Yojimbo is a 1961 Japanese samurai film directed by Akira Kurosawa. It tells the story of a rōnin, portrayed by Toshiro Mifune, who arrives in a small town where competing crime lords vie for supremacy. The two bosses each try to hire the newcomer as a bodyguard.
Based on the success of Yojimbo, Kurosawas next film, Sanjuro 1962, was altered to incorporate the lead character of this film. In both films, the character wears a rather dilapidated dark kimono bearing the same family mon.
In 1860, during the final years of the Edo period and the demise of the Tokugawa shogunate, a rōnin wanders through a desolate Japanese countryside. While stopping at a farmhouse, he overhears an elderly couple lamenting that their only son has given up farm labouring in order to run off and join the rogues who have descended on a nearby town that has become divided by a gang war. The stranger heads to the town where he meets Gonji, the owner of a small izakaya who advises him to leave. He tells the rōnin that the two warring clans are led by Ushitora and Seibei; Ushitora was the right-hand man of Seibei but rebelled when Seibei decided to hand over the reins to his son Yoichiro, a useless youth. The towns mayor and its silk merchant, Tazaemon, had long been in Seibeis pocket, and Ushitora aligned himself with the sake brewer, Tokuemon, proclaiming him the new mayor. After sizing up the situation, the stranger says he intends to stay, as the town would be better off with both sides dead.
He first convinces the weaker Seibei to hire him as a swordsman by effortlessly killing three of Ushitoras men. When asked his name, he sees a mulberry field and states his name is Kuwabatake Sanjuro 桑畑三十郎, where 桑畑 Kuwabatake = "mulberry field" and where 三十郎 Sanjuro "thirty-years-old".
Seibei decides that with the ronins swordsmanship, the time is right to fight Ushitora. However, Sanjuro eavesdrops on Seibeis wife, who orders her son to kill him after the upcoming raid so that they will not have to pay his large fee. Sanjuro leads the attack on the other faction, but then "resigns", leaving Seibei to his fate. Before the two sides clash, the unexpected arrival of a bugyō an Edo-period government official forces both sides to make a bloodless retreat.
Eventually the bugyō is called away because a government official has been murdered in another town. Sanjuro soon learns two assassins hired by Ushitora committed the murder to get the official to leave. With this knowledge, Sanjuro captures the pair of killers and sells them to Seibei, but then tells Ushitora that it was Seibeis men who caught them. An alarmed Ushitora rewards him for his help. Ushitora then orders the kidnapping of Seibeis son, whom he offers in exchange for the two prisoners. However, Ushitora double crosses Seibei at the swap when his brother, Unosuke, shoots the assassins with a pistol; anticipating a betrayal, Seibei kidnaps Ushitora’s mistress. The next morning, she is exchanged for Seibeis son.
Sanjuro learns that the woman, Nui, is the wife of a local farmer who lost her to Ushitora over a gambling debt, who then gave her away as chattel to Tokuemon in order to gain his support. Sanjuro tricks Ushitora into revealing the place where Nui is hidden, then kills the guards and reunites the woman with her husband and son and tells them to leave town immediately. Pretending to be on Ushitoras side, Sanjuro is able to convince Ushitora that the woman was kidnapped by Seibeis men. The gang war escalates. Ushitora burns down Tazaemons silk warehouse, and Seibei retaliates by trashing Tokuemons brewery. After some time, Unosuke becomes suspicious of Sanjuro and the circumstances surrounding Nuis escape. Eventually Sanjuro is severely beaten and imprisoned by Ushitoras thugs after Unosuke discovers evidence of his double cross.
Sanjuro manages to escape when Ushitora decides to eliminate Seibei once and for all. As he is being smuggled out of town in a coffin by Gonji, he witnesses the brutal end of Seibei, his family and his clan. Sanjuro recuperates in a small temple near a cemetery. However, when he learns that Gonji has been taken by Ushitora, he returns to town. Sanjuro kills Ushitora, his men, and Unosuke. He spares only one terrified young man he encountered on his way into town. As Sanjuro surveys the damage, Tazaemon comes out of his home, in a samurai outfit and beating a prayer drum. Tazaemon circles around town and then goes after and kills Tokuemon. Sanjuro frees Gonji and then departs.
2.1. Production Writing
Kurosawa stated that a major source for the plot was the 1942 film noir classic The Glass Key, an adaptation of Dashiell Hammetts 1931 novel The Glass Key. It has been noted that the overall plot of Yojimbo is closer to that of another Hammett novel, Red Harvest 1929. Kurosawa scholar David Desser, and film critic Manny Farber claim that Red Harvest was the inspiration for the film; however, Donald Richie and other scholars believe the similarities are coincidental.
When asked his name, the samurai calls himself "Kuwabatake Sanjuro", which he seems to make up while looking at a mulberry field by the town. Thus, the character can be viewed as an early example of the "Man with No Name" other examples of which appear in a number of earlier novels, including Dashiell Hammetts Red Harvest.
2.2. Production Filming
After Kurosawa scolded Mifune for arriving late to the set one morning, Mifune made it a point to be ready on set at 6:00 AM every day in full makeup and costume for the rest of the films shooting schedule.
This was the second film where director Akira Kurosawa worked with cinematographer Kazuo Miyagawa. The sword instruction and choreography for the film were done by Yoshio Sugino of the Tenshin Shōden Katori Shintō-ryū and Ryū Kuze.
2.3. Production Music
The soundtrack for the film has received positive reviews. Michael Wood writing for the London Review of Books found the films soundtrack by Masaru Sato as effective in its jaunty and jangling approach stating:
The film is full of music, for instance, a loud, witty soundtrack by Masaru Sato, who said his main influence was Henry Mancini. It doesn’t sound like Breakfast at Tiffany’s, though, or Days of Wine and Roses. The blaring Latin sound of Touch of Evil comes closer, but actually you wouldn’t think of Mancini if you hadn’t been told. Sato’s effect has lots of drums, mixes traditional Japanese flutes and other instruments with American big band noises, and feels jaunty and jangling throughout, discreetly off, as if half the band was playing in the wrong key. It’s distracting at first, then you realise it’s not decoration, it’s commentary. It’s a companion to Sanjuro, the sound of his mind, discordant and undefeated and unserious, even when he’s grubby and silent and apparently solemn.
Yojimbo was released in Japan on 25 April 1961. The film was released by Seneca International in both a subtitled and dubbed format in the United States in September 1961.
Yojimbo ranked at #95 in Empire magazines list of the 500 Greatest Films of All Time. A 1968 screening in the planned community of Columbia, Maryland was considered too violent for viewers, causing the hosts to hide in the bathroom to avoid the audience. The film was nominated for the Academy Award for Best Costume Design at the 34th Academy Awards. Toshiro Mifune won the Volpi Cup for Best Actor at the 22nd Venice Film Festival.
Michael Wood writing for the London Review of Books found the film to span several genres and compared it to films such as Seven Samurai, A Fistful of Dollars, High Noon, The Outlaw Josey Wales, and Rashomon stating, "The film contains comedy, satire, folk tale, action movie, Western, samurai film, and something like a musical without songs. As everyone says, this work is not as deep as Rashomon or as immediately memorable as Seven Samurai. But it is funnier than any Western from either side of the world, and its only competition, in a bleaker mode, would be Clint Eastwood’s The Outlaw Josey Wales 1976".
In 1962, Kurosawa directed Sanjuro, in which Mifune returns as the ronin Sanjuro, but takes a different "surname". In both films, he takes his surname from the plants he happens to be looking at when asked his name.
Both in Japan and the West, Yojimbo has had an influence on various forms of entertainment.
In 1964, Yojimbo was remade as A Fistful of Dollars, a Spaghetti Western directed by Sergio Leone and starring Clint Eastwood in his first appearance as the Man with No Name. Leone and his production company failed to secure the remake rights to Kurosawas film, resulting in a lawsuit that delayed Fistful s release in North America for three years. It would be settled out of court for an undisclosed agreement before the U.S. release. In Yojimbo, the protagonist defeats a man who carries a gun, while he carries only a knife and a sword; in the equivalent scene in A Fistful of Dollars, Eastwoods pistol-wielding character survives being shot by a rifle by hiding an iron plate under his clothes to serve as a shield against bullets.
A second, looser Spaghetti Western adaptation, Django, was directed by Sergio Corbucci in 1966 and featured Franco Nero in the title role. Known for its high level at the time of its release of graphic violence, the films character and title were referenced in over thirty unofficial "sequels".
The 1970 film Zatoichi Meets Yojimbo features Mifune as a somewhat similar character. It is the twentieth of a series of movies featuring the blind swordsman Zatoichi. Although Mifune is clearly not playing the same "Yojimbo" as he did in the two Kurosawa films his name is Sasa Daisaku 佐々大作, and his personality and background are different in many key respects, the movies title and some of its content do intend to suggest the image of the two iconic jidaigeki characters confronting each other.
Incident at Blood Pass, also made in 1970, stars Mifune as a ronin who looks and acts even more similarly to Sanjuro and is referred to simply as "Yojimbo" throughout the film, but whose name is actually Shinogi Tōzaburō 鎬刀三郎. was the case with Sanjuro, this characters surname of Shinogi 鎬 is not an actual proper family name, but rather a term that means "ridges on a blade".
Mifunes character became the model for John Belushis Samurai Futaba character on Saturday Night Live.
The Warrior and the Sorceress is another resetting of the story, this one in a fantasy world.
Last Man Standing 1996 is a Prohibition-era action film directed by Walter Hill and starring Bruce Willis. It is an official remake of Yojimbo with both Kikushima and Kurosawa specifically listed in this movies credits as having provided the original story.
Albert Pyuns 1996 science fiction film Omega Doom is a loose remake of Yojimbo set in the future featuring Rutger Hauer playing both sides in a battle between robots and humans.
At the closing of Episode XXIII of the animated series Samurai Jack, a triumphant Jack walks off alone in a scene and accompanied by music influenced by the closing scene and music of Yojimbo. In Episode XXVI, Jack confronts a gang who destroyed his sandals, using Clint Eastwoods lines from A Fistful of Dollars, but substituting "footwear" for "mule". The influence of Yojimbo in particular and Kurosawa films in general on the animated series has been noted by Matthew Millheiser at DVDtalk.