Deep Focus: Yojimbo (1961)
In an effort to expose a larger population of readers to “classic” films, CommRadio’s Arts & Entertainment Department is providing a weekly retrospective of notable motion pictures. These movies are selected individually for their cultural and cinematic achievements. For this, submission to the Deep Focus catalogue, our department has chosen Akira Kurosawa’s 1961 masterpiece, “Yojimbo.”
The most recognized and influential live-action director in Japanese history, Akira Kurosawa rose to fame in post-war Japan for his complex and masterful films. In collaboration with Toshiro Mifune, an incredible actor who starred in most Kurosawa classics, he released groundbreaking pictures like “Rashomon,” “The Seven Samurai” and “Ikiru.” While these are all must-watch films, it is his 1961 tale of a wayward samurai warrior, “Yojimbo,” that most clearly displays his artistry.
“Yojimbo,” at its base, is about a nameless ronin (Toshiro Mifune) who happens upon a town torn asunder by two warring criminal factions. He takes the initiative to bring peace to the village by manipulating both clans into destroying themselves. This plot is a basic one, and one which both influenced and was influenced by the American and Italian westerns that dominated pop culture in the 50s and 60s. In fact, the classic “A Fistful of Dollars” is an almost shot-for-shot remake of Kurosawa’s film.
This film, by all means, is a western in Japanese clothing. Drawing parallels between the freedom of the American frontier and the chaos of the collapsing Tokugawa Shogunate, “Yojimbo” captures a period in which centuries worth of traditions give way to the introduction of new technologies. Caught in the middle of the turmoil is the iconic samurai, an obsolete remnant of the past still holding the skills to affect the world around him just like the American cowboy, but immersed instead within the traditional Japanese culture which gave rise to its warrior class.
The first few scenes of the film back this assessment. The nameless samurai, who later adopts the pseudonym Sanjuro Kuwabatake, finds a family in the midst of a personal quarrel. The son, fed up with the lowly life of a peasant, runs away to the nearby town to take in the excitement as a clan-criminal, referred to in the English translation as ‘gamblers.” Sanjuro walks into town only to find it deserted. He is greeted first by a wild dog carrying a severed hand in its mouth.
Following the dog is the town constable, a pathetic little man with no intention of resolving the gambler crisis. The clear symbolism here is that the town has, almost literally, “gone to the wolves.” Law enforcement is spineless and the gangs rule the roost. The samurai is ushered into an old man’s restaurant, and what follows is one of the greatest exposition scenes ever filmed.
It is a simple scene, as the old man just tells Sanjuro what is going on in town. It is the execution, however, that makes the scene. Kurosawa, at this point about 20 years into his career, digs deep into his bag of tricks to make an exposition dump into one of the most compelling scenes in the film. He utilizes camera movement, dynamic blocking, background action and compositional frames to allow the viewer to easily and stylistically observe the political realities the town faces.
After the old man tells him to leave it alone, Sanjuro instead leaps into action, displaying his prowess as a samurai and starting a bidding war between the two clan leaders. The conflict between Seibei and Ushitora has driven the mayor into hiding and brought them into a desperate battle for supremacy.
“Listen, old man. I’ll get paid for killing, and this town is full of men who deserve to die. Think about it. Seibei, Ushitora, the gamblers and drifters - with them gone, the town could have a fresh start.” - Sanjuro
Sanjuro first sells his services to Seibei, who agrees to pay him a ridiculous amount to lead a raid against Ushitora that night. When he is overheard plotting to kill Sanjuro after a victory, the samurai knows to turn his back on his employer. Seibei gathers his troops opposite those of Ushitora. However, before the battle can begin, Sanjuro withdraws his loyalty and Master Hommu, Seibei’s highest ranking mercenary, flees the town.
With no proper leadership on either side, the skirmish becomes a farce. None of the gamblers are willing to put their lives on the line in open battle, so both lines just approach and retreat from each other until they are interrupted. All the while, an amused Sanjuro watches, center frame, as the two sides fail to deliver a blow. He has successfully made himself the center of attention, and the figure most desired by the clan leaders.
With a ceasefire called, the two sides come to Sanjuro over and over, becoming absolutely desperate to acquire him as a soldier, never realizing that they are being played. As the ceasefire continues, the risk for catastrophe becomes more dire. As is often the case in Kurosawa films, rainfall foreshadows a great change about to break the status quo. There is also the repeating motif of the town casket maker. In hard times, his business is booming and he is overjoyed. During times of peace or prosperity, he is out of work. Finally, one side makes a move and breaks the peace.
In the night, Ushitora sent assassins to murder a politician elsewhere, sending away the Edo statesman that had ushered the calm period. The fight is back on, and with an important new figure. Ushitora’s son, Unosuke, has returned from his travels abroad and he has done so with a gun, giving him an insurmountable edge against the village swordsmen. He represents a younger ambition with the advantage of modern technology. The two opposing factions are no longer equal matches.
Sanjuro is told of the assassination and is able to apprehend the killers, selling them to Seibei as hostages. After learning of their capture, the young Unosuke takes action by kidnapping Seibei’s son. Unosuke has quickly established himself as a force to be reckoned with, and almost an equal to Sanjuro’s wit. To reconcile, the two sides organize a hostage exchange, but Unosuke uses his gun to just kill the assassins while keeping Seibei’s son.
This is by no doubt a dirty trick, but one that should have changed the dynamic of their dealings. However, it turns out Seibei has also acquired a woman who was part of Ushitora’s harem. She was taken from her husband and child to serve Ushitora, and she was instrumental to his political relationship with the mayor-in-hiding. As a result, the two are left to exchange amicably and remain on about the same footing.
Watching from within the restaurant, Sanjuro and the old man are moved by the plight of this woman. He pledges his allegiance to Ushitora just so he could free this woman and send her off with her family. Just as Seibei used her to reunite his family, her reunion is facilitated by Sanjuro taking decisive action for the first time. Now, instead of being a passive observer playing both sides, Sanjuro has set himself up in opposition to Ushitora’s clan.
Since Sanjuro was able to cover up his tracks, Ushitora thinks Seibei is responsible for the attack. What results from the woman’s rescue is a montage of destruction. Ushitora and Seibei are now in all-out war, annihilating the town in their outrage. Many people die and all are put into peril, but the warfare takes the form of guerilla sabotage instead of organized conflict. It is a free-for-all that reduces buildings to rubble. Even the coffin maker is devastated, beliving that “when the fighting is this bad, they don’t bother with coffins.”
Soon enough, Unosuke rats out Sanjuro and has him beat and captured. For the first time in the film, Sanjuro is not in control of those around him. He had played everyone like a fiddle, but his schemes caught up to him. He is broken and stripped of his sword, the weapon with which he could turn the tide of battle. Whereas he was previously able to swagger his way about town without interference, the beleaguered samurai must now crawl around in dark confinement if he is to escape with his life.
Through the film, Sanjuro used alliances strategically. He used the promise of alliance to bend the clan leaders to his whim, but now he has to rely on those he was able to trust. The old man and coffin maker, along with an unwitting Ishitora, are able to smuggle the warrior out of town so he may heal and return as a champion, but at a great cost.
In the search for the escaped Sanjuro, Ushitora’s men take the last step and decimate the Seibei clan. They smoke their house out and murder all who flee. Seibei’s family, which had just been reunited, is cut down like livestock. There is no longer any semblance of civility, Ushitora’s clan have become absolutely bloodthirsty.
Out in the forest, Sanjuro heals and prepares for the coming battle. He has to overcome an Ushitora clan that is now supreme and ruthless. His comeback will be anticipated, and he will be fighting alone. He takes a knife and a dead man’s sword and makes his way to the climactic showdown. He has undergone rejuvenation and hit his low, so now he must rebound and take his place as the hero.
Sanjuro marches into the square and makes quick work of his opposition. Even outnumbered, injured and staring down the barrel of a gun, Sanjuro is such a force of nature that the remaining gamblers never stood a chance. As Unosuke lays dying, he tries and fails to get one over on the samurai that bested him. Through adversity, Sanjuro was able to accomplish what he could not do as the domineering behemoth that came into town. He needed help to become his greatest self.
As the film ends, the audience is left with one last western trope. The hero, victorious, does not bask in the accolades of his triumph. He says goodbye, turns and leaves to face his next adventure.
What is difficult to convey in this synopsis is the exquisite cinematography and score that are the lifeblood of this film. The theme, which repeats many times throughout the movie, is among the very best film scores ever composed. It is bold, powerful and imbued with this great adventurous spirit that leaves the audience feeling stronger than ever. It stands tall with the likes of “Rocky” in this regard.
“Yojimbo” is a great feat of cinematic storytelling, and one of the most iconic films of post-war Japan. With this film, Kurosawa confirms his status as one of the world’s greatest filmmakers and influences generations of those to come. As with all his films, “Yojimbo” is a master work that can not be suggested highly enough.
Billy Jackson is a junior majoring in film/video production. To contact him, email firstname.lastname@example.org.