YOJIMBO

(Literal English translation: "Bodyguard")
(1961 - Japan)
With Toshiro Mifune, Tatsuya Nakadai, Yokô Tsukasa, Isuzu Yamada, Daisuke Katô
Directed by Akira Kurosawa
Black and White
Reviewed by JB


Abbott and Costello's feud takes a dark turn    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 heavily 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 and 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 viewing of 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 how foolish a thought that was.  YOJIMBO is a real western, and superb 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."

or:

     "[Sheriff] Hansuke?
     "Yes?"
     "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. 5  - JB 

Akira Kurosawa     Toshiro Mifune     The Stuff You Gotta Watch


ADD ANOTHER QUOTE AND MAKE IT A GALLON 

"I'm not dying yet.  I have quite a few men to kill first."


Related Movies
(Toshiro Mifune Playing the Same or Very Similar Character)

Sanjuro (quasi-sequel)
Zatoichi Meets Yojimbo
Ambush (Incident at Blood Point)

Stuff You Gotta Watch
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Copyright © 2010 John V. Brennan, John Larrabee