Yojimbo (1961) Movie Review

After reviewing Akira Kurosawa’s masterful “Seven Samurai” I thought I’d go back and review his other masterpieces. “Yojimbo” is similar to “Samurai” in many respects, but is also vastly different, in that there is only one main character here, the Yojimbo (or bodyguard, in English) of the title. Toshiro Mifune, who had a co-starring role in “Samurai” but has since graduated to star status, plays the lead. And like “Samurai,” “Yojimbo” has been copied many times by American filmmakers, but the story itself is not an original work. (The plot is an uncredited theft of an early American pulp novel called “Red Harvest” by crime writer Dashiell Hammett.)

The story revolves Sanjuro, a dirty and unkempt samurai who doesn’t look like much, but is hells on wheels with a sword. Sanjuro is one of many ronin running around the country, making a living off their swords. Ronin are masterless samurai, men who have the skills of the samurai (at the time, only the samurai were allowed to carry swords) but no longer had a lord, or master, to serve. Thus, no employment.

Without a master to serve, Sanjuro wanders from town to town looking for a way to feed himself. When he comes to a small town in the middle of nowhere controlled by two rival factions, he decides he likes the odds, and begins hiring himself as a “bodyguard” to both sides in hopes of earning money. It works, at least for a while until the rivals decide to kill each other, and Sanjuro ends up in the middle. When all is said and done, Sanjuro recovers from a hellish beating but in true heroic form, returns for some payback. He even squares off against a revolver-wielding punk and wins. Can you say, Clint Eastwood’s The Man With No Name?

The movie is one of Kurosawa’s best. “Yojimbo” has a quicker pace then “Samurai” and seems much more devoted to the art of samurai fighting. Despite being half of a samurai, Sanjuro’s ronin has his own code of conduct. True, he betrays the rivals he’s hired himself off to, but they’re men who doesn’t deserve his loyalty. In contemporary slang, the rivals would be gangsters, and they rule the town with an iron fist, taking and doing whatever they want. In this way, they’re bullies, and Sanjuro is only serving the town when he rids it off both families. Of course, that is not to excuse the fact that Sanjuro is not the most loyal person around.

Mifune comes off tough and vulnerable at the same time; he manages to walk the fine line between being a betrayer and the town’s savior. In contrast, the bad guys are just that — bad guys who are mostly evil and without redemption. There is even a commentary on the invasion of the West in Japanese society by having one of the gangsters carrying a pistol and using it against sword-wielding samurais. But instead of fearing the gun-wielding punk, Sanjuro looks down on him with disdain.

“Yojimbo” is an excellent movie, highly recommended for anyone who wants to know where Sergio Leone got all of his ideas. Then again, it would have been nice to know if a masterful filmmaker like Kurosawa had given credit where credit was due. As it stands, a lot of filmmakers owe Dashiell Hammett a hell of a lot of apologies.

Akira Kurosawa (director) / Akira Kurosawa (screenplay)
CAST: Toshiro Mifune

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