An outlaw wanders through a desolate area and enters a town divided by a gang war. He walks slowly and gracefully, ignoring the world around him, even in the midst of a fight. You can almost see the tumbleweed and hear Morricone‘s music in the background. But what you see in front of you is a rōnin, a samurai without a master. Made by Akira Kurosawa, Yojimbo or “Bodyguard” is a 1961 samurai film, which was unofficially remade by Sergio Leone as A Fistful of Dollars (1964). That, of course, led to a lawsuit but also acquainted the world with the magnificence of the Japanese cinema.
The story is the same, often copied by Leone scene for scene. A samurai wanders around an abandoned dirt road. He stops to get a drink at a farm and overhears a dialogue about a nearby town with an ongoing gang dispute. It is not long before our rōnin enters a town where two main clans are led by Ushitora and Seibei. We see a dog carrying a rotten dead man’s hand. When asked about his name, our hero sees a mulberry field and states that he is called Kuwabatake Sanjuro, literally “Mulberry-Field Thirty-Years-Old”. His name is not important, similar to (anti-)hero that Clint Eastwood played, often known as Man With No Name. He first persuades the weaker Seibei to hire him as a swordsman by killing three men of the opposite clan. After a series of double-crossing, you can see Sanjuro watching the two clans fight from above. Kurosawa’s cinema is a heroic cinema, portraying the vanishing ideal of a noble hero. Sanjuro soon decides that neither side is good enough to fight for, so he plays them both off against the other.
Hansuke: What happened? Why so glum? Your business should be booming.
The Cooper: No. When the fighting gets this bad, they don’t bother with coffins.
Played by one and only Toshiro Mifune, who rages like an animal when needed and sometimes sways slowly like a mulberry field, Sanjuro is one of the first examples in the cinema of a nameless hero. Only his actions are important, and every man has his own version of the story, similar to the fight of different clans, claiming to have greater rights than the other side. movement of a dog or wolf trying to get off fleas. Kurosawa, like Billy Wilder, emphasized the importance of a good story and had a rotating group of five screenwriters who would often work at a hot-springs resort. It’s no wonder that Yojimbo‘s story spawned remakes and adaptations, like Django (1966) or the mentioned unofficial remake A Fistful of Dollars (1964). Kurosawa stated that Leone made “a fine movie, but it was my movie”.
Sanjuro: I’m not dying yet. I have to kill quite a few men first.
Of course, a great story has to go hand-in-hand with a great soundtrack. Kurosawa considered music as a counterpoint to what was shown on the screen. But the sound itself is important as well. The sound engineer, after a lot of research, found out that the perfect sample for the sound of the sword cutting through something or someone was putting two chopsticks inside a raw chicken and then hacking it with a sword. Starting with Seven Samurai (1954), Kurosawa started using multiple cameras and long lenses, taping his characters from distance, which allowed them to act more naturally. The movement is the key point here. You can tell a story with movement, either by using different lenses or by different cuts. He’s often known to use axial cuts, where a scene is split into multiple jump cuts, without camera movements acting as an uninterrupted shot. For example, Sanjuro is caught, beaten, and locked, we see a closeup of his face, and then we cut to an open padlock where Sanjuro hides. One other example is when Sanjuro chooses his name and the camera cuts to a nearby mulberry field. Kurosawa had other tricks up his sleeve as well. In one scene, we see the samurai’s skill who impales a blowing leaf against a wooden floor, which was accomplished by running the shot backwards.
Kurosawa both directed and edited most of his films, working bit by bit every day, which allowed them for a very brief post-production period. For example, the shooting for Yojimbo concluded on April 16, 1961, and the film had its premiere in Japan on April 20. The most frequent observation about Yojimbo is that we see a parody of the American Western, like the classical example of Zinnemann‘s High Noon. But Kurosawa preserved a touch of comedy as well throughout the film, and he ends the film with almost a mythological fight. This is a film in which the hero kills dozens of people with his sword in an epic fight full of dust and intrigue. But this is also a story in which he is hiding and ends up being carried in a coffin. Who would better show the clash between a hero and an anti-hero than Akira Kurosawa? In the end, death is everywhere, but it doesn’t matter. Like Orin, Seibei’s wife, had mentioned:
Kill one or a hundred. You only hang once.
Barr, Alan (1975). Exquisite Comedy and the Dimensions of Heroism: Akira Kurosawa’s “Yojimbo”. The Massachusetts Review 16(1):158-168
Feld, Rob (2006). Darren Aronofsky: Sword of Doom. Directors Guild of America.
Galbraith, Stuart, IV (2002). The Emperor and the Wolf: The Lives and Films of Akira Kurosawa and Toshiro Mifune. Faber and Faber.
Richie, Donald (1999). The Films of Akira Kurosawa. University of California Press.
Prince, Stephen (1999). The Warrior’s Camera: The Cinema of Akira Kurosawa. Princeton University Press.
Very good review! Yojimbo wasn’t my favorite movie from Akira Kurosawa, but it was still good. Shame on Hollywood for plagiarizing this movie. Sometimes I swear Japan must be the main place where Hollywood steals stuff from like Seven Samurai, Nadia: Secret of Blue Water, Paprika, and Kimba the White Lion to name a few.
Thanks! 🙂 My favorite Kurosawa is actually Ikiru: https://ihatedblackandwhitemovies.com/2020/07/26/what-have-i-been-living-for-all-these-years-ikiru-1952/
I was watching Kaurismäki the other day and I noticed Ozu’s dialogue framing/tatami shots. Of course, turns out that Kaurismäki’s one and only role model was Ozu. Western cinema owes a lot to Japan.
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Awesome! I’ll check that review out. Ikiru is certainly a top-tier work.
No way! I do want to check out Ozu’s work, but I do know about his cinematography style. One director I like Abbas Kiarostami was also influenced by him and even made an anthology that is an homage to his works. I definitely agree. I just wish that more directors would give credit and not steal things.