Full Disclosure: I don’t usually watch movies for the actors that are in them. While my opinion on whether a film is going to be good or not may be swayed depending on who is playing which character, I’ve usually decided by that point whether I want to see the movie based on other things, like plot, director, etc. There is one exception to this: Toshiro Mifune. I would watch the worst film ever made if it had Mifune in it, because even a subpar performance from him is brilliant. The man simply embodies charisma. Anytime he’s onscreen, you can bet it’s going to be enthralling.
Yojimbo is one of many films that show him at the top of his game, and is representative of the creative symbiosis he has with Akira Kurosawa. I don’t think there is a better film, short of Seven Samurai, which could serve as a better example of how well these two worked together. It is simply extraordinary.
Yojimbo is such an influential film that the first time it was adapted for Western audiences, Sergio Leone didn’t even bother to get the rights. What’s most fitting is that while Leone adapted Yojimbo into the Western A Fistful of Dollars, Akira Kurosawa used the American Westerns of John Ford to craft his vision for Yojimbo. The town is a dusty frontier village, with a street long enough for a showdown. The bad guys are gamblers and thieves, and the townsfolk are cowardly and in need of a savior. There’s also the noble man who helps the samurai accomplish his mission, even though he may not always understand what that mission is. Although it’s a foreign film, Yojimbo should be very familiar to any audience that has seen High Noon or Stagecoach and whatever language barrier is there is easily made up for by the instantly recognizable images that Kurosawa uses to tell his story. Thus, in a very interesting way, the Western is one of the most multicultural genres in film.
Despite all I’ve said about the cross-cultural appeal of the film, Yojimbo is not entirely a Hollywood movie either, at least not in the way American movies were made back when this film was released. Some of the humor in the movie is decidedly dark, such as when a dog is seen running through the street with a severed human hand in his mouth, or when the samurai sits on a perch giggling to himself as the two gangs prepare to annihilate each other. On a similar note, the film is also quite violent for its time, acting as an example, along with the films of Arthur Penn and Sam Peckinpah, of the burgeoning push for more graphic and realistic scenes in movies. While these themes may not shock modern viewers as much as they did back in 1962, it’s worth noting these aspects to give Yojimbo a greater historical context to show it’s footprint on the world film industry.
The film is a very loose adaptation of Dashiell Hammett’s hard-boiled crime novel Red Harvest. Kurosawa transposes the story to 19th century Japan and follows a nameless wandering samurai who finds himself in a town being torn apart by two warring crime syndicates. After surveying the situation, he decides to use his cunning, as well as his skill with a katana, to fix the situation. Here again, Kurosawa’s adept storytelling reveals the cross cultural, and indeed, cross genre potential that many stories possess. The story follows a logical progression, and while there are plot twists that occur, they aren’t extreme enough that they affect the interpretation of previous events and for the most part the viewer understands what is going on while it is happening. As simple as it may seem to transfer a story from one context to another, it truly speaks to the talent of Kurosawa, and to the integrity of the story, that it was able to be transferred in such a way that none of its effect or complexity was lost. Turning an American crime novel into a samurai film must have taken quite a lot of finesse to reshape the nature of the location and the interactions between the characters to make them appropriate for the film that Kurosawa wanted to make. And the fruits of his labor are apparent, especially when seen in the performance of Mifune.
The samurai himself is an interesting character. He isn’t brash or hot headed, but behind his seemingly nonchalant and calculating demeanor we see glimpses of anger and egotism. Take for instance one scene where he expresses hatred towards a weak farmer whose wife has been kidnapped into prostitution. This is a bit shocking coming from a hero character. However, this side of the samurai is juxtaposed with a sort of begrudging compassion, and so we begin to see the deeper layers that perhaps drive him to act as he does. In fact, on one level the whole film becomes a character study. We see quite a breadth of human density behind the steely façade of the samurai, so that by the end of the film we feel as if we’ve come to know him. This is the power of Mifune: with his grizzly scowl and intense glare, he conveys the truth of the character, rather than letting the attitude of his performance overwhelm the person that he is embodying.
Even still, at heart, Yojimbo is an action comedy in the vein of later films such as Lethal Weapon. The crime syndicate leaders are either buffoons or traitorous bullies, essentially the type of people that everyone hates. There is also the one exceptional villain, a gun wielding psychopath who proves to be the samurai’s nemesis. It’s easy to root against these guys.
The purpose of the movie is not moral complexity, but to show that immorality causes its own demise. As I said, our hero in this film is very calm and collected, only occasionally lashing out with violence when the situation deems it necessary. What really causes the villains’ undoing is his manipulation of their own greed and envy. It’s a simple theme, one that has been done before and since, but also one I doubt has been used in such a thrilling and fulfilling way as Kurosawa has with Yojimbo.