Yojimbo is a fine example of a samurai/western movie by the incomparable Akira Kurosawa. That is, it is a samurai film done in a way similar to American Westerns. The storyline concerns a rogue samurai who happens upon a crummy little town and plays two gangs of criminals off against each other. The story was co-opted for A Fistful of Dollars, Last Man Standing and Omega Doom.

Japanese word for bodyguard. By the way, the Akira Kurosawa film is based on a Dashiell Hammett novel called Red Harvest, so he was rather amused when Yojimbo was remade into English-language films.

This is one of a series of notes for A Chronological Biography of Akira Kurosawa.

Yojimbo tells the story of a ronin, Sanjuro, who comes across a little town that is terrorized by two warring gangs who inhabit the hamlet. The two opposing forces are constantly at war because both sides are too afraid to kill the other off. Sanjuro sees that the town is completely ravaged. Although they are afraid of each other, the gangs have no qualms in regard to abusing the residents of the town. Sanjuro's plan; bring peace to the town by killing off the gangs entirely.

Sanjuro shows the gang members his prowess with the sword by lopping off an arm or two, and then offers himself as a bodyguard to the highest bidder. Playing the two gangs against each other, Sanjuro forces the issue of a showdown, and this almost happens until a wild card is thrown into the game. One of the gang leaders' son returns from a long journey. He is wise, cunning, and he has a gun.

To accomplish what he has set out to do, Sanjuro has to go even further into the role of the bodyguard. Walking a razor's edge he becomes very deceitful, and in rescuing a woman held against her will by a gang boss, his motives are exposed. Sanjuro is severly beaten but escapes. While recuperating, he discovers the kind old man whom he trusted throughout the film is being beaten to give Sanjuro's whereabouts. Sanjuro returns to the town to finish off the rest of the gang members and rescue the old man.

This sequence is truly amazing. Toshiro Mifune, playing Sanjuro, performs the most extraordinary sequence of kenjutsu (sword arts) on film. I have not seen the movie in some time but as I remember it, he "kills" twelve opponents in 17 seconds. If the film is run at 1/4 speed and one examines the sequence, each cut (kiri) and transitions all make classical sense.

Upon seeing the last villain die, Sanjuro says: "Now this town can have some peace and quiet." And he walks aimlessly into the distance.

This film was so popular that it was remade into Sergio Leone's, "A Fistfull of Dollars" in 1966, the spaghetti western that was Clint Eastwood's star vehicle. And recently, Yojimbo has been remade by an American production company into, Last Man Standing, with Bruce Willis.

Title: Yojimbo (The Bodyguard)
Original Title in Japanese: Yojimbo
Running Time: 110 min
Year: 1961
Company: Kurosawa Productions - Toho
Writer(s): Ryuzo Kikushima, Akira Kurosawa
Director of Photography: Kazuo Miyagawa
Production Designer: Yoshiro Muraki
Music: Masaru Sato

Toshiro Mifune (Sanjuro Kuwabatake), Tatsuya Nakagai (Unosuke), Eijiro Tohno (Gon-jii)

The cantina scene in Star Wars was borrowed from a scene in Yojimbo in which the ronin Sanjuro confronts members of one of the gangs. Take a look at the following scene from Yojimbo, as described by Donald Richie in the 1965 edition of The Films of Akira Kurosawa.
Mifune: What sweet faces.
Men: ?
Mifune: When you’re angry, you look even nicer.
Man: Look here. See this tattoo? I wasn’t in prison for nothing.
Another: The law’s after me. I’ll hang if they catch me.
Another: Me too, me too! They’ll cut off my head!
Another: There’s nothing bad I haven’t done.
Mifune: No objections to fighting then?
Man: You just try and kill me!
Mifune: It’ll hurt a little.
Man: Bad men like us can’t be cowards.
Mifune: (Sighing.) Then it cannot be helped.
Snick-snack, -the sword is out, an arm lies on the ground, one of the men lies doubled, cleft from chin to groin, and Mifune is with quiet dignity replacing his sword in its sheath.
Now compare it with this scene from George Lucas’s script for Star Wars Episode IV:
HUMAN: He doesn't like you.
LUKE: I'm sorry.
HUMAN: I don't like you either


HUMAN: (continued) Don't insult us. You just watch yourself. We're wanted men. I have the death sentence in twelve systems.
LUKE: I'll be careful then.
HUMAN: You'll be dead.


BEN: This little one isn't worth the effort. Come let me buy you something...
A powerful blow from the unpleasant creature sends the young would-be Jedi sailing across the room, crashing through tables and breaking a large jug filled with a foul-looking liquid. With a blood curdling shriek, the monster draws a wicked chrome laser pistol from his belt and levels it at old Ben. The bartender panics.
BARTENDER: No blasters! No blaster!
With astounding agility old Ben's laser sword sparks to life and in a flash an arm lies on the floor. The rodent is cut in two and the giant multiple-eyed creature lies doubled, cut from chin to groin. Ben carefully and precisely turns off his laser sword and replaces it on his utility belt...
Notice the similarity between the wording of Lucas’s description of the aftermath of the cantina scuffle and Richie’s description of the scene in Yojimbo. The first edition of Richie’s book came out in 1965, and perhaps Lucas read it in a film class. This is, of course, not the only similarity between Star Wars and Kurosawa’s films, but after hearing so much about the similarities to Three Bad Men in a Hidden Fortress, I thought I’d point this one out in case some fans have overlooked it. Lucas himself has credited Kurosawa as one of his major influences, so this shouldn’t come as much of a surprise to anyone.

While Yojimbo is a kick-ass Western, it also deals with the conflicts of a society that is being heavily influenced by outside forces, specifically that of the United States.

An opening card in the movie tells us that the year is 1860 and the Tokugawa regime has come to an end. This was the time period that the American Commodore Perry came to Japan and forced them to begin trading with the West. Everything points to the people and the town in Yojimbo as being tainted by capitalism and Western influences.

Traditionally, Japanese villages were agriculturally based, but the main products of the Yojimbo town are silk and sake, two items that need to be manufactured in some form. In the beginning as Sanjuro is traveling, he comes across a son telling his father that he wants to go to the city in order to make money instead of staying home and running the farm. Later on, Sanjuro spares the life of the boy and tells him to return to his family. Even the two rival gangs can be looked at as business conglomerates. Although they are composed of family members, they recruit outside mercenaries for help and are willing to destroy the idea of traditional family. This is especially apparent in the hostage exchange scene where a son is returned and his mother hits him and vilifies him for his cowardice and the poor position his capture had put their side in. The idea of warring clans, which would otherwise have great validity in traditional ideals, is undercut here because of the strictly economic basis of the struggle. This biggest Western taint of them all appears when it is revealed that Unosuke has managed to get a handgun, the modern replacement for the traditional sword.

The man that ends all of this and cleans up the town is a samurai, a link to Japan’s past whose power is already fading. In the end, he declares, “Now this town can have some peace and quiet” and walks off, however we the viewer know that the West will continue to creep in.

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