A wandering samurai, Sanjuro Kuwabatake, stumbles upon a townwar-torn between two rival bands of merchants. Rather thanheed the advice of the locals and flee for his life, Sanjurodecides to stay and make money for his services...by fightingfor both sides of the feud!
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“A truly good movie is really enjoyable. There’s nothingcomplicated about it...it’s interesting and easy tounderstand.” These are the words of the master filmmakerhimself, Akira Kurosawa. Although all of Kurosawa’s filmswere truly great, none of them adhere to this quote more sothan Yojimbo. Yojimbo is at its heart playful, comic, anddelightful. At the same time, however, it’s a dark andviolent action film. What more could we want?
Although Kurosawa always deserves praise for his work, Ibelieve that this time at least half of the credit should berightfully given to the star of Yojimbo. The late, greatToshirô Mifune. Mifune was an actor like no other. Alreadya star in Japan during Yojimbo’s release, Mifune would go onto become recognized worldwide for his portrayal of SanjuroKuwabatake. After winning the best actor award at the VeniceFilm Festival, Mifune would forever become the embodiment andthe face of a true samurai.
Of all the actors Kurosawa worked with, Mifune was the onlyone who was ever allowed to improvise on set. Kurosawaalways made his actors follow the script exactly, but heunderstood that Mifune brought something different to theset. Mifune would never bring a script to table reads, he’dhave all his lines memorized long before the rest of the castwas even chosen. When Kurosawa asked each actor to invent aslight tic for their character, Mifune decided that hischaracter, being a wandering samurai with no home, shouldhave fleas. Therefore, when watching the movie, you’llnotice that Mifune is constantly twitching his shoulders andscratching at himself, as though reacting to flea bites.
Sanjuro is also calm and calculating at all times, neverquick to anger, always seeming detached from the severity ofwhat was happening around him. A true mastermind who couldalways see ten steps ahead of himself. One could say thatMifune was born to play the role of Sanjuro, and I for one amgrateful that he did.
Yojimbo begins beautifully with our hero, Sanjuro, roamingaimlessly through the countryside. The aimlessness of hiswandering is proven when he comes to a fork in the road. Hesimply tosses a stick into the air and follows wherever itpoints. Unfortunately for him, the stick points him in thedirection of a small town torn between two rival merchants.Upon entering the town, Sanjuro notices a dog walking by witha human hand in its mouth. Odd, to say the least. Sanjurochecks into the local inn and soon hears the tale of how twomen have been hiring bandits and thugs to fight for them inan attempt to take over the silk trade.
One of the things that sets Yojimbo apart from other films ofits kind is the complexity and the beauty of the set. Over30 million yen was spent on construction alone, anunprecedented amount at the time of its release in 1961. Nodetail was left out. The village was built from scratch andmade completely real, even down to the faded signposts andthe tile on the rooftops. Each house was constructed just asa real house would have been at the time. Every building yousee in this film was complete from the floor to the roof.Even the roads were altered to make them appear morerealistic to the days of feudal Japan. Such detail and careon the set alone was something rather rare for Japanesecinema in the 60s, but Kurosawa saw fit to make every detailperfect.
What makes Yojimbo so fantastic to watch is the way Sanjurorelates to this war-torn town. Rather than be disgusted andoutraged by the sight, fighting nobly to free the village,Sanjuro laughs and comments on how he could make a lot ofmoney there. After which he promptly goes out and killsthree men from one side, wounding five others. He then goesto the other side, offers to work for them, then just goesback to the fist side and asks for more money! Each side isdesperate to have him as its own, so we as the audience justsit back and watch as he plays them both for chumps.Throughout the entire film, Sanjuro is just using everyone asa puppet in his master plan and no one can stop him. Thatis, until Unosuke, the youngest son of one of the duelingmerchants, strolls into town, wielding a pistol. We all knowit’s only a matter of time before the pistol and the swordmust clash!
Although Sanjuro does his best to act as though he has noheart, he can’t always hide who he is.
When he discovers that a local man’s wife has been taken as aconcubine by one of the merchants, he rushes into battle,killing six men and setting her free. He hands over all themoney he has to the wife and her family, telling them toflee. This act of nobility causes him to be caught, takenprisoner and brutally beaten.
During the 1960s, you have to understand that hundreds ofaction-packed pictures were coming out in Japan depicting thenoble acts of the samurai. Several things make Yojimbo standout. For starters, this was the first Japanese film to usesound effects for slashing flesh. At the time this wouldhave been very controversial and a huge problem with censors.They lucked out, however, as the censor board allowed thesound effects to remain. Also, despite the fact that Sanjurois clearly a master swordsman, he does not rely on hisswordplay alone. Rather, he outsmarts everyone around him,many times getting them to kill each other for him. As wascommon with Kurosawa, Sanjuro’s character was the embodimentof nobility and what a samurai should be, but not in anyobvious sort of way. He hid his kindness at all costs. Heacted as though everyone around him was little more thanvermin, but his actions always speak louder than his words.After Sanjuro frees himself from captivity, he watches as thefinal stage of his plan comes to fruition. The two warringsides annihilate each other, leaving few survivors. The filmcomes to a climax when Sanjuro, rested and healed, comes backinto town to finish things once and for all. Unosuke, pistolin hand, and the rest of his band meet Sanjuro, and the finalbattle between the old ways of the samurai and the new waysof the gun takes place. What’s truly unique about this finalscene is that the true nature of Yojimbo comes out stronghere. The overall theme to Yojimbo is the idea of the oldways versus the new ways. The ways of our elders versus theways of progress. The final battle is between a samurai, whofollows the ways of his ancestors and the way of the sword,against the young thug with a pistol and his band ofcriminals. The gun, along with the deplorable actions andbeliefs of the men who surround it, are clearly depicting adownward spiral, a loss of the better way things used to be.We all know that in real life, the way of the samurai didfall to the way of the gun. That “progress” did away withthe ancient traditions and the ancient ways. In Yojimbo,however, Kurosawa paints us a picture of what could havebeen, what may have happen if the old ways had won out in theend.
Yojimbo, in my humble opinion, is Kurosawa’s most fun film towatch. It’s a film that proves that a great actor and a greatdirector alone can make a movie worth watching. Put themtogether, and you get something magical.