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Review: Yojimbo–The Bodyguard (1961)

Directed by: | 110 minutes | action, , , | Actors: , , , , , Seizaburo Kawazu, , , Yosuke Natsuki, Eijiro Tono, , , Atsushi Watanabe, ,

Akira Kurosawa is a legendary Japanese director. He became world famous in 1954 with his masterpiece “Seven Samurai”. Other well-known films of his are, besides this “Yojimbo”, “Rashomon” and “Sanjuro”. Kurosawa’s most famous films are set in Japan’s feudal period (from the 13th century to the 17th century). Several of his plots are adaptations of William Shakespeare’s work, for example “Ran” (based on King Lear), and “Throne of Blood” (based on Macbeth). “The Hidden Fortress” (Kakushi toride no san akunin), the story of a princess, her general, and two ill-mannered peasants, is cited by George Lucas as an influence on his Star Wars films. Not just George Lucas, but every great filmmaker like Sergio Leone and claim to have been influenced by Kurosawa.

“Yojimbo” is about a samurai warrior who wanders aimlessly like a ronin and gets hired as a murderer to get money and food. This samurai, called Sanjuro, ends up in a village where there is a feud between two leaders, each with their own goons. The village is divided into two camps and a large part of the ordinary population has fled or been killed. Sanjuro decides to present himself as a mercenary to both parties to earn some money.

Toshiro Mifune plays the taciturn samurai warrior Sanjuro and he does so very convincingly. It is not for nothing that Kurosawa has collaborated with Mifune much more often. He is determined, cool and seems to be in control of every situation. It is nice to see how he slowly realizes what is going on in the village. In the beginning of the film, he witnesses an argument between a farmer and his son. The son prefers to gamble and live short and fast, the farmer curses his son and does not understand why he does not choose a quiet life as a farmer and he talks with a great sense of drama about “the youth of today”. Sanjuro understands that something is going on in the village, that the youth is attracted to a gambling palace and thus takes on a depraved attitude. He walks into the village, he sees no one, the only living creature that meets him is a dog with in its mouth… a torn off hand. Sanjuro then goes to the inn and is told what the matter is and then decides to have it hired by both parties. The opening scene between the farmer and his son is very funny, the dialogues and facial expressions are particularly comical. “Yojimbo” is known for his humor anyway. The inhabitants and warriors in the village are such caricatures that they are difficult to take seriously. For example, a woman tells her good-natured son that without killing and stealing you cannot build a fortune and when Sanjuro observes a group of crooks, the innkeeper tells him that the scum looks dangerous, but if you cut off an arm they become cute.

Kurosawa has made a good film with excellent tension build-up. Toshiro Mifune has been perfectly cast as the taciturn Sanjuro who, despite offering to kill for money, has a great sense of righteousness. The film is from 1961, shot in black and white and of course spoken entirely in Japanese. Does not sound very accessible, but that is not so bad. The humor and tension build-up make this film more than worth it. You don’t have to watch this movie for the fight scenes, they are very dated and amateurish.

Like ‘Seven Samurai’, ‘Yojimbo’ is highly inspired by John Ford’s westerns and the story is based on Dashiell Hammett’s 1927 novel “Red Harvest”. And just like ‘Seven Samurai’, this film got a remake from Kurosawa as western: without asking permission, Sergio Leone edited ‘Yojimbo’ into ‘A Fistful of Dollars’.

Leone even copied one scene almost literally. Sanjuro wants to show both sides what he can do and goes into battle with a number of villains. Just seconds later, two of them are dead and a third’s arm has been cut off. He walks away imperturbably and says to the gravedigger, “Two boxes, maybe even three.” “A Fistful of Dollars” contains almost exactly the same scene with . Shamelessly stolen from Leone or just an ode to Akira Kurosawa? Let’s just keep it to the last because “Yojimbo” is an absolute masterpiece.

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