“Casket Maker ... two coffins. No, better make that three.”
Telling the story of lone wandering Samurai, Sanjuro, (the always electrifying Toshiro Mifune) and his misadventures in an isolated town out in the rural wilderness of late 18th Century Japan, Akira Kurosawa's magnificent drama, from 1961, proved to be a catalyst for cinematic change and cultural expectations not only in the great director's homeland, but right across the world, too. Sergio Leone remade it as the cult-adored A Fistful Of Dollars, a movie which punched a hole through the myth of the Old West and unbolted the gate for a stampede of similarly amoral character-plays set along the lawless frontier. But it was Kurosawa, neatly echoing the traditional Westerns and gangster movies that he had grown up with and displacing their myths in time, country and custom, yet retaining that essential “ritual” of warriors-for-hire, mercenary anti-heroes and fate-betrothed showdowns, who instigated this much more modern, viciously ironic and psychologically honed twist on the genre.
Make no mistake - Yojimbo may trade whisky for sake, boots for sandals, Stetsons for top-knots and guns for swords, but it is a Western, through and through. But the clever thing that it does is to take the grubby lowlifes that abound in the Tommy-gun and gumshoe sagas of Cagney, Bogart, Raft and Robinson and fill its ranks of grotesques with them, eradicating forever the notion that there could be a clear distinction between the good guys and the bad guys. Which is precisely what Sergios Leone and Corbucci, as well as Guilio Questi would pick up on with their more flamboyant and operatic Euro-tinged variations.
Meandering across the wastelands, Sanjuro pitches up in a dilapidated village lorded-over by two rival gangs who vie for supremacy over it in an eternal power-struggle. The bitter feud between the silk merchant and his sake-trading nemesis is clearly a metaphor for the rebellious youth prevalent in post-war Japan, but it is also a conflict that is as old as the hills and, as such, works just as well without any political subtext to chew on. Siding with the poor villagers who are caught up in the middle of this grim carousel of threats and counter-threats, and tit for tat murder, partly out of a vestige of honour, and also because he fancies a bit of fun, Sanjuro sets about playing one gang of renegades off against the other. He joins one side as an enforcer, or the “Yojimbo” of the title, and bolsters their campaign with a show of matchless savagery ... and then switches sides seemingly on a whim, causing untold confusion and chaos amongst the mobsters in the process. His tactics are wild and devious, his methods swift and cold and extremely well calculated. Working for the highest bidder at all times, yet unable to avoid doing the right thing when there is no other alternative, Sanjuro's tricks become too quick, and too stretched ... and fate will conspire to ensnare him and put him to the ultimate test when he nobly saves a reluctant concubine and her persecuted family from the rabid attentions of the gangs.
Even though it matches Yojimbo almost shot-for-shot for much of the time, it is remarkable how removed Leone's A Fistful Of Dollars can still feel - the relocation from East to (Wild) West one that works extremely well with the subject and the characters. But this was a transition that was, of course, made all the smoother because Kurosawa had crafted, in all but language and period, a bonafide Western, himself, when he unleashed Yojimbo. Famously citing George Steven's Shane, starring Alan Ladd, as an influence upon him, the Japanese auteur is, ironically, responsible for cementing most of the genre's beloved themes and visual embellishments. The lone drifter comes to a town and cleans it up. The weakling inhabitants bicker and feud, swapping allegiances with alarming ease. Their inability to affect change just a metaphor for genuine societal weakness in the face of corruption and intimidation, that places them as both innocent onlookers and unwitting accomplices in the deeds that are committed in their midst. The film is also a fully paid-up homage to John Ford's larger-than-life depictions of moral bankruptcy and the selfless pride and honour that it takes for someone to stand up to such tyranny, personified usually by the stalwart John Wayne. And, adding to this melting pot of celluloid influences that informed Kurosawa, it could also be said that Yojimbo is, in a way, a considered inversion and re-evaluation of the classic High Noon from Fred Zinnerman, with Sanjuro obviously standing-in for Gary Cooper's conscience-rattled Marshall Will Kane - though Sanjuro never once seeks the backing of the lousy townsfolk in this case and is more than psychologically empowered to deal with the odds that are stacked against him, even when his strategies inevitably place him in serious trouble.
What the film isn't, however, is full of battles. In fact, there are long sections when nothing more dynamic than peering out of a window seems to happen. But these deliberate and very measured lulls before the action, which Kurosawa actually revels in (see also The Seven Samurai, The Hidden Fortress, Rashomon), are precisely where he fashions the suspense and the archly theatrical motivations of the protagonists. When the skirmishes do eventually occur in Yojimbo, they are delivered with crackerjack zeal and blinding dexterity. People are cut down in nano-seconds and the choreography is established without any fancy footwork, or Errol Flynn-style duelling, just bodies sliced asunder and dropped (to the decoration of now quaint-looking spurts of blood) before you have time to draw breath. Sergio Leone took notice of this, as well. His gunfights may have had absolutely monumental build-ups, but once the bullets flew, the characters in these elaborate set-pieces dropped like flies. Clint Eastwood would also come to utilise this decidedly more realistic approach in his own directed Westerns, too. Nowadays, with action heroes battling away for what seems like hours (and there's nothing wrong with that, folks!), looking at the likes of Yojimbo can puzzle fight-junkies with the swiftness of each successive encounter. But this is another nod to the reality of such a situation. A real fight doesn't last more than a few seconds - anything more and there won't be a winner. Sanjuro, and the gunslingers who followed in his wake, would hardly be masters of their deadly craft if they took their time, and Kurosawa is keen to stick to this ethic.
But the director is still undeniably still a genius when it comes to the visual and thematic impact of such episodic scene construction, though. Just marvel at the almost West Side Story antics of the two gangs as they prance and dance towards each other, rattling their swords and their tonsils whilst Sanjuro just looks on in amused superiority. Or the saki-sabotage that threatens to drown one gang in the gushing deluge. An exchange of hostages becomes an epic battle of wills, as well as a heartbreaking focal point for the damage being done to the town. But Sanjuro's fate-locked retribution is the moment when Kurosawa unleashes the demons that have been expertly kept in-check all along - you've just got to love the balletic energy of such cunning vandalism when he sets about authenticating what will be his cover-story for a lightning-swift massacre. The gruelling escape and evasion sequence is justifiably classic and, most famously of all, there is the final showdown - Kurosawa proudly acknowledging the story's roots by pitting Sanjuro's blade against the bullets of his arch enemy Unosuke (a magnetic Tatsuya Nakadai) dressed in a very cowboy-ish red scarf and with a Springfield revolver secreted beneath his robes. When done correctly, these finales, be they populated by Samurai, gunslinger, Jedi, mythical warrior or Special Forces trained avenger should be as poetic as they are cathartic. Kurosawa played his part in transforming such violent pay-offs by being slightly unpredictable. In Yojimbo he even inveigles some devious rhapsodising from a man dying in a pool of blood - so how's that for poetic?
The setting of the trademark one-street town is wonderful, perfectly proving why such a linear geographical design is one of the single greatest visual tricks in the movies. Whilst you can work wonders with the Gothic castle and the city-crush, just look at the archetypal conflicts that can be wrought about by placing opposing factions one at either end of a dusty, uneven track, and a horde of duplicitous, two-faced schemers lining it all the way in-between. The depiction of black and white, good and evil and the varying shades that fall between them is accentuated by such a singular opposition. Wars are fought over countries, the whole world even, but nothing brings conflict into sharper relief than a mere street slicing through a moral quagmire of greed, lust, vengeance and hatred. John Ford knew this, as did John Sturges, making the one road confrontation the strategic and symbolic high-point for their characters to face. But Kurosawa saw it as being the most important element in such an obsessive campaign, both artistically and emotionally. Arguably, Leone pushed this concept to its most extreme dimension, and the device is now easily lampooned, but it was Kurosawa who made this possible with Yojimbo's endless cycle of face-offs, about-turns, shows of force and distance-intensified intimidation.
The surreal and gruesome vision of the dog scampering down the street with a very convincing severed human hand in its mouth as Sanjuro first arrives is something that would have a massive influence over the Spaghetti Westerns of Sergio Corbucci and Guilio Questi. Leone would go for the bigger picture, the canvas of twisted morality and the ripple effect such lawlessness would have upon seemingly everyone, but even such little and largely unexplained vignettes of Kurosawa's on-the-spot spontaneous imagination would have a lasting impact upon the more extreme and kaleidoscopic indulgences of many an Italian director. Whilst it is commonly known that George Lucas modelled Star Wars upon Kurosawa's terrific fantasy, The Hidden Fortress, perhaps the recurring motif of the loss of hands throughout his vast SF opus was also inspired by the limb-lopping seen here in Yojimbo. The placement of a massive, leering and decidedly cruel henchman in the ranks - which would go on to become a sure-fire Leone favourite and also something that would be a regular facet of the Bond films - was also generated here with the imposing stature of former sumo wrestler Tsunagoro Rashomon as Kannuki, the heavy who appears able to pulverise someone merely by shoving them across a room. A cross between Lurch from The Addams Family and Richard Kiel's Bondian villain Jaws, Kannuki strikes a chord of frighteningly casual brutality.
But one of the greatest elements is surely Sanjuro's purely Machiavellian character. He is the good guy. He won't leave the most despicable deeds unaccounted for and his vengeance is swift and accurate in a world of indiscriminate violence and death. But there is no escaping the fact that he is in it for himself. This town, with all its inebriates, gamblers and gangsters represents fun to him. As a ronin, he is in search of duty, honour and challenge, but Sanjuro is no mere pawn, or wannabe apprentice for some new master. He has a brain to back up his brawn, and it is a devious brain that sees sport in playing one faction off against another, if only to prove to himself that it is, in fact, he who makes the better master. You could say that he looks upon this village as nothing more than a large-scale executive toy, a plaything that will occupy his mind, exercise his body and tone the trickster within him. As anti-heroes go, Sanjuro is immediately one of the most resolute, but also, and this is what is clever about it and the very thing that sets in motion the machine that energises Clint's Man With No Name, Kurt Russell's Snake Plissken or Mel Gibson's Mad Max, someone who is fully rounded and not merely cipher. He might have wily senses and a deadly gift for survival, but he won't always do the right thing, and can be prone to let his pride and his belief in his own abilities cloud his perception of the bigger picture. Hence, he can become fallible and fall into a trap that he, himself, may well have set up with his ever-cocky one-upmanship and over-confident game-playing. Thrusting himself into such a volatile environment, even with his matchless skills, he is therefore bound to be caught out eventually. When Sanjuro finally suffers at the hands of a punishing mob of gloating goons, Kurosawa only shows the protracted aftermath of the beating. In contrast, Leone, in A Fistful Of Dollars (and its immediate follow-up), is as concerned with the horrid beauty of the torture, itself, being inflicted upon Eastwood, as he is with the magnificently sustained suspense of the inevitable escape. Kurosawa is content to let Mifune's battered face fill in all the blanks, though the implication of the abuse he has suffered is felt no less by ourselves as Mifune struggles not only to move his broken body, but also just to see out of his mashed eyes. What is also great about this wandering agent of death is that he is, in fact, governed by fate as much as anybody else. It is only by chance - almost the same as the gamblers that everyone seems to despise so much - that he ends up in the town. Right at the very start of Yojimbo the ronin casts a stick into the air to see at which fork of a crossroads it lands in order to deduce a path to follow. All that happens, then, in the ensuing drama has been decided by the casual flick of a stick. This is another vital ingredient in Kurosawa's career-long treatise of souls locked along a pre-ordained path.
But let's return to that all-important beating that Sanjuro undertakes and reflect upon the cultural impact that it delivers above and beyond the physical one for the character.
This “heroic suffering” is crucial to our acceptance of these guys as genuine people that we can root for. And if you look at these films - from Yojimbo to the Dollars Trilogy, and the heroic evolutions of the form found in Mad Max, First Blood, Escape From New York, Kill Bill and even Casino Royale - it is almost as though we need to see the good guys go through hell if we are to fully believe in them. Arnie only really got hurt when he messed with the Predator and virtually every other cinematic hero in recent years has been pretty much indomitable - fist, fire and bullet-proof. You could, at a stretch, even imply that this trend is a sort of Messianic Machismo. These guys seem to make a physical sacrifice for the greater good, most of them left almost at the brink of death, and then to return, from what may as well be a psychological grave, reborn to exact righteous revenge upon the cruel and the unjust. Franco Nero gets his hands pulped in the great Django and, a couple of decades later, Scott Glenn faces an equally traumatic episode of bone-crunching punishment in Silverado before a fire-lit resurrection in a cave and a spell of training very akin to the re-honing of skills that Sanjuro, himself, undertakes after his own beating. In fact Clint Eastwood has taken this death/rebirth angle to unparalleled lengths in his extensive cannon of films, with everything from Dirty Harry to Sudden Impact and High Plains Drifter to Unforgiven showing his heroes getting a right old pasting in the line of duty.
Toshiro Mifune embellishes his honourable rogue with some telling trademarks too. Shifting his shoulders in a little ligament-loosening shtick and touching his chin as he ponders his next move, the Yojimbo-for-hire could have been in danger of becoming something of a comical stooge, but Mifune's eyes remain effervescent with the spark of mischief and meticulous plotting. Look at his quizzical face when he first enters the town - Lee Van Cleef strikes exactly the same expressions and is framed almost identically by Leone in For A Few Dollars More. Everything he does has the appearance of having been of-the-cuff, yet those eyes shimmer with inner-knowledge and foresight, Sanjuro almost always one step ahead of the pack. His game-playing is integral to the trajectory of the story. Whether exacerbating his nominal friends in the village - the restaurant-owner and the casket-maker - with his fiendish schemes, or sitting atop the watchtower in the centre of the street, literally symbolising his position smack-bang in the middle of the two warring factions as both groups impotently rally against one another - with Sanjuro having pulled their strings to this effect, of course - Mifune locks the character into the coils of each conniving scam, frustrating us as much as those he weaves in-and-out of with motivations that we can't quite fathom. All of which makes him a powerfully maverick enigma. Charismatic, yet supremely unorthodox. Affable, yet wonderfully aloof and idiosyncratic. We root for him, obviously. But we can't entirely trust him either.
The film also boasts a revolutionary score from Masaro Sato. Right from the opening titles - as we follow Sanjuro's twitching shoulders as the ronin plods through the countryside - the music pulses with energy. Certainly ahead of its time, the addictive beat manages to be both entrenched in that gloriously exotic sound of the Orient and be equally hip and catchy with a cheeky Western riff at its core. It is also immediately suggestive of confidence and positively swaggers with its delightfully brazen attitude. And we can't forget to mention that awesome cinematography from Kazuo Miyagawa, who had previously worked with Kurosawa eleven years before on Rashomon. Expertly composing for the widescreen and fully utilising scope, scale and dimensionality with the added trickery of the pan-focus, he bestows Yojimbo with a level of depth and intimacy - just admire that wonderful close-up that fills the screen with the faces of a mobster, his wife and his son as they whisper conspiratorially about Sanjuro's fate - that truly brings the film to life.
For this Samurai relocation of the Western, it is easy to label The Seven Samurai as The Magnificent Seven, Yojimbo as A Fistful Of Dollars and its 1962 follow-up, the more comical Sanjuro as For A Few Dollars More, but this also belittles the innate power that each of these pivotal films have. For me, Kurosawa's later movies, as critically lauded as they are, hold much less fascination. Kagamusha and Ran feel a little too bloated and theatrical, which is deliberate, I know, but I can't help feeling that Kurosawa loses that grimly satirical edge and spark of unpredictability that he made his own in the earlier years. Whilst Seven Samurai is epic is scope and scale, Yojimbo is closely reined-in and tighter of character. Where The Hidden Fortress is wild and fun, mingling mysticism with bravado, Yojimbo is massively focussed and witty. It is emotionally dark without being disturbing. It is violent without being unpleasant. It speaks of human fallibility and cruelty without being preachy. And it has the intelligence and bravery to reveal that no-one ever really acts on behalf of another, unless they, themselves, will gain something from it. Crafty, intelligent and packed with gallows humour and memorable set-pieces, Yojimbo closed-out a decade in which Akira Kurosawa brought Eastern Cinema to the world and shattered the stereotypes that had been rigidly enforced around it.
The Seven Samurai remains, for me, his best film, but Yojimbo is no less of a classic or no less influential. Serving as a vital stepping-stone in the journey that genre movies were making from the fifties to the sixties (and with its foundation stones still anchoring many action/thrillers of today) Kurosawa's wry Samurai drama is pretty much essential for any film collector.