Akira Kurosawa has never denied the fact that he was heavily influenced by the western genre, citing John Ford, amongst others, as something of an idol. It’s fitting then that at least two of the Japanese director’s most prominent works, this and Seven Samurai, would go on to be remade, unofficially yet almost shot-for-shot in Yojimbo’s case, as two of the definitive classics of the western genre. Though I’ve seen Seven Samurai once before, and The Magnificent Seven and Sergio Leone’s Dollars trilogy a fistful of times each, this was my first viewing of Kurosawa’s classic. Yojimbo sees a lone, nameless samurai wander into a town divided by two warring gangs. Seeing an opportunity to rectify the situation, and possibly pocket a little something along the way, the ronin stays in town and pits the two rival factions against one another.
The solitary sword swinger is Toshiro Mifune, with whom Kurosawa had a similar relationship as Ford did with John Wayne, working together on 16 pictures in total. Upon his arrival into the one-road town, the samurai – who later calls himself Kuwabatake Sanjiro (meaning Mulberry Thirty), though he freely admits this is a sudonym – hires himself out to both gang lords. Neither the henpecked, frustrated Seibei nor his foe and former right hand man Ushi-tora outright trust this professional blade-for-hire, yet his opponent accepting the fighter’s offer would guarantee their victory. When everything seems to be going according to Sanjiro’s plans, with the two tribes threatening to wipe one another out, complications arise with the arrival of Ushi-tora’s brother Unosuke, brandishing a pistol.
The gun clearly poses quite a threat to our heroic samurai, as now the skill has been removed from the kill. Previously, Sanjiro had no great challenge within the town – other than maybe the lumbering giant with the comically oversized mallet – but now Unosuke, despite his arrogance, ridiculous posturing and insistence on carrying the gun inside his kimono - looking like he’s wearing a sling and hiding a pot belly - has taken the upper hand. No longer is the killer simply the smarter, faster, more skilled competitor; now it is the man with his finger on the trigger.
Throughout the film, Sanjiro’s motives are never clarified. Is he out for payment? Justice? Peace? Or is he simply seeking entertainment, something he clearly achieves as the two clans fight for his allegiance and to pay for his sake. His allegiance changes as often as the direction of the wind, and one of the most memorable scenes occurs as Sanjiro opts out of a confrontation he himself instigated, yet had no intention of taking part in. Instead, he heads atop a vantage point to watch as the two gangs reluctantly face off against one another, faux-lunging and backing away until only a few feet apart. Were it not for the arrival of a town inspector checking up on them, it’s likely this stalemate could have lasted forever.
Inspired by two of Dashiell Hammett’s film noirs, Red Harvest and The Glass Key, the film has a far greater comedic tone than I was expecting. Be it the odd-couple relationship between the tavern keeper and the persistently noisy coffin maker next door (the only townsperson making a profit from the constant fighting), the boorish stupidity of Ushi-tora’s other brother Inokichi as he struggles to work out that four dead enemies is better than two dead allies, or the belittling wife of his rival, there is much here to gain amusement from. Even serious moments, such as Sanjiro overhearing a plot to double cross and murder him, are juxtaposed by the man waggling both tongue and eyebrow at the young harem girls eavesdropping with him.
The film’s western influence isn’t merely seen in its lone ‘gun’-man story. From wide shots with a character stood alone in the distance, to high noon showdowns with gangs positioned at either end of a one-road town, it seems every shot, character and plot point is a loving homage to the director’s favourite genre. The wind even rustles leaves around in place of rolling tumbleweeds. Exposition is handled swiftly and elegantly via the tavern keeper who takes the samurai in and feeds him, regardless of his lack of funds. Sliding screen panels transform what would otherwise be a static, uneventful dialogue scene into an almost comic-book like affair, with each window shifting aside to reveal the disparate groups at either end of the town. The sliding panel is a recurring theme throughout the film, with many shots taking place inside buildings looking out, and later using the more traditional screen-wipe edit.
If I had to pick some minor flaws with the film, I’d mention that the all-too-brief combat scenes don’t quite live up to their pulse-quickening build ups, and that some of the more minor characters come off as little more than caricatures, instead of fully rounded individuals, but this is nit-picking more than anything else. I’d also heard that there were some intense and gory bursts of violence, and although there are certainly small explosions of slice’n’dice fury, fortunately they weren’t as gruesome as I was led to believe – and of course my expectations are no fault of the film’s.
For the most part the acting is stellar, particularly from Mifune, who plays the wandering samurai with a confident swagger, a sly smirk and an imposing stance. Every inch the typical lone ‘gunslinger’, Mifune is incomparable as the professional killer, his only master the fate that led him to the village; via the direction a falling stick pointed towards. Like a coiled spring, he is able to dish out far more than you might expect, and though it is clearly signposted by the rousing score and natural progression of the scenes, his swordsmanship often comes as much of a shock to us as those on the more uncomfortable end of his blade. Upon first entering the town, the man is greeted by a small dog scampering past, clutching a severed human hand in its mouth. At a sight like this, any other man would have had the sense to turn tail and flee, but Sanjiro – with a look of hilarious incredulity creeping across his face – nonetheless ventures on, possibly in search of the one-armed man this appendage-gnawing mutt has left behind.
The final showdown – because it’s a western, so there has to be a final showdown – has a setup shot of such simple elegance it’d be beautiful, were it not for the haggard, near-dead old man trussed up and dangling at the front of the frame. The ability to pan the camera around the decrepit victim, always keeping him in frame whilst progressing the scene, is a masterful stroke, assisted by Mifune’s Sanjiro stalking ever-closer towards the finale – a ten against one fight to the death – as a tornado of dust swirls up around him. What follows, alas, fails to match that establishing shot for artistry and effect, and also features an almost ridiculously drawn out death, but is nonetheless riveting and satisfying.
Whilst it’s not quite as good as Kurosawa’s other great remade eastern-western, Seven Samurai, Yojimbo is at least shorter, making it the perfect choice for a samurai fix if you’ve got two hours rather than three and a half.
Choose film 8/10