Ever since I first saw Throne of Blood on Hulu (back when the Criterion Collection streamed their films on that site), there has been a special place in my heart for Kurosawa’s jidaigeki films (a jidaigeki film is literally a “period drama” usually set during the Edo period of Japan from 1603-1868, though some can be set earlier). And one of my favorite jidaigeki films is Yojimbo (1961), a film that may sound familiar to fans of Western films. Why would that be? Well, listen to the brief summary first:
A nameless samurai (Toshiro Mifune) comes to a small town that is the center of a feud between two families, both engaged in underworld crime. The nameless samurai plots to save the town by pitting the two families against one another by pretending to be a bodyguard (yojimbo) for each side until they destroy each other.
If that sounds like the plot of A Fistful of Dollars (1964) starring Clint Eastwood as The Man With No Name then you would be correct. What I never knew until I saw Yojimbo is that director Sergio Leone “borrowed” the plot of this film from Kurosawa’s work and repeated it wholesale for his spaghetti Western. Kurosawa filed a lawsuit when the film came to his attention, stating that while Leone had made “a fine movie, but it was my movie!” Ultimately the lawsuit was settled out of court for a certain percentage of the profits made from A Fistful of Dollars.
As stated in the brief summary, the nameless samurai comes to a rural town that is slowly being suffocated by two families. It was originally ruled (more or less) by Seibei (Seizaburo Kawazu) and his gang. But when Seibei sought to retire and announced that he would be giving all of his territory to his inexperienced son, his right-hand man Ushitora (Kyū Sazanka) balked and started his own gang in retaliation. The two have been trying to eliminate each other for quite some time but remain locked in a stalemate. Seeing how the town is suffering from the two gangs, the nameless samurai (who later gives himself the name Sanjuro Kuwabatake) determines to eliminate them.
Ushitora (left) and his brothers: Unosuke (center) and Inokichi (right)
Part of what makes Yojimbo such an excellent film is that it turns the traditional depiction of a samurai on its head. As a general rule, samurai were depicted as these noble beings, not a hair out of place and they wouldn’t dream of killing anyone for something as base as money. Sanjuro is the complete opposite of all of these ideals: he’s visibly scruffy; his clothes have seen better days; and his whole world apparently revolves around profit (though this is later tempered when he secretly gives his ill-gotten gains to a peasant family to help them start a new life). Toshiro Mifune completely owns this role for certain. In fact, this film did so well that Mifune reprised the role the following year in Sanjuro (1962).
My favorite part of this film is the middle act where Sanjuro plays each gang off of the other, with both sides completely oblivious to the manipulation. For example, Sanjuro overhears one of Ushitora’s men drunkenly spouting off to a friend about how they murdered a government official. After capturing them and taking the pair to Seibei, Sanjuro goes back to Ushitora and tells them that Seibei’s men captured the pair (leaving out the fact that he made the capture himself).
Seibei (left) begs Sanjuro to work for him
The plan nearly goes off without a hitch but there are some complications: right in the middle of Sanjuro’s scheming, Ushitora’s younger brother Unosuke (Tatsuya Nakadai) returns after a trip abroad. And the semi-deranged Unosuke brought back a present: a pistol (that he knows how to use very well thank you very much). On top of this, Sanjuro’s good deed of helping a peasant family escape (including the wife who had been forcibly given to one of Ushitora’s associates as a concubine) is found out by Unosuke, who drags him back to his brother’s gang to be beaten unmercifully until he gives up where the family went. Sanjuro manages to escape, naturally, and he makes sure his only friend in the town, Gonji (Eijirō Tōno) the tavern owner, tells Ushitora’s men that the samurai went back to Seibei’s place to hide.
This proves to be the final straw: Ushitora and his men set fire to the rival gang’s base (a brothel) and slaughter them all as they come running out to fight, though they do spare the brothel girls as they run for their lives. After killing Seibei’s son and his scheming wife, Unosuke shoots Seibei and the war for the town is seemingly over. Gonji sneaks Sanjuro out of town to help him recover, but is caught taking supplies to him and is captured. Sanjuro won’t stand to see his friend hurt, so he returns to town to dispatch Ushitora and his gang. In relatively short order he kills them all, only sparing a young farm boy that he saw at the beginning of the story running away from the family farm, ordering him to go back to his parents and enjoy “a long life sipping gruel.”
With the gangs eliminated, Sanjuro frees Gonji and with a simple “See you around!” heads off for the road.
The film is made even better by Masaru Sato’s excellent, almost jazz-like score for this film. It doesn’t seem like the kind of music you should hear in a period film like Yojimbo, but it absolutely works. One of my favorite musical moments is, when Sanjuro is stalking Ushitora’s gang for the last time, all you really hear for a minute is a soft tap on a high-hat cymbal.
Have you seen Yojimbo or Sanjuro the sequel? If so, what did you think about them? Let me know your thoughts in the comments below! Thank you so much for coming by and checking out the blog, your support means everything to me!
For more of my thoughts on Kurosawa, see also: My Thoughts on Throne of Blood (1957)
And also see: Live-Action Films/TV for the rest of my film reviews 🙂
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