Let’s Talk About ‘Yojimbo’ (1961)

West Meets East

Widely regarded as one of the best films by Akira Kurosawa and possibly one of the best films ever made, Yojimbo tells the story of a nameless rōnin wandering the feudal Japanese countryside. Legends of samurai and cowboys go hand in hand. They are synonymous with each other. Which is why Kurosawa’s films have directly been remade into westerns themselves. His Seven Samurai (1954) became the 1960 star studded film The Magnificent Seven while Yojimbo became A Fistful of Dollars in 1964 starring Clint Eastwood and the slightly looser remake Django starring Franco Nero in 1966. The similarities between cowboys and samurai are extraordinary. Both are generally portrayed as rugged individualists who wander aimlessly, taking their skills to lawless places and fight for good against evil. They arrive at a village or town at the right time to stop a warlord or bandit chief from oppressing the peaceful villagers. And we love them for it.

It is easy to see both how Kurosawa was influenced by American westerns and how this film was an influence on countless others.

The Plot

Upon overhearing an elderly couple lamenting that their only son, doesn’t to waste his life as a farmer like his father before him and has run off to join the “gamblers” in the nearby town which has been overrun by two rival gangs. The rōnin wanders into the town where he is immediately told to leave by the owner of the local bar. The bar owner also explains to him how the warring gangs came to be. Using the information at hand the rōnin decides to use this to his advantage. Taking the name Kuwabatake Sanjuro, he convinces both the silk merchant and mayor Tazaemon and sake merchant and wannabe town mayor Tokuemon to hire him as their personal bodyguard. Tazaemon, had long been in gang boss Seibei’s pocket, while Ushitora, Seibie’s former right hand man, has aligned himself with Tokuemon. Sanjuro convinces Seibie to hire him by killing three members of Ushitora’s gang. Unfortunately he finds out that Seibie plans to double cross him and have him killed. Knowing that he has been double crossed, he resigns from helping the gang and decides to pit them against each other and take them all out for good.

It’s a simple story, but a highly effective one. While we may have seen this story played out in numerous films over the years, Yojimbo checks all the right boxes. The film draws you in and keeps you in the story better than most current day films. It’s truly amazing to see how the rōnin sets in motion a full-scale gang war between these two unscrupulous men.

The Tone

Yojimbo effortlessly combines comedy, satire and action to create a timeless folk tale of good versus evil. Cinematographer Kazuo Miyagawa, creates some very simple yet effective shots in the film. The camera is always set at right angles in the scene. They either look straight up and down the street, or straight into or out of the buildings. This may have been to put an emphasis on the simplicity of the local situation, or it may have been just the easiest way to film the movie at that time. Either way the viewer sees things the way the locals of the town do, they observe the main street as if it’s a stage watching the two rival armies fight it out. There is something so simplistically beautiful about it all. Something that many current films can’t seem to grasp with all their fast cuts and overly complicated camera angles. I believe that way of filming has it’s place, but it can be a little much at times. The image of the lone hero is brilliantly captured by Miyagawa, just look at this shot of Sanjuro from a distance and how it accentuates his isolation from all that is going on around him.

I’ve said it before and I’ll say it again, I’d love for the Disney+ Obi Wan show to incorporate aspects of this story into it’s first season. The Mandalorian is already doing a great job mixing in genres the same was as Kurosawa did with this film and I think it should carry on in their other series as well. Just imagine Ewan McGregor landing on Tatooine after the events of the Clone Wars and settling there cleaning towns up before he becomes a hermit.

What Yojimbo Means to Us

I’m a huge fan of Akira Kurosawa’s work. It’s hard to beat sitting down and taking in a sprawling epic like Ran or Seven Samurai. However, his quieter, toned down affairs will always have a special place in my heart. Yojimbo personifies this style for me. It might not have the massive scale and monumental battle scenes of the films previously mentioned, but it still contains lots of visual beauty, an engaging plot and an interesting character line up. Toshiro Mifune has appeared in numerous Kurosawa films but this might just be my favourite performance of his. At under two hours runtime it’s considerably shorter than most of my other favourite samurai movies, but that only means I rewatch it more often than the rest. The fact it went on to inspire A Fistful of Dollars, another personal favourite, only adds to its legacy. 

—Lee McCutcheon

What do you guys think about Yojimbo? Share your thoughts below!

Author: K. Alvarez

A king without a throne.