I am a big Kurosawa fan. Or turning into one. Apparently Kurosawa churned out so many great movies that even with the extensive selection showing up on the List, there are a lot more that should have been there. “Yojimbo” from 1961 is one of those, hence it gets an off-list entry here on my blog.
“Yojimbo” is one of Kurosawa’s westerns and like “Seven Samurai” it was later remade as a “real” western by Sergio Leone (“A Fistful of Dollars”). Instead of cowboys and Monument Valley Kurosawa used samurai and period Japanese settings, yet beneath this façade this is at heart a western. And what a western! If westerns were normally as awesome as this I would be a big fan of the genre.
A stranger walks into a dusty town. Without saying much he is quietly assessing the situation and decides that he needs to take action. This could have been Clint Eastwood, but it is Toshiro Mifune as the ronin Sanjuro. The town is in the grip of two rivaling gangs headed by Ushitora and Seibei. Each gangster boss has hired a small army of scum including a few super-scum, among them the gun-wielding Unosoke. Sanjuro, awesome samurai though he is, knows that he cannot singlehandedly take on the two clans. Instead his plan is to pit them against each other in the hope that they will kill each other off.
Sanjuro lets himself be hired by first one side then the other and keep changing allegiance all the while provoking the parties. Of course their greed and hatred for each other helps and his plan is almost succeeding when the fighting is called to a halt because of a visiting inspector (read: marshall). When he is finally gone Seibei and Ushitora have started peace talks and Sanjuro has his work cut out for him to start the fight again.
The civilians see him as another addition to their troubles until he saves a villager’s wife kept as prostitute by Ushitori and sends her away with husband and child and his money. Now Sanjuro’s soft heart is revealed and he is celebrated as a hero, which come in handy when his meddling finally gets him in serious trouble.
One man against two armies of bad guys. Showdown at high noon. This just does not get more American, yet everything here is also totally Japanese. Samurai are cool and composed, think before they act and morally superior. Peasants are stupid cattle, hunched and bowlegged and cowards at heart. Gangsters may have been samurai, but without moral integrity they are nothing. Turning to guns instead of the honorable sword is a certain sign of the fallen samurai. And merchants… well they are only interested in money. In this environment, the samurai is a super hero with just authority.
While the setting here is awesome I was struck by how great the pacing is. At 110 minutes this movie never turns boring. After 30 minutes I actually though the movie was coming to a conclusion, but it was only just beginning. In the act where Sanjuro is caught and beaten to pieces the story is turned on itself as Sanjuro is turned from the superior samurai to a sorry piece of junk and must rely on help from the villagers. The story evolves and never stands still. Of course all its themes are now commonplace, especially in westerns, but also in any sort of action drama, whether it is Bruce Willis, Clint Eastwood or Vin Diesel. Kurosawa was there first.
I thoroughly enjoyed myself watching Yojimbo. There is no big message here, it is simply entertainment and maybe that is why it did not meet the approval of the List editors. But that seems too silly. I think they just thought there was enough Kurosawa as it is. I do not agree. There is always room for more Kurosawa.