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A Bodyguard Turns 50: Yojimbo (Japan, 1961)



By Bryan Nixon.

A while back, the Criterion Collection revamped and re-released Akira Kurosawa’s samurai classic Yojimbo. One of the most influential films of all time, Yojimbo, which translates as ‘the bodyguard’, features a protagonist who stands firmly as the blueprint for the quintessential cinematic badass. Played brilliantly by Toshiro Mifune, the samurai Sanjuro, who likes to remain nameless and therefore mysterious, pits himself between two gangs who have divided the town into a civil war. His plan: to eventually rid the village of both gangs by playing both sides. He is not an obvious hero because he is, at face value, arguably in it for the money, and this is not a standard struggle of good versus evil. Sanjuro is a man who stands between two duelling, equivalent evils, planning to bring them down by subliminally encouraging them to destroy themselves.

Sanjuro is a ronin, a wandering samurai searching for work. Entering a village, he crosses paths with a dog carrying a severed human hand in its mouth. It is immediately clear what kind of village he has stumbled upon. The tavern keeper informs Sanjuro that the town has been divided between two dangerous men, Seibei and Ushitora. Sanjuro views this as the perfect chance to earn some much-needed money. Throughout the film, he offers his role as a bodyguard to both leaders repeatedly. He first proves his worth to both parties by strolling up to three random men, who are fugitives, in one of the gangs, taunting them, and then quickly slashing them to pieces with his sword as if they were inanimate objects who posed no threat.

After doing so, Sanjuro instantaneously tells the coffin maker that he had better construct ‘two coffins…no, maybe three’. And so the game begins, complete with continual sabotage and a surplus of bloodshed. Sanjuro takes his time in setting up various schemes that cause one side to react violently against the other – and so on and so forth – without trying to get his hands dirty. As Sanjuro says, ‘With some bodyguards, the employers have to watch their backs’. The gang leaders try to fool Sanjuro, the first instant occurring when Seibei plots to kill him after the slaying of the opposing gang, as an alternative to paying a hefty fee, but he ultimately outwits everyone.

Kurosawa, who was outspokenly influenced by the American western genre, sought to craft a western with a feudal Japanese backdrop. The most recognizable element of the western in Yojimbo is the set, which is a small town with a single street in which the majority of the action takes place. Throughout the course of the film, tumbleweed rolling across the street would not seem unexpected or out of place. The tavern is also a fundamental locale in westerns, and Sanjuro spends a great deal of time contemplating his strategies there. A further reminder of the western genre is Kurosawa’s unforeseen inclusion of a threatening character named Unosuke, a member of Ushitora’s gang, who wields a pistol and is quite the marksman. This serves as a key problem for the sword-brandishing Sanjuro and complicates the control that he has over the clashing sides. Unosuke is quick to act on Sanjuro’s treacheries to Ushitora, eventually holding the master swordsman at gunpoint to capture him. And in the tradition of the western, Yojimbo’s climax is a duel on the village’s dusty street.

The true brilliance of Yojimbo lies in Toshiro Mifune’s highly memorable character. He is not the conventional John Wayne hero. Sanjuro is modeled rather more after a character such as Humphrey Bogart’s Sam Spade, and thus paved the way for tough-guy action legends Harry Callahan and John McClane. That hard, cocky, and witty attitude of a man not to be messed with and who will get the job done if the money is right is the basis for Sanjuro’s development over the course of the film. At first, he laughs at the dirty dealings between the two gangs, often claiming, ‘That was amusing’. Reaching the film’s halfway mark, however, Sanjuro becomes emotionally invested in the lives of some of the victims who suffer from this local civil war.

After being hired for 30 ryo by Ushitora, Sanjuro swiftly (it takes ten seconds!) murders six of Ushitora’s men, who are holding a woman captive from her husband and child. Reuniting the family, Sanjuro provides them with the 30 ryo that he had been paid and orders their escape from the village. Sanjuro assures Ushitora that Seibei was behind the incident, wisecracking, ‘Didn’t I tell you? Six men weren’t enough. Must have been 15 or 16 men’. This is the act that inevitably leads to Sanjuro’s capture by Unosuke, for the reason that his emotional involvement got the best of him. Yet, it is this act alone that elevates Sanjuro’s deeds to a heroic level, although his perpetual, hardened personality conceals his depth.

Yojimbo is a simple story made complex by the interactions and motivations of its characters. As in all of his work, Akira Kurosawa framed beautiful compositions for this piece, wasting no space in the village setting. The film may not be as epic in scale as Seven Samurai (1954) or Ran (1985), but it is just as significant. Italian filmmaker Sergio Leone remade Yojimbo as A Fistful of Dollars (1964), a spaghetti western that served as the first part of the ‘Man with No Name’ trilogy starring Clint Eastwood. Like all great cinematic heroic figures, Sanjuro turns his back to the camera at the film’s conclusion and continues down another path to rid the land of menace, cuing the fade to black. His work here is done.

Bryan Nixon is an independent scholar.


Yojimbo(Japan, 1961) Director Akira Kurosawa Screenplay Akira Kurosawa, Ryuzo Kikushima Producer Akira Kurosawa Director of Photography Kazuo Miyagawa Film Editing Akira Kurosawa Costumes Yoshiro Muraki With Toshiro Mifune (Sanjuro), Tatsuya Nakadai (Unosuke the gunfighter), Seizaburo Kawazu (Seibei), Kyu Sazanka (Ushitora), Eijiro Tono (Gonji) Runtime 110 min. DVD/USA 2007 Produced and distributed by The Criterion Collection Aspect Ratio 2.35:1 Extras Audio commentary by Stephen Prince, a 45-minute documentary, theatrical trailer, stills gallery.

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