As the opening titles inform the audience, in 1860, after the collapse of the Tokugawa Dynasty, samurai were left alone to their own devices, making it commonplace to see them roaming the streets of towns and villages and their surrounding countryside in an effort to search out work. We meet our hero on one of these dusty, outlining roads—he has come to a fork and has no prospects in either direction to help inform his decision. He lazily tosses a stick in the air, allowing chance to decide which direction he takes. Fate, it appears, has chosen path leading to a town that seems deserted; our hero isn’t greeted by its inhabitants, just a feral mutt wandering the main street, with a severed human hand in its jowls. Finally, a citizen of the tiny, dying community runs out to great the visitor, telling him he can get the samurai a gig as a yojimbo—a bodyguard for one of the two warring factions that took up residence here; one plies his trade as a silk merchant and the other in the sake game. Both have sizeable armies at their disposal and the town is bookended by each gang’s headquarters; in between, doors and windows are shuttered, the townspeople cowering inside, sometimes building up their daring enough to peak through the slats and glimpse the outside world. The samurai remains nonplussed at the stranger’s offer, he listens but is barely able to contain his indifference; right now his focus is on acquiring something to eat accompanied with a generous portion of sake to wash it all down.
This is the opening of legendary director Akira Kurosawa’s Yojimbo, a classic that would serve as the master’s most popular movie in his homeland of Japan. Kurosawa had always taken his lumps from the Japanese critics; they tended to think that his output was too “Western” in tone, a motif that the director fully embraces here. Gone are the typical traits associated with the Japanese samurai film, bloody battles and ironic humor take precedent, moving the traditional aspects of historical context and the examination of the country’s morals to the backburner. Less attention is paid to the costumes and more to the soundtrack, which features music more akin to Jazz, a unique American touch that further distances the film from its predecessors. It has also been noted that Kurosawa’s inspiration for the film was the American crime novel, Red Harvest, by Dashiell Hammett, a popular writer of pulp-crime novels, this time helping to give the film its distinctive tone and rich characters. While it would embrace countless Hollywood films in terms of style and beats, the main situation differs sharply from one major convention: there are no “good guys,” at least in the traditional sense. Almost no one in the town is worth saving.
Even our hero turns the audience’s expectations on their heads. Portrayed by Toshiro Mifune (a legendary badass and one of my top 5 favorite actors of all time) the wondering samurai is aloof with an attitude that sometimes borders on cold-bloodedness, a character that remains a mystery throughout. When he is asked for his name, he looks out the window, sees a mulberry field, and gives the name of Kuwabatake Sanjuro, which carries the meaning of “30-year old mulberry field.” Either he has no name or this is his way of playing every card as close to his vest as possible. Sanjuro creates a strategy in which both sides desire his services to use against the other. He plays his hand well, creating interest all the while keeping his motives as obscure as possible. Money, the audience finds out, appears to be his main desire and Sanjuro finds that the best way to acquire a vast sum quickly is to offer his services as a yojimbo to one of the warring factions and then the other, escalating the war between them in a rapid fashion, all the while never really performing any bodyguard-style functions. At one point in the film, he rankles both gangs so that they fill the streets, slowly walking toward each other, an epic donnybrook surely about to break out. Our wandering samurai is caught between them grinning, then notices a water tower behind him, and quickly scurries to the top platform for a bird’s eye view of the damage that is about to erupt and color the once dusty-brown streets red. He has gone from unemployed Rōnin to a God-like character, sitting high above the townsfolk, looking on, amused, as he makes them dance like puppets attached to invisible strings that only he can manipulate.
Sanjuro can be so callous that when he goes out of his way to do something good, it comes as a shock to the audience. These moments are peppered throughout the film’s runtime as Sanjuro makes friends with the local barman—who is neutral in the fracas going on around him—and puts his own life on the line in an effort to save an innocent couple and their young son from the clutches of the head of one family. In this way Sanjuro fits into the theory of “Badass Juxtaposition,” originated by Vern, an Internet writer and scholar of all things considered manly in the history of cinema. In basic terms, the theory states that any regular badass who has something in his life or comes across something during the runtime of a film that results in a tender streak, at a minimum, is at least twice as badass because of it. For example, Leon’s plant in The Professional or how Clint Eastwood’s characters will play jazz piano every once in a while. The wandering samurai’s streak commences when the mother of the aforementioned family is forbidden from interaction with her husband and son, making it clear that Sanjuro’s tender streak is brought to the surface by mother and son kept apart against their will. From that point on, more is on the line for Sanjuro, the coin in his pocket isn’t enough to sate his conscious.
But not to worry, sap isn’t in Yojimbo’s DNA. Sanjuro’s words from earlier stand true, he will get paid handsomely for killing, and yes, most dwelling in the town would be better off underground. Helping his cause is his sword, which is lighting quick, allowing him to cut down multiple opponents at a time. All the killing that Sanjuro’s involved in serves to highlight the film’s dark sense of humor as well. Early on when the samurai is called on to display his abilities, he strolls over to where 3 adversaries stand, disposes of 2 outright, and leaves the third minus an arm all without a bead of sweat popping out on his brow, walks back to the town coffin-maker and orders 2 coffins. As he starts to walk away, he pauses, looks back on the carnage he has wrought, looks back over and says, “Better make it 3,” as he continues to saunter down the road. His character is far from a clown, but his prankishness makes us laugh and helps win our approval of the character.
The impact of Yojimbo can’t be understated. When Sergio Leone’s remake, A Fistful of Dollars, was released, it became a huge hit, transforming Clint Eastwood—at the time a TV actor and bit player—into a household name. While Leone’s version is awesome in its own right, it’s hard to remember a debut for a major cinematic voice that was so indebted to the original version; Fistful* is a shot-for-shot remake that scarcely changes a frame of the original, boarding on plagiarism. The success of that film brought Yojimbo to our shores and made it an art house hit whose influence would be far reaching in several different mediums. Even John Belushi lampooned the character a decade later on Saturday Night Live, pulling his arms inside his tunic while yelling gibberish and scratching himself in a ferocious manner. In Yojimbo, there is no doubt that Mifune found his signature character, one that would have a worldwide impact on cinema and pop culture, and become a prerequisite for any viewer looking to become versed in the cinema of badassery.
*Once again, just to be clear, it’s also awesome.