Thursday, October 9, 2014

Movie – Yojimbo (1961)

Yojimbo from writer/director Akira Kurosawa has been remade twice – the first time as a spaghetti western starring Clint Eastwood (1964’s A Fistful of Dollars) and the second time as a Prohibition era action film starring Bruce Willis (1996’s Last Man Standing).  Those two films show the universal nature of the story by seamlessly shifting the setting from feudal Japan to the old American West to 1930s small town America.  The fact that one version was an out and out western shows once again how Kurosawa’s films were often influenced by American westerns, especially the films of John Ford.  I consider Yojimbo to be the best version of the three movies, although Eastwood’s is certainly the best known.

Toshiro Mifune once again stars for Kurosawa.  He plays “Sanjuro Kuwabatake” – a name obviously made up since it is a description of what he is seeing at the time – a mulberry field.  This means that he’s essentially a Man with No Name – something copied directly for the Eastwood remake.  Mifune plays a samurai who serves no master – a ronin.

He wanders into a town and immediately sees a dog carrying a severed human hand.  He knows he’s not walking into a very good place.  He is then surrounded by a gang, but he ignores them and walks off.  He goes into a bar and Gonji, the owner, basically lays out the setting for both the ronin and the viewer.

The town is run by two gangs, led by men named Seibe and Ushitora.  Each has installed their own puppet mayor and each of them bullies the people in the town, using the place almost as their own playground.  Gonji is trying to warn the ronin, but to his surprise Sanjuro decides to stay a while.

He seeks out the gang that confronted him before, and with members of the other gang as witnesses, he easily kills them.  This makes the leader of the other gang, Seibe, beg Sanjuro to be his bodyguard.  (“Yojimbo” mean bodyguard in Japanese.)  Sanjuro agrees, and Seibe plans to attack the other gang.  He also intends to have his men kill Sanjuro after it is over – a plan Sanjuro overhears.  He accompanies Seibe to the other gang’s area, but then abandons Seibe, letting him know he was aware he was going to be killed.  Without Sanjuro there the two gangs posture more than fight, and neither does much damage to the other.

Showing that you don’t have to have brains to become a gang leader, Ushitora, seeks out Sanjuro and tries to get him to work for him instead.  Sanjuro says he’ll have to think about it.  What follows is Sanjuro playing a very dangerous game as he tries to simultaneously manipulate both gangs into destroying each other – sometimes helping them on their way himself.

And it’s not just Sanjuro, but also people he has come in contact with, who suffer retaliation from the gangs.  Let’s just say you wouldn’t want to have to cover the health insurance policy on most anyone in this town.

Yojimbo had a sort-of sequel titled Sanjuro (1962).  In it Mifune plays a similar character with a similarly made up name.  It was originally going to be a different movie, but after the success of Yojimbo they changed it to make the character Mifune was playing more like his character from Yojimbo.  And of course, Sanjuro was remade as A Few Dollars More (1965) where Eastwood plays a man a lot like the one in A Fistful of Dollars, but where the second film is not really a sequel to the first one – the same pattern as with Mifune in Yojimbo and Sanjuro.  And both sets of films also have supporting actors reappear even though the character they played died in the earlier movie.

If you’ve only ever seen A Fistful of Dollars, you owe it to yourself to see Yojimbo.  You will get to see how an Italian-made American western originally looked as a Japanese samurai film from one of the best directors of all time.  If this sounds interesting then I recommend you give it a try.

Chip’s Rating: 3 out of 5 stars


  1. I watched this recently just because it had been awhile since I had basked in the joy of a Kurosawa samurai film. There's not a lot in the way of plot here, but it doesn't matter because it has Mifune being Mifune and lots of samurai running around. Great stuff.

    1. Yes, it's pretty straightforward, but entertaining.

  2. This is the first Kurosawa film that I ever saw and it's my 2nd favorite of his so far as I've covered about a 1/3 of his entire body of work.

    1. Wow, second favorite is really something when it comes to Kurosawa. I'd place at least four films ahead of it - Seven Samurai, Ikiru, Throne of Blood, and Rashomon. The Hidden Fortress and High and Low I'd place about even with it. Redbeard and Ran I'd place just below it. Dersu Uzala and Kagemusha I'd definitely place below it.

  3. I just love this one! Kurosawa certainly made some greater films but maybe never one that was this much fun.