Yojimbo (1961)
Directed by Akira Kurosawa

Starring Toshiro Mifune (Sanjuro), Tatsuya Nakadai (Unosuke), Isuzu Yamada (Orin), Kyu Sazanka (Ushitora), Daisuke Kato (Inokichi), Seizaburo Kawazu (Seibei), Yoko Tsukasa (Nui), Takashi Shimura (Tokuemon), Kamatari Fujiwara (Tazaemon), Eijiro Tono (Gonji), Yoshio Tsuchiya (Kohei), Susumu Fujita (Homma), Atsushi Watanabe (The coffin maker)
Screenplay by Akira Kurosawa and Ryuzo Kikushima
Cinematography by Kazuo Miyagawa
Music by Masaru Sato

Toho Company, 110 minutes
B&W, 2.35:1 scope ratio
English-subtitled DVD and Blu-ray: Criterion

Released at the beginning of the '60s, Yojimbo established the template for the great chambara classics that appeared throughout the decade and beyond. There had been plenty of movies about ronin before, and there had previously been jidai-geki with an irreverant attitude. But Yojimbo set the standard of the cynical, independent-minded ronin that would become a central icon in the films that followed. This movie's enormous influence was felt worldwide, most famously in the case of Sergio Leone's A Fistful of Dollars and also in every modern Hollywood production about a dark, mysterious anti-hero who kicks ass and plays by his own rules. Not to mention being the direct inspiration for one of the most familiar representations of the samurai in the American consciousness: John Belushi's gruff and slovenly impersonation of Toshiro Mifune in a variety of modern occupations.

The supremely imitated lead character, who goes by the alias of Sanjuro, wanders into a desolate, dusty town infested with corruption and paranoia. Rival crime lords Seibei and Ushitora run the town, and the only other party finding prosperity in the town is the local coffin-maker. Sanjuro decides to stick around and capitalize on this powder-keg situation by offering his services as a bodyguard, or yojimbo.

When I first saw Yojimbo as a teenager, I got confused because I couldn't keep track of and what Sanjuro was intending with all his schemes and whose side he was on. Of course, that's the whole point: he's not on anyone's side but his own. Sanjuro hates both Seibei and Ushitora and would love to see both sides get destroyed, so he forces them into a bidding war over his services and manipulates events to exacerbate the tension between them. Sanjuro's cunning plots are mostly successful, thanks to the general stupidity running rampant among both gangs.

And none is more stupid than Ushitora's imbecile brother Inokichi (played by Mifune's fellow Seven Samurai member Daisuke Kato), who facilitates Sanjuro's greatest stunt. When Ushitora has six guards holding an innocent woman hostage, Sanjuro offers to go reinforce them with Inokichi's help, saying that six men may not be enough. Sanjuro momentarily distracts Inokichi at the place of the captivity, then informs Inokichi that all the men have been killed. Inokichi runs back to get help from his brother, leaving Sanjuro alone to reveal that – surprise! – the six guards are still on duty. He rushes in to kill them all in the blink of an eye, rescues the hostages, then wrecks the place to make it look like a major battle took place. Sanjuro tells Ushitora it must have been about 15 or 16 men who made the assault. Now that's what kind of cast-iron balls this Sanjuro guy has! And there's another awesome Inokichi dupe later own, when Inokichi is tricked into helping smuggle an injured Sanjuro away from the scene of a fight hidden inside a coffin, when Inokichi is supposed to be looking for Sanjuro.

Unfortunately, not all the gangsters are such morons. Midway through the movie we meet Ushitora and Inokichi's other brother Unosuke (played by Tatsuya Nakadai, in the first of his many major roles for Kurosawa), who is the smart one in the family. Unosuke sees through Sanjuro's duplicity and severely complicates his plans. Further distinguishing Unosuke is his choice of weapon, a pistol, which he theatrically waves around with a big grin like a child showing off a beloved toy. The inevitable showdown between Sanjuro and Unosuke becomes a battle between the old and the new, the sword vs. the gun, dying samurai tradition vs. the rising yakuza underworld.

Honestly, even as many times as I've watched Yojimbo and with all accumulated chambara experience, I still find it tricky today to follow its myriad plot intricacies, just as I did as a neophyte. Of the handful of most famous jidai-geki films, this may be one of the most difficult to understand. You practically need a scorecard to keep track of who belongs to which gang, which local merchant they're aligned with, who's bribing who, what hostages are being captured and exchanged, and what angle Sanjuro is playing amidst it all at any given moment.

But in the end, it doesn't really matter if you lose your grasp on some of these threads. Yojimbo is a sensory experience to let wash over you, where you can get caught up in the fun and the spectacle. It's one of the most exquisitely photographed action films ever shot, featuring the first collaboration between Kurosawa and genius cinematographer Kazuo Miyagawa since Rashomon. The movie is chock-a-block with weird and unforgettable imagery: the dog that greets Sanjuro to the hell-town walking by with a severed human hand in its jaws; the circus-freak giant Ushitora henchman who lumbers into battle armed with a colossal mallet (best chambara goon ever!); the "high noon" parody showdown of both gangs charging and retreating from each other, too cowardly to strike, while Sanjuro from his lookout perch heckles their jidai-geki version of a West Side Story number; the ghoulish sight of a battered and bloody Sanjuro arising in the grawveyard, looking like a kabuki ghost demon; and the final surprising swing of Sanjuro's deadly blade before he departs with a smiling "Abayo!" ("See ya!")

The Jidai-Geki Knights