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Japan’s Wild West (with Some Pathos):

The Greatness of Yojimbo

by Tony Nash

(All Opinions are of the author alone)

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Yojinbo (Yojimbo, The Bodyguard) (1961) *****

Toshiro Mifune: Sanjuro Kuwabatake

Tatsuya Nakadai: Unosuke “Uno”, Gunfighter

Eijiro Tono: Gonji the Tavern Keeper

Daisuke Kato: Inokichi “Ino” Rotund One

Isuzu Yamada: Orin

Kyu Sazanka: Ushitora

Seizaburo Kawazu: Seibe, Bordello Owner

Takashi Shimura: Tokuemon, Sake Brewer

Ikio Sawamura: Hansuke

Kamatari Fujiwara: Tazaemon

Yoko Tsukasa: Nui

Susumu Fujita: Homma, Devious Swordsman


Written by: Akira Kurosawa & Ryuzo Kikushima

Directed by: Akira Kurosawa

Synopsis: Wandering Ronin (Masterless Samurai) Sanjuro makes a stopover at a town in the throes of a gang war between the Seibe and Ushitora clans. Deciding to rid the town of the brutal thugs, Sanjuro plays both groups against each other; all while making money in the process. Things become complicated by the arrival of Ushitora’s progressive younger brother Unosuke, who has brought back a gun from his travels to the West. Even more complications arise when it’s revealed a captive woman is held by both gangs, forcing Sanjuro to come to terms with a painful memory.

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Akira Kurosawa’s homage to Dashiell Hammett’s novel Red Harvest, is a thrilling, dramatic, action packed, and at times funny, Samurai film that delivers on every level. Kurosawa takes Hammett’s story from old-time America and transfers it to 19th century Japan, in a little community outside of Edo (later to become modern Tokyo), and turns the gangsters and molls into renegade Ronin, prostitutes, and corrupt officials. The Continental Op, Hammett’s unknown wanderer, his real identity and name never disclosed, becomes the drifting Samurai Sanjuro looking for something to do. While not an official adaptation of the book, the film makes use of some of its elements, primarily the mysterious stranger playing two petty criminal gangs against each other for the sake of money. How Kurosawa makes it his own is that he adds his consistent use of pathos, drama, and giving his greedy protagonist depth and soul, and even a heart. While many of Kurosawa’s films often dealt with relevant issues of the time, Yojinbo is a fun action drama that, while giving a look at life during that period and a code of ethics only the protagonist seems to maintain, is a piece where the viewer can sit back and enjoy the ride. How Kurosawa takes the film to newer levels, is that he adds nice touches of dark comedy into the film, particularly through Sanjuro. Some of Kurosawa’s made use of comedic moments to break tension and give breathing room, but this proved to be a rare case of Kurosawa taking a fairly light-hearted approach to his material.

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Another interesting facet of Kurosawa’s is that while he gives his audience a clear indication of who are the good guys and who are the bad guys, he also shows them with faults. Like with many filmmakers of the time, Kurosawa knew the world wasn’t back and white in terms of people, that they weren’t 100% good or 100% bad, but he also realized there were those who were inherently good, in spite of poor decisions in their past, and equally inherently bad, in spite of wanting others to look the other way. By showing his characters as humanly as possible, flaws and all, Kurosawa allows his audience to empathize fully with them and be able to like them for who they try to be, and what the audience may like them to be, and hate them because of what they choose to ignore in life, and the bad things they’re willing to do in order to move forward.

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Toshiro Mifune is in ultimate form with the role of Sanjuro, a part he was practically born to play. A Ronin in every sense of the word, Sanjuro’s mangy, unkempt, and unscrupulous. At first glance, one would think he was a mere vagrant preying upon unsuspecting upper echelon members of society, but in reality there lies a cunning underneath that dirty façade, and a restlessness that no one Lord can contain. Kurosawa told Mifune to think of himself like a wolf while prepping for the film, and indeed Mifune’s scratching his head and constant arching of shoulders gives the impression he’s been wandering so long, he actually has fleas. He’s a free-thinking and talking type of man, making no qualms or apologies about what he thinks of everyone and about the situation he’s found himself in, but at the same time decides something needs to be done to save the town. While the primary impression he gives is one of an opportunist who’ll due anything for a quick buck, he actually shows a side of himself that, while it can’t be coined sensitive, is at least a type of tenderness. When he witnesses the mistreatment of local woman Nui, something stirs inside of him, and finds himself wanting to help her. While he never explicitly goes into why he’s helping her, it’s clear he’s known at least one other woman like Nui who had a similar problem, but circumstances and people beyond his control probably led to a sad ending. Mifune’s gruffness with equal parts pathos and gentility help make up this wonderful combo. When he has to come face to face with town crime lord Unosuke and his equally vicious brothers, he decides enough is enough.

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Tatsuya Nakadai, the Japanese equivalent of Alain Delon, proves a really excellent villain in Unosuke with a slimy smug smirk and fear piercing stares. Nakadai proved himself a worthwhile talent, as his skills and ability as an actor make audiences really want to hate this character, and to some, maybe even a joy to hate. Kurosawa, like with Mifune, told Nakadai to think in terms of an animal for his role, in his case a snake. He lives up to this moniker ten-fold, as he’s scheming, conniving, and even a little traitorous with his own brothers. That he’s the youngest of the three brothers makes him even more dangerous, as he’s right at an age where progressiveness has its usage. He’s really not looking to prove himself, as he already He comes in midway into the film, after traveling abroad for a time, either for pleasure or to wait out an amnesty for a past offence, and comes back with a (back then) modern new weapon: a six-shooter pistol. This weapon frightens all those he meets, and that it even kills quicker than a sword has even Sanjuro a little unsure of this wildcard. That Nakadai maintains a level of elegance within the role makes him reminiscent of a greedy land baron of a Western. He makes a great counterpart to Mifune, and is an equal in acting ability as well, as these two powerhouses played off each other well.

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So well done was Kurosawa’s film that Sergio Leone stole it scene for scene when making his debut Western Per un Pugni di Dollari (For A Fistful of Dollars) a couple of years later. While Kurosawa was flattered and felt Leone did a fine job translating his film for Western audiences, he and Toho Studios sued Leone and Jolly Films for copyright infringement. Kurosawa went on record saying the lawsuit made him more money than the ticket sales did. Kurosawa’s original is the far better film by a long shot, though Leone does it justice with his interpretation, but Kurosawa has a far richer palette in characters, depth, and story, while Leone has characters who just seem to try to survive without doing a thing to change their lot. Kurosawa’s characters want to be free, but so much destruction and lack of anyone with courage to stop it had left them with little hope, whereas Leone’s characters are pessimistic who, even if help came, little would change except their circumstances.

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This film for the most part is a fun ride, but Kurosawa also manages to work in his human interest themes that leave the audience feeling a little wiser and a little more hopeful for human decency. The Sanjuro character can definitely be seen as a precursor to the Anti-Heroes of the Italian Westerns, as Leone’s unofficial remake became the model that future films of that genre were based off of. Equal parts dark humor, action, and drama, the film is an unusual breed all its own that gives European and American audiences a unique perspective of pre-20th century Japanese life and customs, and gives Japanese audiences a chance to get entranced in a fantasy world and dream of what could be.

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(This is my all time favorite Kurosawa film and it comes highly recommended. The Criterion Collection DVD or Blu Ray is the best quality I’ve seen and comes with a great commentary from Kurosawa biographer Stephen Prince)

All images courtesy of images and their respective owners

For those wishing to see the original and its sequel Sanjuro

For UK, Region Free Blu Ray player owners, or Region B areas (and looking for a good deal)




Filed under: Film: Analysis/Overview

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