquestionably evil. These suckers must be dispatched with if the town ever wishes to return to a period of stability.
This is where the significance of Mifune’s performance comes into play. Without much knowledge of who this guy is exactly, it is dependent on the actor to provide any sort of gravitas about him. Mifune, having already established himself as a star of Japanese cinema, proved to be an excellent choice for the role for he gives a very full performance. There is a mannerism about him that I’ve come to like. He can be quite energetic at times, with subtlety thrown out the window, while others times playing with quick gazes and nods and even a softer spoken voice. There appears to be a little of everything in his interpretation of Sanjuro. His behaviour in the early stages is reminiscent of a predator observing his prey, weighing his options and remaining patient while his time to strike approaches. I like the fact that the character isn’t past his prime but has lived enough battles and jobs to speak and act with experience. There are other moments when he is laughing about at the comical behaviour of certain clan members. He even permits himself to mock them in front of their own faces. Of course, by that point he has already proven his deadly skills by slicing into a few gang members, so it isn’t as if there is anybody ready and willing to do anything about it...until Onu comes back to town.
Onu is described as looking as docile as a rabbit, but his possibly innocent exterior hides an animalistic instinct to act out violently whenever his allies in the Ushitaro clan are threatened. Tatsuya Nakadai, who would go on to collaborate with Kurosawa in some of the director’s later works such as Kagemusha and Ran, gives a delicious performance which, while lacking in subtlety, doesn’t lack anything in the fun department. This man doesn’t even look to be entirely sane when we are forced to stare into those intense eyes of his. What makes this character’s presence so crucial to the film is that up until his appearance, Sanjuro was essentially having his way with almost everyone in the film. Add to that the reality of Mifune’s undeniably strong presence as an actor, and the viewer is served with what may feel like a slightly one-sided affair. The addition of Onu to the mixture evens the odds a little bit however. Nakdai is one of my favourite actors of all time and he can turn up the intensity in his performances on command. There is a brooding rivalry which immediately builds between Onu and Sanjuro, and their on and off confrontations make for some of the most compelling moments in what was already a pretty darn good movie.
Kurosawa’s gives us the full package with Yojimbo, even dropping in some very funny elements. The moments when genuine terror and suspense are felt are rather far and few between (although the scene when Onu unravels Sanjuro’s true intentions when both are sitting at the restaurant is appropriately chilly), but the director more than makes up for that by making everything seem like so much fun. The giant with his large hammer, the insults that are tossed between stressed out gang members, the juvenile nature and behaviour of other clan members, etc. There was a lot that produced some chuckles from me, more so than I remembered from my first viewing experience a few years ago. Sometimes the comedy is slapstick in nature, other times is tainted with a more macabre tone (the dog scene, anybody?), but there is little doubt that Kurosawa wanted to award movie goers with a true crowd pleaser. Even the score by Masaru Sotah is often playful rather than action packed or suspense-oriented. The cinematography is another strong point to the film. It is very, very rich and sharp, with several shots displaying fantastic contrasts between the light and the darkness. The scenes occurring in the middle of the town when both clans face off against one another offer shots that only reinforce the notion that Yojimbo is but a thinly disguised western adventure film. Much credit should go to the cinematographer Kazuo Miyagawa who put out all the stops to make a handsome looking film in stunning black and white.
Yojimbo would go on to influence many future films, both western and not, some which became quite popular themselves. It also became one of the director’s most successful films, both critically and at the box office. As the movie closes with Sanjuro leaving town, his violent work complete, we would like to walk away with him. He was a fun character who had a sense of humour but who could destroy the opposition with calculated professionalism. What do future adventures hold in store for this wandering samurai?