Movie Name: Yojimbo
Genre(s): Action/Adventure/Martial Arts
Release Date(s): April 25, 1961
MPAA Rating: Not Rated
A rōnin (Toshiro Mifune) finds himself in a town in the middle of a war. On one side is Seibei (Seizaburô Kawazu), his plotting wife (Usuzu Yamada), and his son Yoichiro (Hiroshi Tachikawa) and on the other side is Ushitora (Kyu Sazanka) and his slow-witted brother enforcer Inokichi (Daisuke Katō). Naming himself Kuwabatake Sanjuro (aka 30 year old mulberry field), the rōnin sets himself up between the two feuding gangs and hires himself out a yojimbo…upping the ante and increasing the violence. When Ushitora’s son Unosuke (Tatsuya Nakadai) returns and adds a gun into the mix, Sanjuro’s game is going to get more deadly…and might even be too much for Sanjuro.
Directed by Akira Kurosawa (who also takes writing credit with producer Ryuzo Kikushima), Yojimbo (用心棒 or Yōjinbō) is known as a Japanese jidaigeki which is the equivalent of a period piece. The film was critically acclaimed upon its release and nominated for an Oscar for Best Costume Design—Black-and-white. The movie was remastered and released on DVD and Blu-Ray as part of the Criterion Collection (Criterion #52).
Kurosawa’s claims to have based the film on Dashiell Hammett’s novel The Glass Key which does have elements of the story, but the movie is closer to Hammett’s Red Harvest which also features the “Man with No Name” character. Yojimbo is a classic and was remade both as the classic Clint Eastwood spaghetti western A Fistful of Dollars (1964) and the Bruce Willis gangster film Last Man Standing (1996). Yojimbo however is the original and still the best (though A Fistful of Dollars does give it a real run for its money).
What makes the movie is the fun of Sanjuro’s game. The character does a great job playing the two rival gangs and you never really know where his plan is going or if he is just reckless like suggested by his friend and ally shopkeeper. You never are given much insight on the character or his motivations, but the script smartly gives you revelations that he does have a moral code and a strong definition of right and wrong. What isn’t revealed is what in his past has led to this code…and that is a good thing especially in current cinema world where everything must be explained.
Toshirô Mifune owns this movie. His brooding and plotting rōnin Sanjuro commands the screen and at the same time you can tell that the character is having fun raising hell in the town. He’s backed up by a nice supporting cast with Tatsuya Nakadai as the evil gunfighter who also just oozes cockiness. Both gang leaders are overshadowed by their back-up which includes Daisuke Katō as the simple minded muscle and the Lady Macbeth-esque Orin played by Isuzu Yamada. Also notable is the massive “giant” gangster Namigoro Rashomon who physically gives Sanjuro a real beating.
The visuals of the film are fantastic. I can’t take my eyes off a film by Akira Kurosawa just because of how he frames all his shots. The movie is atmospheric and even dust was brought in to add to the dusty nature of the sleepy but violent town (and for all those great blowing dust scenes). Kurosawa does tons of little things to add atmosphere and just when you think a shot is framed oddly, it works into Kurosawa’s vision and become relevant. He’s one of my favorite directors just for this ability.
Yojimbo is a great classic, but as good as Yojimbo is, I still like Seven Samurai more. Yojimbo was followed by a semi-sequel in Sanjuro which was reworked to be a sequel after Yojimbo’s success. If you are a fan of samurai films or of Akira Kurosawa, Yojimbo is a must…but it is also just a solid, great action film for anyone.
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