Yojimbo (1961)

This review originally appeared on my old blog Stranded Below Nirvana a whopping 13 years ago. (Slightly) revised and re-examined for your enjoyment here on Cinema Dual!

The movie opens. A man stands in the foreground, his back to the camera. We don’t know him yet, but the camera tells us everything. The mountains in the background are positively diminutive, telling us this man is larger than life, and over the course of the next two hours he’s going to prove that perception correct. His cadence, and the way the camera follows him, further defines his character. He walks with the casual stride of someone who’s been places, who’s lived and can handle himself without show, without dramatics. His largest concern are the fleas in his clothing, and he gait is half swagger, half twitch as he scratches for relief. The music swells with a jarring Western-driven fanfare recalling the work Ennio Morricione would later do for Sergio Leone as we follow this ronin to a fork in the road. Which direction to take? A stick tossed in the air points determines his destination, and our own. Yojimbo has begun. 

Akira Kurosawa’s 1961 film is a changing of the guard. It’s the end of the samurai as dedicated hero as seen in Seven Samurai, and the beginning of the samurai as both super- and anti-hero: larger than life, flawed and thriving on his own sense of justice. Toshiro Mifune fills every inch of the screen as Sanjuro: broke, hungry, and looking to make some easy cash with his sword. The random stick toss leads him to a shabby town that appears perfectly suited to satisfy those needs – a run-down corrupt pile of loose boards and quick thieving, where the sound of caskets being made echo along the sandy strip of road running through town and dividing the factions within: Seibei, the silk merchant who runs the brothel and owns the town’s mayor, and Ushitora, Seibei’s former right-hand man who split off after learning he was being passed over for the old man’s son.

The bones that make up Yojimbo are so well known at this point you know it, even if you haven’t seen the movie: the idea of a mysterious stranger entering a corrupt town and bringing it to his own sense of wicked justice was directly copied in films like the aforementioned Leone’s A Fistful of Dollars and Walter Hill’s Last Man Standing, and with looser ties in such films as Corbucci’s Django and a hundred other films. Rather than focus on the mechanics of the story I wanted to focus on how Akira Kurosawa frames tell the story through his visuals rather than the script. For example, how a simple scene of a dog happily trotting down the street with a severed human hand in its maw conveys the desperate nature of the town:

yojimbo dog and hand

The score by Masaru Sato further accentuates the scene: a percussive, brassy modern piece that reinforces the bizarre events that occur in the movie. Not enough is really said about how effective the music in Yojimbo is – one of Kurosawa’s (many) strengths is the way he marries sound and image in collaboration with his composers. Yojimbo is one of the strongest examples of this marriage.

The “dog” scene is just one of dozens of great sequences in Yojimbo, a film that further stands out in Kurosawa’s oeuvre as a breaking point with earlier convention. We begin to see extensive use of telephoto lenses, utilizing pan and deep-focus shots to achieve crystal clear images along with a visual palette that emphasized the stark contrasts of light and dark. Have they been there before? Sure. But revisiting Yojimbo those aesthetic choices feel more pronounced. The choices in wardrobe and props for Kurosawa’s characters also reflect this “release” from the constraints of his more serious film endeavors – one of the henchman is a giant carrying not a sword but an enormous hammer. Another henchman, the diabolical Unosake (played by Seven Samurai extra Tatsuya Nakadai) wears a scarf around his neck and seems to have the cleanest robes in the town, belying the fact he’s probably the most ruthless and sadistic one in the movie.

Another technique Kurosawa uses to enforce the nature of the townspeople in the beginning is to introduce them as cowering behind bars or wooden slats – the feeling of caged, vicious animals is hard to ignore: 

Sanjuro settles in with the only two seemingly honest people left in the town – an old tavern keep and the even older casket maker – and proceeds to play each side off against the other until everyone who needs to die is dead – essentially the whole town, as Sanjuro explains to the tavern keep. Soon he see the one real adversary in the town isn’t either of the two bosses, but the aforementioned Unosuke, who complements his modern attire with a deadly accessory: a revolver hidden inside his robes.

In the end justice – Sanjuro’s own gleeful and cynical view of it – prevails. Via double-crosses worthy of a Shakespearean drama, Sanjuro plays both sides against the other, is captured and beaten, only to escape and come back to settle all scores in a fast, bloody battle to the death against one of the ugliest gangs caught on celluloid:

yojimbo evil gang

I swear that’s the Japanese equivalent of Jaws from the James Bond movies in the back there.

The move to wide angles and deep focus serve the film so well: you get the space in the town, the intimidating view of Unosuke and his gang as they slowly march up the street. The following shot, right before the climax, is an excellent example of this, and the one image that stuck in my mind more than any other in the film:

And of course the biggest prop Kurosawa’s camera has at its disposal is Mifune himself. He’s the lovable rascal – sure he’s bad, and can cut down 10 people in 10 seconds (Mifune was supposedly exceptional with a katana, and did the whole scene where he indeed “kills” a person per second while holding his breath), but his violent tendencies and cold, uncaring shell is tempered by a sense of right. For the remainder of their partnership Kurosawa used Mifune as the towering figure seen during the opening credits – an icon rather than a character. Gone is the subtlety, and in its stead is the prototype for many the modern action stars celebrated in the 80s and 90s.

Radically shifting from classic to modern in a single sword stroke, Yojimbo remains for me the unfettering of Kurosawa’s imagination, the point where he truly embraces a wider, wilder kind of storytelling that remains a brilliant achievement and a progenitor to the modern action films we tend to take for granted this day. Is there a John Wick without Yojimbo to light the way?

Shudder to think…


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