Yojimbo, Akira Kurosawa

Akira Kurosawa’s ‘Yojimbo’ Is All Quite Amusing

Akira Kurosawa’s Yojimbo is funny: Sanjura’s twitchy, itchy tics; Inokichi’s monobrowed buffoonery; Kannuki the Giant’s huge mallet. Even the dog carrying the human hand betrays that the film’s tone will be blackly comedic.

Akira Kurosawa

Steve Pick: We arrive here at Double Take with our first film of who knows how many directed by the wondrous Akira Kurosawa. Yojimbo may seem familiar to some who have never even seen a single Japanese movie, as it was essentially remade a few years after this 1961 release by Sergio Leone as A Fistful of Dollars. I’m not against the classic spaghetti western, but I prefer my showdowns with swords and only a single pistol. Steve, what’s your opinion of this devastatingly gorgeous, subtly funny, impeccably choreographed, and perfectly structured classic? I kinda like it, myself.

Steve Leftridge: At one point, the Samurai With No Name, whom we might as well call Sanjuro since that’s the off-the-cuff alias he gives himself, is being toted to the cemetery to recover from being beaten within an inch of his life. After listening to the conversation between Gonji, his only ally in town, and the ludicrously stupid Inokichi, he dryly remarks, “That was all quite amusing”. That line sums my reaction to Yojimbo.

I agree with you that the film is a visual beauty with gorgeous choreography and framing. But I also found it pretty broadly funny: that chickenshit standoff between the two rival gangs with Sanjura laughing in the bell tower; Sanjura’s twitchy, itchy tics; Inokichi’s monobrowed buffoonery; Kannuki the Giant’s huge mallet. Even the dog at the beginning of the film carrying the human hand betrays that the film’s tone will be blackly comedic. But you say “perfectly structured”. Care to elaborate?

Pick: I love the way Kurosawa presents this story, laying out bits and pieces until we have absorbed the full situation. First we see Sanjuro (and I’ll accept your contention that could be his name for ease of reference) deciding to take whichever path is pointed to by a stick he tosses in the air. So we are beginning with the assumption that anything can happen, and that Sanjuro doesn’t really pick sides. Then he encounters a father and a son arguing about the son leaving to become a mercenary, our first hint that something is going on further up the line.

In a delightful bit of misdirection, Kurosawa keeps us with Sanjuro and the parents in their home, who reveal a little bit more background that we will need soon, but because of the way it is filmed, we aren’t focusing on the story they tell so much as Sanjuro’s presence as a samurai in their home. Finally, Sanjuro enters the town, an eerie set of dilapidated buildings on either side of one short dusty street. Here, he meets Gonji, the restaurateur with no customers or food. Shot beautifully from inside Gonji’s tavern, we see the layout of what is to come, as he explains the background of the two sides who are fighting for control, and Sanjuro reaches the decision that all involved need to be disposed of.

All during the prologue, we don’t know what details are important, or how Sanjuro will find himself in the middle of a story. Once he’s there, the structure is a bit of a zig-zag, as he works with leaders of each side only to wreak mild havoc and deplete forces of each by attrition. But each situation for the rest of the film works as an entertaining, sometimes funny, sometimes highly dramatic, event. It’s as though Kurosawa is telling a sequence of short stories which add up to the liberation of a town for the handful of innocents who happen to remain.

Leftridge: I agree that the film is an example of economical storytelling, even if it took me a bit to get my bearings. The sameness of the names of Tazaemon (the silk merchant) and Tokuemon (the sake merchant) is tricky to sort out, but that confusion makes some thematic sense since, as with so many rivalries, they two sides are nearly identical. Plus, as you suggest, the way that Kurosawa provides the exposition, building the characters and tension in the story, is brilliant. The chaos in the village is so tightly packed and all-encompassing that Gonji, the restaurateur, can give Sanjuro the full tour of the village’s violent political landscape just by selectively opening certain windows. Sanjuro seems content enough just to be scoring a bowl of rice; after all, he came to the village at the whimsy of a randomly pointed stick.

However, Sanjuro doesn’t stand on the sidelines, or squat on the tower, for long. The ronin, sitting high up in the water tower and laughing at the fools below him, obviously sees the village’s insanity for what it is. He’s figuratively and literally above these warring but cowardly factions. But my question is, why does Sanjuro bother to clean up the town at all? Like, what’s in it for him, and given the ultimate levels of bloodshed for which he’s responsible, should he have minded his own business? (If Kurosawa has a central message in this film, it would appear to be tied up in this question, so the pressure’s on.)

Pick: Oh, so you want me to explicate the film’s theme for you, huh? Sure, you’d love it if I did that, made your life easier so you didn’t have to figure it out for yourself, right? Uh, actually, I was hoping you had the answer for that one, so I could copy off your paper.

Seriously, I think Sanjuro is a force for sanity in a world filled with madness, though it requires an insane level of pain and suffering to achieve his goal. I’m no expert on Japanese history, but as I understand it, Yojimbo is set at the tail end of the samurai era. He is holding on to a way of life that is dying out, and he still believes he can make life better for those who will simply respect the code he lives by.

Part of that code, I suspect, is opposed to the idea of violence perpetrated by what he considers to be amateurs — the forces of Tazaemon and Tokuemon. He sees, as we do, the ridiculous nature of these fighters, who terrorize the people who know their place. So he’s going to go in there and clean up the town, then move on to see what else life has in store for him. I don’t think he feels he has a choice; the samurai must do the right thing, depending on what situation he happens to find himself facing.

Now, I’m not one to argue that violence itself is a sane response, and I think Kurosawa is having some fun with the absurdity of the methods Sanjuro uses. There are some brutal actions in this film, but many of the fights, and some of the showdowns, have an element of comedy to them, as well. I haven’t seen enough samurai films to know if there is any element of parody involved, but that possibility does cross my mind. What do you think of the violence in Yojimbo?

Leftridge: I actually find the film a little light on violence, as samurai fighting movies go. I’ve never been one to root for more violence in films, so I don’t need The Sword of Doom, or even Ran, to get me going. It’s just that the moments swordplay in Yojimbo tend to be brief and separated by great lengths of screentime. Not that Kurosawa was ever very interested in showing lots of explicit, bloody violence. Even when it’s time to kick ass, Kurosawa doesn’t show much bloodshed, sometimes pulling humorously back from it, as when Sanjuro slices through a man’s coat rather than filleting his back in half.

The important thing in Yojimbo is the story, and that theme you just explicated, and the violence in the film is present only to service that story. That is, the fighting, rather than providing meaningless titillation, illustrates that the world that Sanjuro occupies is a hostile one, that sometimes violence is necessary to achieve a longer view of liberation or peace, and that Sanjuro is one skilled motherfucker with the katana. Kurosawa doesn’t need to show any splatter and spray to demonstrate those things.

That prowess with the sword is key to the archetype here of the rugged individualist who plays by his own rules, the drifter outside of community or the law, the lone physically skilled stud who exacts his moral code but then rambles on ahead of the rest. We saw this model a few Double Takes back with John Wayne in The Searchers. You mentioned Sergio Leone as directing a Yojimbo remake, and these classic westerns help reinforce that central archetype of the character with ties to community but one who is ultimately separate from it.

The other element from western films here, since you bring up violent imagery, is the weapon from the West, the pistol brandished by Unosuke. Since Kurosawa was influenced by the American Western, what does the introduction of the gun, and what ultimately happens to its owner, mean within the context of this story and its themes?

Pick: Well, here I return to the parody idea I briefly raised. Clearly, the gun is there to show the limits of swordplay, though in a subtler fashion than my favorite scene from Raiders of the Lost Ark, when Harrison Ford pulls out his pistol and shoots the sword-carrying villain threatening him. But, Unosuke (played by a guy I have to assume was the Ricky Nelson of Japan, as he is so very clearly a teen idol type who refused to look as though he really lived 100 years before the film was shot) dies because he, like the others in the town, does not live by the code Sanjuro believes. He has a more powerful weapon, but he’s an amateur who does not respect its power.

I did love that whole final scene with him, when he begs Sanjuro to restore the gun to his hand because he feels naked without it, and wants to be allowed to die with his metaphorical boots on. Sanjuro, of course, gives it to him because it is the honorable thing to do, though I suspect he also relies on Unosuke messing things up even as he dies and not being able to lift the gun high enough to shoot him.

We haven’t spoken at all about the mythical nature of Sanjuro, his ability to defeat almost any enemy, and his unbelievable escape from the trap of being locked in a room by his admittedly klutzy enemies. So, I’m gonna turn it over to you to tell me what you think of the concept that Sanjuro was a virtual superhero in a farcical world.

Leftridge: Yeah, Sanjuro’s superheroic qualities are on display, sure; he’s untouchable with the sword, he’s apparently un-beat-to-death-able, and he can get the best of a seemingly superior weapon. At the same time, he’s human enough: those brilliant tics and shrugs that we see throughout the film, the times in which he seems to work the feud for his own monetary profit, and his black-humor incivility, as when he barks at the couple he saves: “Shut up! I hate pathetic people. I’ll have to kill you.”

Sanjuro seems indestructible, but it’s only to exact more bloody revenge: “I’m not dying yet. I have to kill quite a few men first”. In the end, however, for all of his swagger, Sanjuro is the hero because he’s the confident zen master who is offended by the monopolies of power and greed that he sees in the town, and, rather than remaining on the sidelines, as most of us usually do, he takes action to bring them down.

Plus, it all looks gorgeous, thanks to Kurosawa’s vision, and all hail the deep-focus photography, beautiful framing, and glorious black-and-white cinematography of Kazuo Miyagawa, whose telephoto lenswork is as heroic as Sanjuro’s swordplay. It’s no wonder that Yojimbo spawned a few remakes although none of them quite compares to Kurosawa’s ballet of cool, stylistic cinema.