Benjamin is a former volunteer DJ at his local hospital radio station. He has been reviewing films online since 2004.
What's the Big Deal?
Yojimbo (translated as The Bodyguard) is a historical drama film released in 1961 and was written, edited, co-produced and directed by Akira Kurosawa. It depicts a ronin - a masterless samurai - who wanders into a town dominated by two warring gangs and decides to use his particular skills to end their tyranny. The film stars Japanese legend and frequent Kurosawa collaborator Toshiro Mifune alongside Tatsuya Nakadai, Eijirō Tōno, Seizaburo Kawazu and Kyū Sazanka. The film was a huge success, so much so that Kurosawa's next project, Sanjuro, had to be changed to allow Mifune to reprise his role. It also inspired Sergio Leone to remake the film as the iconic spaghetti western A Fistful Of Dollars starring Clint Eastwood, despite the fact that he did not have permission to do so. Today, it is regarded by many to be among Kurosawa's best films and possibly one of the best films ever made.
What's It About?
In the dying days of the Edo period (around 1860), a ronin - a samurai without a master - is wandering aimlessly around Japan. Stumbling across a remote farmhouse, he overhears an argument between the farmer and his wife regarding their son who has left the farm to join a gang of criminals in a nearby town. In need of rest and refreshment, the samurai heads into town and quickly learns how desperate the situation really is. The town is basically governed by two warring factions - Seibei runs a lucrative gambling business and has the town's silk merchant in his pocket while his former right-hand man Ushitora aims to take over completely after declaring the town's sake brewer as the town's new mayor. The rest of the population hide from the violence behind shuttered doors and windows as there appears to be no end to the conflict in sight.
Deciding to put his deadly skills to some use, the samurai rejects the advice of tavern owner Gonji to leave and aims to pitch both sides into battle with each other. After effortlessly demonstrating his skill by slaying three of Ushitora's men, the samurai approaches Seibei and offers his services - which Seibei eventually agrees to after desperately haggling a price. Unbeknown to everyone, this sets in motion a deadly chain of events that threatens the lives of everyone including the samurai, who hasn't reckoned with Ushitora's younger brother Unosuke and his trusted revolver...
What's to Like?
I feel the need to confess right here that this was my first experience of a Kurosawa picture (long overdue, I know) and I deliberately picked the film I felt I knew the most about. Having seen remakes both official and unofficial, the narrative would feel familiar so I could just concentrate on the film itself and thankfully, this paid off in spades. Kurosawa's samurai story has an air of authenticity about it - not just because of the Japanese language and costumes but it pulls you in, making you want to know more about the setting and characters on screen. Well, I say that because in truth, the film belongs to Mifune as the nameless warrior with a hundred untold stories behind him. At first, he seems like a money-hungry mercenary selling his sword to the highest bidder but the longer the film goes on, you realise that his intentions are genuinely noble - whether this is because he is a good man or because he is atoning for something in his past, we cannot tell. His is a subtle man of action, perhaps more inclined to use words rather than his katana and it makes him far more engaging than any other character on screen besides the boyishly handsome Nakadai as the evil Unosuke, brandishing his pistol with gleeful abandon.
Kurosawa was inspired by Hollywood westerns and that influence is clear to see in Yojimbo, from the dusty streets of the town to the wide shots of characters to even the soundtrack, an odd collection of styles and instruments that seem to clash at first with the on-screen action. But this is a deliberate choice of Kurosawa, meant to illustrate the chaos and state of flux the town is in. And even if you haven't been exposed to the narrative via other films, the film is a gripping tale of good trying to vanquish evil and as the stakes rise, you're never quite sure whether our hero will survive. The acting also takes a little getting used to - Mifune's softly spoken hero aside, the supporting cast feel like caricatures at times especially Yamada as the wife of Seibei, Orin who couldn't be more like Lady Macbeth if she wore a kilt. The action might not match the relentless levels of violence seen in its remakes (see below) but when it does come, it looks crisp and brutal to a surprising degree - take the moment when a wounded man, laying face down in the street, tries to lift himself up and we see the blood flow from his wounds and spread across the mud. For what might be perhaps a fairly simple premise, Kurosawa still demonstrates real skill as a filmmaker which makes appreciating the film even easier.
- Leone ran into significant legal trouble for producing A Fistful Of Dollars without crediting Kurosawa, costing him 15% of the film's profits and delaying the release for three years. Ironically, Kurosawa later admitted that he was inspired by the 1942 film noir The Glass Key, which was an adaptation of a novel by Dashiell Hammett and was not credited by Kurosawa either.
- The film did receive an official remake in 1996 with Walter Hill's Last Man Standing which did credit Kurosawa's original. All three versions of the story all take place in different periods in history - 1860's Japan, the Old American West and Prohibition-era Texas.
- The samurai gives his name as "Kuwabatake Sanjuro" which means thirty-year-old mulberry field, as the character stares out at a mulberry field. To further emphasise that fact that he might not be telling the truth, he then mutters "More like forty years" to himself.
What's Not to Like?
Beyond my overall ignorance of Japanese history and therefore a lack of any sort of context, there really isn't a whole lot to dislike about Yojimbo. As usual, anyone who struggles with subtitles may find the film difficult to follow and annoyingly, the lack of colour also hinders the film's cohesion. It took me a while before I realised who the principal players were and their relationship with each other and I feel that this might have been easier in colour, which might have made identifying character more simple. Weirdly, I also found some characters had not aged well - despite the film clearly being Japanese, there were some characters that felt as though they played up to the sort of stereotypes normally seen in Hollywood films of the time. Take the rotund figure of Kato's Inokichi, adorned with a ridiculous monobrow and often seen with buckteeth - yes, the character is meant to be portrayed as being a bit dull in the brains department but it still felt uncomfortable to watch. Perhaps I'm getting too sensitive in my advancing years but it's unfair to judge a film from this time by today's moral standards.
But it's hard to find any real fault with Yojimbo which surprised me with its undimmed ability to captivate and entertain after all these years. Of the three versions of the story I have seen, it is the best - it doesn't rely on needless violence, explosions or other cheap titilation to hold your attention but rather the rich depth of the setting, the central performance by Mifune (who would come to be associated with the role throughout his career) and the skill of Kurosawa in telling a story so well in a visual medium. I haven't been this impressed by a director since I first saw Orson Welles' Citizen Kane a few years ago.
Should I Watch It?
Yojimbo was a film that had been on my 'Must Watch' list for some time and I'm delighted to say that it did not disappoint. Tense and gripping in spite of the language barrier, the film is a delight to watch with a commanding central performance by Mifune and the level of quality you'd expect from a quality director like Kurosawa. Even true film nerds like myself can enjoy watching the film and spotting both the references to its own inspirations and those scenes which influenced later films. Yojimbo might be getting on in its age but it remains an essential viewing experience for both cinephiles and Japanophiles alike.
Great For: anyone interested in Japanese film or culture, influencing dozens of filmmakers, cementing the reputations of Kurosawa and Mifune, lawyers.
Not So Great For: anyone who can't handle subtitles, black-and-white snobs, contemporary action fans expecting some sort of Michael Bay shtick.
What Else Should I Watch?
Personally, I'm now eager to see more of Kurosawa's work especially the likes of Seven Samurai (which would also influence a classic western, The Magnificent Seven), Rashomon, Ran and Throne Of Blood. Of course, Kurosawa didn't just stick to samurai movies and often indulged in some notable film-noir as well - Drunken Angel was one of the first post-war yakuza movies produced and is still highly regarded today. Yojimbo is considered one of the best examples of samurai cinema (known as chanbara) alongside the likes of the original Zatoichi from 1962 and the popular characters Lone Wolf & Cub who debuted on film in 1972's Lone Wolf And Cub: Sword Of Vengeance.
Hollywood tends to stay away from replicating samurai films in its own image but it has certainly tried in the past. Not only was Clint Eastwood's iconic Man With No Name character inspired by Mifune's equally nameless samurai but Mifune himself even appeared alongside Charles Bronson in Red Sun, a pretty bonkers spaghetti western that actually had some decent talent in front and behind the camera. Other, perhaps less obvious, samurai-inspired films include the under-rated Ronin with Robert De Niro and Jean Reno, Blind Fury (which was a US-set remake of Zatoichi) and the oddball thriller Ghost Dog: Way Of The Samurai with Forrest Whitaker.
Akira Kurosawa & Ryuzo Kikushima*
Release Date (Japan)
25th April, 1961
12A (2020 re-rating)
Action, Drama, History, Thriller
Academy Award Nominations
Best Costume Design (Black & White)
© 2021 Benjamin Cox
Benjamin Cox (author) from Norfolk, UK on May 10, 2021:
Thank you very much!
Umesh Chandra Bhatt from Kharghar, Navi Mumbai, India on May 09, 2021:
Iqra from East County on May 09, 2021:
Hi Benjamin, Yojimbo is a 1961 Japanese samurai film directed by Akira Kurosawa, who produced the film with Tomoyuki Tanaka and Ryūzō Kikushima. This film is very interesting.Thanks for sharing.