Yojimbo at 60

Akira Kurosawa and Toshiro Mifune were twelve films deep in their legendary collaboration when they made Yojimbo, a straightforward samurai movie that somehow became an unqualified masterpiece with a far-reaching influence on Western cinema that continues to this day. The director and actor had put themselves and Japan on the world map of movies in 1951 when they brought Rashomon to the Venice Film Festival. In 1954 — the same year their studio, Toho, released the first Godzilla — they had shown ronin fighting with honor in the seminal Seven Samurai. Hollywood remade that film in 1960 as The Magnificent Seven while Kurosawa and Mifune ushered in the new decade with a film-noir twist on Hamlet called The Bad Sleep Well.

It wasn’t their first Shakespeare adaptation and it isn’t their most famous but its title still lands like a pronouncement of theme in the middle of a filmography where the grotesqueries of human existence are a source of ongoing fascination. Who knew that on the other side of that half-destroyed Rashomon gate, there was a town straight out of a cowboy flick, where the architecture was still Japanese (torii and tile kawara roofs) but where corruption now prospered so wildly that a hero could only meet it with amoral good cheer? On April 25, 1961, Yojimbo strolled in: abandoning all pretense of honor in favor of money, rice, sake, and swordsmanship.

Silk Dyed in Blood

Composer Masaru Sato’s jazzy, off-kilter score gives Yojimbo immediate momentum, even before the film offers its first sight of mountains and a man bun. The lurching rhythm of drums and horns accompanies Mifune’s character as he scratches the back of his head and walks. During the opening credits, the screen fills with white kanji characters and we only see him from behind until he arrives at a crossroads, where he turns around and — after a three-minute buildup — finally lets us see his face. It’ll be a while before he introduces himself and the name he gives will be lifted from the sight of a mulberry field, but for ease of reference, we’ll go ahead and call him Sanjuro.

If choices are what define a character, then Sanjuro’s first one reveals a lot about him because he’s content to let chance choose his route. At the crossroads, he throws a stick up in the air to determine which direction he will go. No sooner does he turn left than he finds himself witnessing a dispute between a farmer and his son, the latter of whom is running away from home so he can “live it up and die young.” To hell with “a long life eating gruel,” the son says. He wants good food, nice clothes, and the chance (there’s that word again) for battle.

The farmer thinks the world’s gone mad and he sees gambling as the main problem. He rails against dice games and says, “Everyone wants easy money.” Yet we’ve just seen Sanjuro essentially gamble his fate on a stick toss, and what drives him forward from here is the prospect of easy money. As the farmer throws the door shut on him, the implication is clear: Sanjuro is very much part of the problem. He’s one of these “hungry dogs [who] come running when they smell blood.” The farmer’s suggestion for how to deal with such beasts is, “Let ‘em rip each other apart and dye the silk in their blood.”

As soon as Sanjuro goes walking into town, he meets his canine counterpart—and is visibly taken aback, because the dog is trotting down the street with a severed human hand in its mouth. Sure enough, a corrupt constable comes running right out to meet him, talking up the local brothel and asking him if he wants to make some dough as a bodyguard. The only other question is, which side will Sanjuro take in the town’s gang war?

In his 1965 book The Films of Akira Kurosawa, American author Donald Richie devoted an insightful chapter to Yojimbo, in which he wrote:

“The theme [of the movie] is then civil disorder, even civil war—father against son, neighbor against neighbor. The social problem (since Yojimbo is predicated on one) is the breakdown of a traditional society.”

The film upholds this interpretation but it helps to have a fuller appreciation for its historical context. Yojimbo’s time setting, 1860, puts it smack dab in the middle of the Bakumatsu (1853–1867), which marked the tail end of the Edo period and the Tokugawa shogunate’s power in Japan. Commodore Matthew Perry had only recently sailed the U.S. Navy into what is now Tokyo Bay, forcing the country to reopen to the outside world after 200-plus years of isolationism.

Needless to say, it was a time of great political and social upheaval. Those loyal to the shogunate were in conflict with those seeking to restore imperial rule. This would eventually culminate in the Japanese Revolution, an actual civil war.

More than once in Yojimbo, we see two people or sides face off with another person or persons between them. The film reunited Kurosawa with cinematographer Kazuo Miyagawa; they had worked together on Rashomon, shooting directly into the sun, and now they were shooting in deep focus. One scene shows the farmer’s wife working, with the farmer sitting behind her and Sanjuro standing in the background, ladling water up to his mouth. All three of their faces remain in focus.

Maybe there aren’t just two sides anymore but a whole relativistic polygon. Keep in mind that 1860 is just the artist’s window-dressing. Yojimbo first hit theaters a hundred and one years later when Japan was on the other side of a different war: World War II. Once again, the U.S. had changed the course of the nation’s history, exposing it to westernization, something that had only trickled in with the Portuguese before Sanjuro’s time (as seen in Martin Scorsese’s Silence).

As Kurosawa’s Japan underwent its post-war “economic miracle,” farmers were flocking to cities and the multi-generational family unit, traditional society’s pillar, was indeed breaking down. The silk, as it were, of collective capitalism came at the bloody cost of culture.

Knowing this background, the film takes on a deeper dimension. Note, for instance, how there are three sets of parents and three sons in Yojimbo. The grandparents, who would usually be part of the Japanese ie household, are nowhere to be seen.

A Fallen Samurai in a Fallen World

Richie wrote, “The dreadful town in Yojimbo is contemporary Japan and the choice of the farmer’s son is one which confronts young people today.” That was in the mid-1960s. What has kept Yojimbo resonant beyond that era is that it, like any great film, builds outward from the specific to the universal.

When Sanjuro first rounds the corner into town, widescreen framing gives the street an expansive look and renders him a small figure. It feels like a showdown at high noon; you can almost hear his spurs clicking as a low-angle shot tracks his face through the center of this dusty locale.

As Roger Ebert noted, “the wind-swept main street could be in any frontier town, the samurai … could be a gunslinger, and the local characters could have been lifted from John Ford’s gallery of supporting actors.” East meets West such that the town encompasses the globe and the conflict among its caricatures represents all of human society.

Sanjuro’s predicament is that he is in opposition to the town’s power structures. It’s him versus the world, which makes him relatable even as his blank slate of a past leaves itself open for projection on the part of the viewer. Lest we forget, he’s a masterless samurai, displaced from his duty by the emergence of a middle class: silk merchants and sake brewers who compete with and kill each other, keeping the coffin maker busy while the rest of the town’s inhabitants suffer.

In the beginning, the wandering ronin seems content to serve his own interests. “I’ll get paid for killing,” he declares, “and this town is full of men who deserve to die.” Human life is cheap and his is no exception. His would-be bosses can’t be trusted. They agree to his fee of 50 ryo, only to hold a quick closet confab where they plot to backstab the very body that would guard theirs. After all, “whether you kill one or one hundred, you only hang once.”

The gang members are a mix of mallet-wielding giants and finger-counting unibrows with animalistic names like Ushitora (“Cow-Tiger”) and Inokichi (a play on Inoshishi, the Japanese word for “Boar”). Sanjuro, the man in the middle, decides to set both sides against each other, beating them at their own game. “You’ll gain nothing by getting sucked into this evil,” says the izakaya owner, but Sanjuro doesn’t want to get sucked in. He’d rather climb the watchtower and enjoy a god’s-eye view of the gangs tearing each other apart.

What complicates this is his decision to free a mother who is being kept as collateral against her husband’s gambling debts. What makes it further untenable is the presence of Unosuke (Tatsuya Nakadai), who has returned from a year of travels with an exotic new foreign weapon: a gun. The town is in shambles — buildings burning, bodies in the street — before Unosuke finds the thank-you note that the escaped husband has left Sanjuro. In this diorama of the damned, no good deed goes unpunished.

A sense of ineluctable violence and chaos would seem to overtake Kurosawa’s later worldview. (The title of his 1985 epic Ran literally means “chaos” in Japanese.) Here, we see an early intimation of that. The difference is that Sanjuro sees society crumbling and laughs in the face of it, as if detached irony is the only appropriate response to the world in all its ugliness.

For that, he awakens in the brewery with his face beaten to a bloody pulp. “Where am I?” he asks, and the giant answers, “This is the gate to hell.” Sanjuro makes for the door and the giant says, “Where are you going? That’s the shortcut to hell.”

The izakaya owner realizes that Sanjuro isn’t really bad. He just pretends to be. This being a movie, our protagonist must experience an arc of change, so he goes from stirring up trouble for his own amusement to helping someone in need, inadvertently sacrificing himself and then figuratively resurrecting himself. It’s this transformation from self-interested rogue to save-the-day hero that separates the character from so many of the antiheroes and villains of the new millennium.

With the giant as his jailer, Sanjuro can no longer sit above the fray as a wry spectator. Now, instead, he’s right down in the thick of it, crawling. His ultimate choice, as Richie sees it, is “to be a part of this wicked world and, at the same time, to withhold [himself] from it.” The town is the world in miniature and the room that was hell’s gate becomes an empty tomb when Sanjuro hides in a storage chest and the izakaya owner smuggles him out to the graveyard to complete his death and rebirth. “You don’t look like one of the living,” he says, but Sanjuro insists, “I’m not dying yet. There’s a bunch of bad guys I have to kill first.”

Tracing Yojimbo’s influence through the annals of Hollywood history yields a family tree with branches in everything from Spaghetti Westerns (A Fistful of Dollars and Django) to space operas (Star Wars) to romantic thrillers (The Bodyguard) to gangster flicks (Last Man Standing) to martial arts films (Kill Bill, Vol. 1). Kurosawa drew inspiration from Dashiell Hammett, feeding it back to a global audience and, in turn, inspiring a new generation of filmmakers. Laced with black humor, Yojimbo confronted the onset of a bleak post-modern civilization, stripped of its old norms and overrun with ignobility. Its “two-bit samurai,” the original Man with No Name, the cinematic granddaddy of all such fellows, stared down the coming goons and said, “I’ll make sashimi outta them.”

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