YOJIMBO ("The Bodyguard") is Akira Kurosawa's "western" set in 1860
Japan, after a growing middle class transformed the feudal nature of
the country, and samurai, who had served the high and mighty, found
themselves masterless and out of work. Kurosawa, who was
influenced by American westerns and directors like John Ford and Howard
Hawks, takes all the elements of the classic western and translates
them smoothly to Japanese culture. Whiskey becomes sake, the
hired gunman becomes the masterless samurai, while corrupt officials,
the spineless sheriff, the busy undertaker and the tough-as-nails
whorehouse madam remain essentially the same as their American
counterparts. There are even dancing girls, although briefly
not in the same context as you'd find in an American western. Toshiro
Mifune, as "Sanjuro" the Samurai, is John Wayne, sauntering into a town
full of thieves, whores and murderers and commencing to play them
against each other until all hell breaks loose. The film even climaxes
in the classic showdown on a dusty street, except that instead of one
gunman against another, it features one samurai against one gunman and
an entire band of sword-wielding thugs. After my first
the film, I began to think what a shame it was that Kurosawa never came
to America to make a real western. Moments later, I realized
foolish a thought that was. YOJIMBO is a real western, and
one at that, merely set in the Far East.
Aside from Kurosawa's crisp direction and Maso Saturo's effective and moody score, the film's main asset is Mifune, an actor with all the rugged charm of a Wayne, Clark Gable or Sean Connery. His Sanjuro is often called the first anti-hero, inspired perhaps by the cool emotionless detectives from American film noir (the story of YOJIMBO is actually based on a Dashiell Hammett novel) and later inspiring many a movie character in other countries, Clint Eastwood's "Man without a Name" chief among them. Mifune did appear in several American productions in his career (PAPER TIGER, MIDWAY, TV's Shogun) but If you've never seen him before, you will know within the first fifteen minutes of YOJIMBO that you are not just watching a great actor but one of the coolest guys of all time.
Every other role in the film is filled with a memorable player, such as Tatsuya Nakadai as the one villain in town who carries a pistol, Namigoro Rashomon as a sinister giant (think Richard Kiel) and Daisuke Katô as the hideous, roundheaded idiot brother of a local gang leader. (Want to get rid of this buffoon? Remind him of someone who has slighted him, and he will trot away saying "Ooh, yes, I've got to go beat him up!").
You know you are really enjoying a movie that's not in your native tongue when you can recall bits of dialogue as if you had heard them in your language. The YOJIMBO screenplay is full of sharp, memorable exchanges, with some lines that you can almost hear coming from the mouth of John Wayne, such as:
"You don't mind if I kill you all?"
"What!? Kill me if you can!"
"(pause) It'll hurt."
"Go hang yourself."
Ever since his groundbreaking RASHOMON (1950), Kurosawa and his films had been popular in the United States. However, YOJIMBO, being so "American", is more easily accessible to U.S. audiences than his epics such as SEVEN SAMURAI or RAN. There is no work involved in watching YOJIMBO - just sit back, follow the subtitles and enjoy. Yet, if you want to work, you will notice some magnificent direction by Kurosawa, who allows a great deal of the film to play out through the windows of the tavern, as Sanjuro, the old man and we viewers watching the various characters play out their schemes through the open shutters. Intentionally or not, it is reminiscent of Hitchcock's REAR WINDOW.
Kurosawa loved American westerns, western directors love Kurosawa's films, and this mutual appreciation society brought out the best in both countries. Just as Kurosawa's SEVEN SAMURAI was remade in America by John Sturges as THE MAGNIFICENT SEVEN, YOJIMBO was remade as by Sergio Leone as FOR A FISTFUL OF DOLLARS, a film that began the whole "spaghetti western" phenomenon (really cool westerns filmed on the cheap in Italy). That film starred Clint Eastwood, who would become as big a star in the States as Mifune was in Japan. - JB
QUOTE AND MAKE IT A
"I'm not dying yet. I have quite a few men to kill