Yojimbo (用心棒)

One of the best aspects of the study of cinema is watching the story of a magnificent art form unfold, and observing a kind of great conversation blossom between filmmakers across the world. In many ways, Yojimbo is the continuation of the classic Hollywood tradition; one need not look too deeply to find elements of thrilling noir or the sweeping western. Combined with a story so quintessentially Japanese  —a wandering ronin who finds his world vanishing before him —we see in Kurosawa’s Yojimbo a memorable blend of cinematic cultures, resulting in one of the most influential films of all time.

‘Yojimbo’ is roughly equivalent to our word for ‘bodyguard’. It is this position that our hero accepts upon arriving in a small town. He is a ronin —a masterless samurai— drifting through the depths of 19th century Japan. Very often we see him with his backed turn to us, emphasising his distance and his detachment from the world around him. Even his name he never reveals to us; rather, the samurai goes simply by ‘Sanjuro’ (which literally means Mulberry-Field, the first thing he sees upon being questioned).

It is through the eyes of this classic ‘man with no name’ that we see a darkly humorous tale unfold. From his point of view, we watch a little town divided; we watch ordinary peoples separating into the two rival factions of Seibei and Ushitora, the reigning crime lords, with tensions running higher with each passing day. Both sides want to rid themselves of the other, yet neither really knows the first thing about fighting. And so the two resort instead to growling and grumbling and rather feebly attempting to scare the other out of oblivion. Needless to say, it doesn’t work.

The small-town war drags on and on until the arrival of the aforementioned samurai, the peerless swordsman that both sides need in order to annihilate the opponent. Sanjuro though, with his slightly warped (albeit ultimately endearing) sense of justice, chooses to keep a watchful distance. He promises his loyalty to both but in reality is loyal to neither, preferring instead to mess with everyones’ despicable (and might I say, slightly stupid) heads.

So there you have it. A nomadic stranger who rolls into town —the mysterious man who sweeps the people off their feet and, in his own way, eventually saves them all. In other words, Yojimbo certainly has something of the archetypal western. As for the never-ending hostility between two morally questionable gangs —dare I say a Pre-Code mafia dynamic may come to mind? Of course, these similarities scratch only the surface of the Western influence apparent in Yojimbo. As mentioned earlier however, it is really not these instances of isolated inspiration that are most intriguing; instead, what is unquestionably more fascinating is the coming together of all the various styles and ideas. It is this integration of both old and new that has led to the creation of something entirely innovative, and which has, in turn, come to influence the many films that came subsequently.

Yojimbo

One of the most brilliant scenes of Yojimbo, which sees Sanjuro visit the crime lord Ushitora with some rather devastating news, demonstrates exactly this. Sanjuro sits on a wooden tread, recounting the incident as Ushitora climbs slowly down the stairs. On one level, Kurosawa simply employs intensely programmatic music, which mirrors the emotive style of golden Hollywood. The sparse words and stylised movement however, punctuated by bursts of music, is, I believe, rather characteristic of traditional Japanese theatre, namely the classical form of Kabuki. Combined with the fact that Ushitora himself is out of the frame, and that we see only his feet on the rigidly straight lines of the steps and the support of the stringer —which remind one almost of the bars of a prison— Kurosawa creates a utterly stifling tension. Ushitora is trapped, and just from this apparently simple composition, we all know it.

There are truly so many wonderful moments in Yojimbo, and to analyse them all would certainly be a pleasure.  It would though, I’m sure, take you poor readers an age to wade through. So instead I thought I’d leave you with a brief moment that struck me particularly, and which I feel demonstrates especially well the skill of Kurosawa.

We watch on our screens the plight of a woman bound in ropes — a woman whom before this moment we have never seen. She briefly escapes her capturer, and runs to her little boy. The scene is profoundly moving; the strings soar, and for a passing instant, mother and child are reunited. A tonal shift quickly ensues: we cut to the totally useless villain who cannot control (and I do apologise to the feminists) a little woman. There is a tonal shift in very literal terms too —the expressive strings are replaced by a Baby Elephant-esque ditty.  The result of all this is a rather charming amalgamation that is characteristic of the entire film: a brilliant mix of hilarity, genuine thrills and a heartfelt sincerity. What more could one really ask for?

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23 Comments

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  1. A warm and intelligent appraisal of one of Kurosawa’s best films Rachel. I doubt the theme has ever been better tackled on film, certainly not by the Eastwood/Leone western versions, or the lamentable ‘Last Man Standing’, decades later.
    I was lucky enough to catch this film again recently, on a Film 4 TV showing. It was even better than I remembered, and the central performance from Toshiro Mifune, a delight to watch.
    Best wishes as always, Pete.

    1. We must have caught the same showing! :) I completely agree that, if anything, Yojimbo seems to have gotten even better with age. The film has so often been imitated but never really equalled. Thanks for following along Pete —Rachel

  2. This was probably my favorite Kurosawa film. You should also see A Fistful of Dollars, which in my opinion was the greatest ripoff of a movie ever made. Fistful was basically a scene-by-scene remake of Yojimbo. Even while suing Sergio Leone for very obvious plagiarism, Kurosawa acknowledged that A Fistful of Dollars was a very good movie.

    1. Thanks for the recommendation. I have seen a few of Leone’s films over the years, but “A Fistful of Dollars” has somehow slipped under the radar.

  3. Oh, absolutely see A Fistful of Dollars, as you’ll get a nice chuckle at how Leone “remakes” it to a T, but still makes it his own film. Eastwood’s performance certainly makes it a fine viewing experience, but it’s also those other faces on most of the rest of the cast that work as well. Excellent post, by the way!

  4. Rachel T, This is a movie I have never seen, and I don’t suspect I will, but I loved how you presented it. I know if I were cruising the channels and came upon this, I would stop, to watch abit, maybe get engrossed and watchi until completion, but again I don’t think I would seek it out. Please take care, Bill

  5. hello!!! thanks for following the other day! i was going to review this but to give it justice and to refresh my memory i’m gonna watch it again first!

    i also like rhe “tension-filled” scene you mentioned. i think what made.this scene beautiful is how kurosawa maximized the use of foreground and background. it somewhat created volume and layers in that particular scene..i think kurosawa likes to play with his screen layers…it made the film sooo good too! try pausing the film in random scenes, they still look good enough to be turned into wallpapers :)

    1. No problem about the follow —I look forward to hearing more from you! And yes, I agree about Yojimbo; every frame seems like a work of art in itself.

  6. I simply adored Toshiro Mifune: he was “everything a man should be”,and reminded me, thus, of my husband. He was one of those actors you couldn’t drag your eyes away from … what a talent !

  7. Toshiro Mifune was such a great actor. He said that he had no pride in anything that he had done that was not done with Kurosawa. He was deadly beauty in motion and he portrayed so many emotions with a simple expression or motion. This is one of my favorite of Kurosawa’s movies. You may, if you have not done so, view Hara Kiri: Death of a Samurai. It is modern but I think you will find it satisfying. A beautiful film that broke my heart and brought tears to my eyes several times. I thank you for following my humble little blog…it is a mishmash and not very intellectual, but I hope it gives people a place to feel welcome. I am looking forward to future posts from you. Seven Samurai is still one of my favorites – Rather than Magnificent Seven, I have often likened it to Silverado, one of my favorite movies.

    1. It is a rare thing to find a person so suited to the medium of film, one who is even more stunning in reflected motion than in still photography or indeed real life. Mifune, I believe, was one of the very few. By the way, thank you very much for your recommendation – it sounds like a great film and I’ll definitely try to seek it out.

      1. I believe you can get it free on YouTube. I had seen at the theatre but one night when I couldn’t sleep, I was surfing and came upon it on the Asian channel in plenty of time to catch the beginning. You might also try After the Rain – about an amiable ronin who is so laid back and good natured, he frequently loses work. There is a scene in the movie of a potential employer examing his sword. The photography of the master’s garden, sun, sky reflecting off the blade and what he said about the blade and its weilder brought a deep feeling to my heart. It is a good movie. Not always dreadfully serious but with many good points.

      2. Mifune truly was remarkable. a past lover, who I have dubbed my Samurai, had the same deadly grace, economy, beauty, and power. It was he who taught me to use the katana and who presented me with my own.

  8. I first saw the movie Yojimbo in 1961 at a university-sponsored foreign film festival. It was both my first Kurosawa film and my first Japanese language film. The movie, its atmosphere and soundtrack entranced me and entrances me still. I believe it to be one of the most significant movies ever crafted. I have never grown tired of watching it over the years. I find it always fresh.

  9. Hi Rachel, can i just say your site looks fantastic! Love the new design. Brilliantly written as always. Im back with a review of Dawn of the Planet of the Apes, check it out! Would love to hear from you.

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