A taciturn stranger walks down a dusty road and enters a seemingly deserted town with wind and dust blowing down the wide, empty street. Then a dog trots down the deserted street carrying a severed hand in its mouth while the stranger watches quizzically, which pretty much indicates what sort of a movie you’re in for: a tongue-in-cheek samurai/western black-comedy/drama.
Yojimbo is the second film directed by Akira Kurosawa that I have seen – the first was Hidden Fortress – and already I’m hooked, though admittedly I’ve been sampling his more lighthearted fare. I’m also becoming a fan of Toshiro Mifune. The man has presence, a wry sense of humor, incredible speed and ferocity when he needs it and is absolutely riveting as an actor.
The film opens with an unknown samurai (Toshiro Mifune) entering a rather ruined looking town set during the Edo period in Japan (1603-1868, but this is definitely more the 1860s). The town is rent by two rival gambling gangs with their two rival mayors. Seibei (Seizaburo Kawazu) runs the brothel and wants to pass on all his possessions to his son, but his wife seems to be the one who’s really in charge. Ushitora (Kyū Sazanka) used to be Seibei’s right hand man, but resents Seibei’s desire to pass everything on to his son and set up his own gang with his two brothers.
But the stranger, who says his name is Kuwabatake Sanjuro (which means thirty yews trees, though he says he’s closer to forty), decides that this is just the town for him to stop in a while and plans to eliminate both gangs. He sets out to do this through a variety of schemes, involving hiring himself out as a bodyguard to both sides at various points and setting them against each other so they will do all the killing for him.
Things get a little dicey, however, when Ushitora’s brother, Unosuke (Tatsuya Nakadai) returns to town with a new weapon: a gun.
Yojimbo seems to draw strongly on American westerns. But in westerns, usually the taciturn stranger coming into town wants to be left alone and has to be persuaded to interfere. Not Sanjuro! He comes in, is warned to leave by a good man, but cheerfully decides to stay. It seems to him that there are a lot of people in town the world would be better without. He’s less trying to save good people and more trying to rid the world of bad ones
And interestingly, we get to know almost none of the people who live in the town, other than the two gangs. Sanjuro is aided by a slightly cranky innkeeper who bemoans the bloodshed, but thinks Sanjuro is mad to stay, and occasionally by the coffin maker, who actually likes the bloodshed, since it brings in business. The only other inhabitant we get to see is the useless constable, who is only good for calling the hours and whose cackles brings Walter Brennan to mind.
Sanjuro does take time out reunite a woman (lost by her gambling husband to one of the mayors) with her husband and child…though he gets positively cranky about any acknowledgement or thanks. Basically, he comes, he stays, he does his work and he leaves. He doesn’t thank anyone, doesn’t accept thanks – he just does it.
And with great humor. He’s a nameless and master-less samurai who’s motivations are obscure. He has a twitchy right shoulder (according to the documentary on the Criterion edition, it’s because he’s supposed to have fleas), is always rubbing his beard or scratching himself. His arms are often resting inside his robe as he walks insouciantly along, only to pull them out and dart about at lightning speed to kill hapless victims. And he never loses his sense of humor. After being beaten up, he is smuggled out of town in a coffin by the innkeeper and coffin maker, only to ask for them to stop and set the coffin down so he can watch Ushitora’s gang decimate Seibei’s (he says dryly that it sounds amusing).
There are some delightful visual and dramatic moments, such as when he manipulates both sides into an unwilling showdown in the street (the music is a great asset during all of this). He climbs up a tower to sit and watch with a grin while both sides tentatively and gingerly approach each other, often jumping back just as far as they jump forward (unfortunately, this brilliant bit of stage-management by Sanjuro is interrupted by the arrival of a government official).
And the final showdown is quite memorable, like one of those high noon moments. He comes back to deal with Ushitora’s gang, especially Unosuke. He enters town with the wind blowing and the dust flying in his eyes and faces the thugs at the other end of the street (the film practically lives on this one central road), led by Unosuke with his gun, while he, a lone man, approaches confidently with his arms resting in his robe. A thrilling ending.
I’ve read a lot recently about the influence of Kurosawa on George Lucas. I definitely noticed it in The Hidden Fortress and noticed some slight touches in Yojimbo, like Kurosawa’s use of wipes and the scene where Sanjuro cuts off the arm of one thug, which lands on the ground in exactly the same way as the arm of the alien in A New Hope who tried to mess with Obi Wan.
Next up for me is Sanjuro, and then possibly something a little more dramatic, like Rashomon (because the library has it). I’d really like to try Throne of Blood (which Diary of a Movie Maniac recommended as a great Kurosawa film, along with this film), because it is inspired by “Macbeth,” but neither my library nor classicflix has it. 😦 I’ll probably have to buy it (oh, the horror!).
Update: I was in a Barnes and Noble today and some how found myself buying Throne of Blood. Not sure how that happened.