By Edward Copeland
The title of Akira Kurosawa's Yojimbo fills nearly the entire expanse of its Tohoscope 2.35: 1 image in Japanese characters while mountains stand in the distance beyond the letters in Kazuo Miyagawa's crisp, stark black-and-white cinematography. Then he enters the frame behind the continuing credits, seen only from the back, though his sword is visible. He scratches his hair and proceeds to walk as the credits go on, still viewed from behind, accompanied by the drum-dominated pulsating portion of Masaru Satô's magnificent score. The samurai turns and we briefly see him in profile and, as if we didn't know already, we recognize the great Toshiro Mifune. Soon, Kurosawa films Mifune solely from the back again, only this time moving in closer, letting us see him only from the shoulders up. Every so often, Mifune does a little shoulder shrug reminiscent of the move people doing bad Cagney imitations make when they say, "You dirty rat." As he keeps moving on, the camera pans down to his feet and his sandals as he passes some markers. The credits end, the music stops and we see him in his entirety — he's come to a crossroads where he could take one of four paths. The samurai picks up a stick and tosses it in the air. letting it decide for him. That stick certainly selects a path that will prove challenging for the samurai but that piece of bark (a symbolic Kurosawa surrogate) also chose one helluva entertaining journey for the moviegoer when 50 years ago today, Yojimbo opened in the U.S., one of the rare times in Kurosawa's career when one of his films was released in the United States in the same calendar year as in Japan.
Technically, Mifune's samurai isn't a samurai since he no longer has a master, which means he should be called a ronin. He hasn't been on the path the stick chose for him that long when he comes across a farmer (Yoshio Tsuchiya) and his son (Yosuke Natsuki) arguing in the middle of the road. The son, probably in his late teens, insists to his father that something "could be chance for the battle of a lifetime." His father calls him a crazy fool, saying it's only going to be a chance to get killed and that a farmer's place is in the fields. The son tells him that if that means a lifetime of eating gruel, he can have it, adding that he's determined "to live well and die young" before he takes off. The ronin hasn't said a word this whole time, but when the son leaves, he asks the farmer if he can have a drink from his well. The farmer gives him a dirty look, but doesn't object as he goes into his house and blames his wife (Yoko Tsukasa) for not stopping the boy. She asks what she could have done. Gambling have driven all kids these days crazy, she declares. Besides, she worries about her and her husband's future. Who knows if there will ever be another silk market where they can sell their goods anyway as long as the gamblers fight for control of the town. The ronin moves on. When he arrives in the town the farmer's wife mentioned, the streets have emptied of any evidence of people, though as he walks, people spy through blinds on their windows. The only sign of life — and death — comes prancing down the dusty street in the form of a dog, a severed human hand clutched in his mouth. It's a more grotesque image than the panting, overheated dog that Kurosawa used to open his 1949 film Stray Dog, but somehow it comes off as more comical even this early in Yojimbo just as the Stray Dog image set the more serious tone for that film. David Lynch paid a kind of dark comic homage to the Yojimbo scene in Wild at Heart when a robbery goes wrong.
Though Yojimbo opened in the U.S. three years before Sergio Leone translated it into his spaghetti Western A Fistful of Dollars (which didn't open in the U.S. until 1967) and recast Mifune's mysterious ronin into Clint Eastwood's Man With No Name, more moviegoers even today probably have seen Leone's film, which is a shame. Not that A Fistful of Dollars isn't fine, but Leone's other spaghetti Westerns — the other two with Eastwood and Once Upon a Time in the West — are vastly superior to Fistful and Yojimbo leaves Fistful in the dust. Also, while there is much plot to comprehend in Yojimbo, for those who still frown on films with subtitles, Yojimbo actually can be followed fairly easily if you miss a few without losing the essential enjoyment of the film (Plus, it offers good practice for those who lack the subtitle reading skill required to truly appreciate movies in a language not their own). What many miss (mainly those who haven't seen Yojimbo) is that in essence, it is a Western. It contains mostly swords and merely one revolver, but it is set in the 1860s as opposed to Kurosawa's The Seven Samurai, which took place in the 16th century and the town's design purposely echoes the American West of that time more than it does Japan. Should it be called a sake Western? The funny thing about Leone's remake: It wasn't official and Kurosawa and co-writer Ryûzô Kikushima sued for copyright infringement, winning 15 percent of Fistful's worldwide gross in addition to distribution rights for Leone's film in Japan, Taiwan and South Korea. Later, Kurosawa said he made more money off A Fistful of Dollars than Yojimbo. Ironically, while the style of Yojimbo definitely shows the influence of Western movies Kurosawa had seen, some say he lifted its plot from Dashiell Hammett's 1929 detective novel Red Harvest, where a nameless private eye is hired by the president of a mining company to clean up a mining town overrun by mobsters the company had hired to break the union there. It's from that novel that the term Blood Simple originated.
As the ronin returns to his survey of the street after the dog with the unusual treat has moved along, he tries not to be obvious about all the gawkers hiding behind their windows. From behind a door, a small grinning man, eagerly rubs his hands together and practically dances over to the stranger in the street. He is Hansuke (Ikio Sawamura), the town's constable, and immediately tries to ascertain how much the ronin wants to be a bodyguard and asks whose side he's going to take. Mifune's ronin stays silent and ignores Hansuke, continuing to walk up the street, failing to notice the constable as he ducks inside a building behind him. Suddenly, a large group of swordsmen (they aren't all swordsmen — one carries a large mallet). No one says a word or makes a move until one of the group finally speaks up, "It's a public road — even dogs pass safely." The men all laugh and return inside as the ronin switches directions. The cagey constable comes out of hiding, criticizing the ronin's approach, telling him that no one will hire him that way. Those guys aren't that tough, he insists. You have to show them what you can do, cut an arm off or something, Hansuke suggests. The ronin continues to ignore him, especially when he spots a sign that the subtitle reads as RESTAURANT, though in all the reference sources they refer to it as a tavern. The tavern's owner, Gonji (Eijiro Tono) sticks his head out. Hansuke keeps babbling. "Mind your own business, you bastard," Gonji says as he allows the ronin inside and closes the door.
The tavern owner asks the ronin if he wants sake, but he seeks only food. Gonji informs him because of the way business has been, he doesn't have anything except for rice and it's cold. The ronin tells him that it will be fine, but that he doesn't have any money so he offers his services in exchange. This sets Gonji off. He tells his visitor that he'll feed him for free, but that this town has seen enough fighting, blood and death so he has to promise to leave afterward. The ronin asks what happened to turn this town into this cesspool. "One boss in a town we can tolerate, but two is a disaster," Gonji says. For a scene of exposition, Kurosawa, through the vehicle of the actor Eijoro Tono, handles it quite efficiently and makes it visually interesting. Instead of just sitting next to Mifune and spilling the entire story, the tavern's design comes with shutters on most sides that Gonji can slide up quickly with a zipper-like sound to point out not just the plot points and the characters but the town's geography as well. First, before the details begin, a pounding from next door gets to Gonji. Only the casket maker prospers now, he says. What started the trouble was when Seibei (Seizaburo Kawazu), who ran the gambling and the brothel, decided to step back a bit from the day-to-day running of all his territory. His right-hand man Ushitora (Kyu Sazanka) assumed he'd be the natural successor, but Seibei passed a large part of his territory on to his son Yoichiro (Hiroshi Tachikawa). A furious Ushitora left and started his own regime, taking about half of Seibei's men with him and the fighting began. Gonji ceases his tale as he hears an arrival next door greeting the casket maker (Atsushi Watanabe). Gonji's tavern has an open window that looks directly into the neighboring business and they watch as a rotund fighter with three other men gets the body count for his side and the other. When they leave, Gonji explains that the man doing the talking was Inokichi (Daisuke Kato), Ushitora's brother. Inokichi means wild boar, Gonji says, and never has a name been more appropriate. "He's a half-wit and he's brought three more fighters back with him," the tavern owner sighs. "Instead of buying silk, they're buying thugs." Hearing talk, Gongi peeks outside and sees Hansuke laughing and bowing to Inokichi. Gonji despises the constable, who should be arresting these people, he spits. When they've moved on, he raises the shutters all the way and points to the building across the street. Tazaemon (Kamatari Fujiwara) is the mayor, but a silk merchant by trade, he tells the increasingly intrigued ronin, but when the split occurred, he sided with Seibei. Gonji leads his guest to the opposite side of the tavern and raises those shutters. As a result, the sake merchant Tokuemon (Takashi Shimura) took Ushitora's side and declared himself mayor. Now, Gonji says, "Tazaemon beats on his prayer drum all day, hoping Seibei wins." Gonji sits down next to the ronin. "This town is doomed," he laments. "You gain nothing getting sucked into this evil." His patron puts down his rice bowl. "I like it here. I think I'll stay," he declares. Gonji asks if he didn't just hear what he told him. He'd be nuts to want to stay. Mifune, who I once argued may be the greatest screen actor of all time, explains why in a nice, pithy speech.
"That's why I'm staying. Listen, old man. Think about it. I get paid for killing and this town is full of people who deserve to die. Seibei, Ushitora, the gamblers and drifters — with them gone, the town could have a new start."
Gonji calls him crazy again — it's not as if he has nine lives. The ronin says he's not going to do it alone. Gonji asks who would help. He responds, "Sake. I think while I drink." The ronin and the audience now know the players (for the most part: a major one will appear later and lesser roles will be introduced), so the game can begin. Basically, the ronin with no name will use the town as a chessboard, Seibei's gang vs. Ushitora's, only he will be the one moving their pieces. (Actually, he will give a name, though obviously a fake one, when Seibei asks what it is when hiring him as a bodyguard. The ronin sees something out the window and calls himself Sanjuro Kuwabatake, though he tells Seibei it doesn't matter since he doesn't know him. Sanjuro, of course, became the title of the 1962 sequel.) Yojimbo (which translates to the bodyguard) has the look and feel of a Western set in Japan, but it also carries elements of gangster films since what are Seibei and Ushitora, who make their livings off vice and destroy people through their weaknesses, but mobsters. It's as if more than 40 years ahead of time, Kurosawa told the story of the blood grudge between New York and New Jersey in the last year of The Sopranos , only an entire town of innocent people pay a price and both families are headed by Phil Leotardo. When you get down to it though, the genre that Yojimbo belongs to is that of the dark comedy. While preparing to write this tribute, I stumbled upon a well-sourced article on the Web called "Yojimbo: Study of a Disintegrating Society" written by Joaquín da Silva in 2004. It makes a reasoned case that Yojimbo represents Kurosawa's criticism of changes in Japan in both the 1860s when the film is set and the late 1950s and early 1960s when Yojimbo was written and made and how they led to the breakdown of traditional Japanese society and values, and that every character in the film essentially is disreputable or evil and that Seibei and Ushitora actually are just henchmen for the silk and sake merchants, respectively. Since I know next to nothing about Japanese history in that sort of detail, I can't argue for or against the case but just watching and enjoying Yojimbo as many times as I have, I don't sense a message movie lurking beneath the surface and given the portrayal of the cowardly silk merchant, beating his prayer drum all day, he doesn't strike me as someone who's capable of pulling anyone's strings. It is an interesting read though if you have the time. What I do see in Yojimbo is a great filmmaker indulging himself in a masterful romp following more than a decade of cinematic excellence that, for the most part, dwelled in darkness. Remember, this followed films dating back to his first international hit in 1950, Rashomon, and others such as The Idiot, Ikiru, Throne of Blood, The Lower Depths and The Bad Sleep Well. The Seven Samurai came in this period as well, but it freely mixed the dark with the light. In an essay called "West Meets East" by the late Alexander Sesonske in the booklet that accompanies the Criterion DVD of Yojimbo, Sesonske wrote, "Kurosawa, often called the most Western of Japanese directors, now seems to have thought, 'Enough moral fervor, I'll show you how Western I can be.'" In The Films of Akira Kurosawa by Donald Richie, Kurosawa is quoted as saying about his inspiration for Yojimbo, "The idea is about rivalry on both sides, and both sides are equally bad. We all know what that is like. Here we are, weakly caught in the middle, and it is impossible to choose between evils. Myself, I've always wanted to somehow or other stop these senseless battles of bad against bad, but we're all more or less weak — I've never been able to. And that is why the hero of this picture is different from us. He is able to stand squarely in the middle and stop the fight. And it is this — him — that I thought of first. That was the beginning of the film in my mind."
While Mifune has given some of the best performances in the history of film, with Yojimbo he also has a part that lets him have fun. He's a thinker surrounded by idiots, carrying a perpetual look of bemusement on his face, usually with a toothpick dancing in his mouth. When it comes time to fight, his skills border on the supernatural, quick and deadly, but later in the film, when his sympathy for a broken family gets the better of him and the sharpest of the bad guys — Tatsuya Nakadai as Unosuke, Ushitora's younger brother who has returned from a long trip elsewhere — learns of his deception, they savagely beat and torture our ronin, who shows the effects of the pummeling, until he manages to escape and gets help from Gonji and the casket member to spend time in a faraway temple to heal for awhile. It makes him reminiscent in a way of Bruce Willis' John McClane in Die Hard who achieves the amazing when outnumbered, but shows the lumps for it. A piece in the Criterion booklet describes Unosuke's outfit as well as I possibly could. "Unosuke makes his screen entrance with a Springfield revolver stuck in the breast of his kimono and a red plaid scarf wrapped around his neck." Though Yojimbo was shot in black-and-white, his costume is so vivid you can almost tell that the scarf is red, much in the same way you saw the red in Bette Davis' dress in William Wyler's black-and-white Jezebel in 1938. That same article in the booklet recounts a reporter asking Kurosawa about the outfit's accuracy for its era, he replied, "Unosuke spent time in the international port town of Yokohama, so it's not all that unbelievable. Besides, a costume works when an audience looks at it and — wham! — something about the character sinks in. It's a mistake to get too caught up in whether it's historically accurate or not." The Criterion booklet also contains a 2002 conversation with Nakadai, who played Unosuke, and he shared how Kurosawa explained the relationship between his character and Mifune's and how heroes and villains should be portrayed generally. "'Mifune's Sanjuro and your Unosuke are like a stray dog and a snake' Kurosawa told me. 'Some films place the hero above the villain from the beginning, but that's just boring. If you're going to set two characters against each other they should be equal strength…No, the bad guy should be made to look even stronger,'" Nakadi retold. "Kurosawa flashed me a really cool smile when he said that." That always has been the case, no matter what type of genre. The film is only as good as its villain. Die Hard wouldn't be the classic it is without Alan Rickman's Hans Gruber (You have 60 seconds — without using any sort of reference material, name or describe the villain in Renny Harlin's godawful Die Hard 2. Thought so.) and you can go down the list of Bond films and the best ones inevitably have the greatest bad guys, which is why nearly everyone loves Goldfinger the most.
While Yojimbo has its share of action scenes, by today's ADD generation's standards, there aren't that many. This isn't Michael Bay explosion-filled building-crushing nonsense with a brain the size of a gnat (all the better to match the audience's attention span). More than an endless series of skirmishes, Yojimbo's greatness lies in its embrace of strategizing over mindless killing. When Mifune's ronin says, "I drink while I think" the strength of the line doesn't lie in its humor but in the fact that he thinks. That's something getting excised further and further from action films as filmmaking goes on. As recently as Die Hard in 1988, while it's a different breed of film than Yojimbo, it still slowed down long enough for McClane to contemplate what his next move should be against Hans and his gang. Twenty-two years later, we get crap such as Taken which should carry a warning label that logic and rationality will not be allowed during viewing of the film. What’s funny about that is that Mifune’s character, until the late arrival of Unosuke, truly exists as the only character in Yojimbo who uses his brain (unless you count the previous ronin that Seibei employed, Homma (Susumu Fujita), who gets offended that Seibei hires Sanjuro at such a higher rate and hightails it out of town before a planned face-off between the gangs). As Sesonske wrote, "Sanjuro is a supersamurai, a whirlwind in combat; the village gangs are so grotesquely wicked they become ludicrous and enlist neither our sympathy nor our belief. By the film's end, most are dead, but we feel no regret at the slaughter nor do we cringe at its execution. The exaggerated evil of the gangs leaves them no other appropriate fate, and theirs is achieved with such style and cinematic verve that we are exhilarated by the spectacle and not at all dismayed by its content." While you can't disagree with Sesonske's assessment that the two groups of villains that Sanjuro so skillfully plays off each other are absurd to the point of silliness at times, Kurosawa compensates by distinguishing so many of them. Seibei and Ushitora are quite distinct from one another. You won't confuse Ushitora's brother Inokichi with the giant Kannuki (Tsunagoro Rashomon), who resembles a Japanese Richard Kiel. They may be cartoons, but they aren't just blank slates biding time until termination.
We shouldn't neglect the cinematic magic that Akira Kurosawa's collaborators behind the camera brought to the film. Upon this viewing, what stood out more strongly than it ever had before was Masaru Satô's eclectic and multifaceted musical score. For every sequence and emotion, Satô composes themes that perfectly complement the action without overwhelming or undercutting them. From comical or suspenseful, to lush and portentous, it's as if Satô wrote scores for a dozen films yet they all fit. As I mentioned in the beginning, there's also the vivid black-and-white cinematography of Kazuo Miyagawa who, in a 1993 conversation also in the Criterion booklet, spoke of the difficulties he had with the pan focus that Kurosawa insisted upon for Yojimbo. "Everything had to be in perfect focus, whether it was right in front of you or at the very rear of the shot," the d.p. said. "So we decided to work in a spectrum of tones that would accentuate that would accentuate the contrast as much as possible and give objects a hard, metallic edge. We aimed at the kind of atmosphere you get at high noon, when shadows are at their most intense.…it was what we needed to match Yojimbo's hard-boiled subject matter."
In the end, Yojimbo offers as its greatest strength Mifune and Kurosawa, arguably the greatest actor-director team in film history with Mifune clearly relishing his role as the cleverest and bravest character in the film, and Kurosawa delivering many astounding shots and unique framing of scenes. Together, the vitality this duo brings to Yojimbo makes it play as fresh today as it must have 50 years ago.