Akira Kurosawa Films 101: 1960 – 1962

Today’s Kurosawa 101 covers three of his most popular and accessible films Yojimbo and Sanjuro, as well as arguably his most earnest, The Bad Sleep Well.

Yojimbo (1961)

Yojimbo is often contrasted with Sergio Leone’s A Fistful of Dollars — not just for the obvious fact that the latter is a remake of Yojimbo, but also that both films are by and large considered each directors’ most accessible works for modern American audiences. Similar to A Fistful of Dollars, Yojimbo has plenty of action, despicable yet colorful enemies, a pervasive sense of dark humor, a witty protagonist, and, perhaps most importantly, it clocks in at a relatively short 110 minutes (at least compared to the three-hour epics so common of both directors’ later works).

The influence of Hollywood Westerns on Kurosawa’s films has been greatly exaggerated by many, the impact of directors like John Ford and George Stevens being more formal than in terms of content (though watching the opening frames of Seven Samurai will instantly be put in mind of the opening frames of Stagecoach, both filled with galloping horses). But in Yojimbo Kurosawa’s plot is clearly cribbed from the films of John Ford and Fred Zinnemann, so if you’ve ever seen a Western before, you probably know the drill: a mysterious stranger (Toshirō Mifune) rides into a town full of poor laborers under siege by two sets of poor, but slightly mechanized criminals.

The stranger takes a shining to one cranky but idealistic peasant in particular while hearing his plight. This leads to our hero confiding in said peasant that he will kill absolutely everyone even slightly evil in this town and make a mint in the process. At first, The Hero seems content with cleverly playing the two gangs of criminals against each other, until a beautiful young woman gets involved and everyone is cinematically required to start acting even stupider and more violent than before.

Yojimbo (1961)

Within the chaos, The Hero commits his first truly selfless act in freeing the young woman from this god-forsaken town. The bad guys inevitably find out, leading to a massive beating that serves to drain the villagers (and by proxy, the audience) of all hope. However, with a little bit of convalescing and help from his surly peasant buddies, Mifune’s character rallies back and disposes of the town trash in a glorious final battle. With the lovable pastorals indebted to this strange man for the rest of their short, impoverished lives, The Hero leaves just as broke as he was before he arrived, presumably to do it all over again until his bloodlust is quenched or he throws his back out.

To put it bluntly, Yojimbo is a dark, dark film. Although The Hero triumphs against evil, he does so at such a cost where the only survivors left in the village are three elderly men incapable of rebuilding the town by themselves.

Although he is legendary with the samurai sword, the main weapons Mifune’s character uses to destroy the town gangs are deception and betrayal. The Hero’s unforgiving love of sake and hacking up bad guys seems far more important to him than any personal sense of family or stability, but he puts his own life on the line as soon as he runs into the aforementioned beautiful woman, whose loving marriage has been split up by gambling and corruption. This paradox, the idea of an outcast standing up for the ideals of the very society they despise when confronted with beauty and youth, is certainly reminiscent of the hard-boiled, hard-drinking detectives of Film Noir. While Yojimbo‘s basic scenario shares traits of more “wholesome” Kill-Em-All Westerns like High Noon, the bearded and perpetually itchy samurai is certainly no Gary Cooper.

In fact, the world in which Yojimbo takes place may owe more to Alfred Hitchcock’s morbid sensibility than the works of any other of his contemporaries. In Yojimbo’s village, dogs nonchalantly walk across the screen with disembodied hands in their jaws. The town’s authority figures, the constabulary and the mayor in particular are comically worthless against the powerful criminals — the former stooping low enough to take bribes for recruiting new hands to either gang while the mayor is reduced to endlessly banging a prayer drum in a dark room for most of the film’s events. Finally, some of the film’s most poetic ruminations on its unremitting violence comes from the mouth of the town’s coffin-maker.

Regardless of Yojimbo‘s substantial influences from American and British filmmakers alike, the film is still unmistakably Kurosawa. Thematically, Mifune’s character falls into a gray area between Kurosawa’s vigor for the heroic ideal as expressed in his early years (most clearly expressed in the selfless ronin of Seven Samurai) and the skepticism of how brave idols and their swords could do anything to stop the violent, selfish urges that lived in the hearts of all men (illustrated best by the chaotic feudal drama Ran). It is a sort of checkpoint for the intellectual’s complicated relationship with individualism in post-war Japan. Yojimbo does not dismiss the power of its protagonist to drive evil from the world, but it refuses to leave its audiences with anything but a gaping, bloody hole where a village used to be.

Yojimbo draws together the fast pace of Western narratives, hardboiled detective novels (although Kurosawa never mentioned it as a direct influence on Yojimbo, most Kurosawa scholars have noted the sharp resemblance between the plots of his film and that of Dashiell Hammett’s Red Harvest, a novel that Kurosawa, as a passionate reader of detective fiction would have surely read), the rebellious moral ambiguity of 1940s Film Noir, a wry sense of morbid humor that would feel at home even in modern black comedies and the insightful spiritual backbone of its conflicted director. With its cross-cultural, cross-genre depth of references and competing ideologies, it’s no wonder Yojimbo has inspired three feature-length remakes as well as countless other spoofs and tributes — all while maintaining a fun and evocative freshness on its own. — AJ Tigner