Yojimbo: Akira Kurosawa’s Samurai Swan Song

The Auteur

Akira Kurosawa
Photo Credit: Reading Tuesday Blogspot
Yojimbo (1961)
Photo Credit: Original Film Art

Yojimbo (Bodyguard)

Set in 1860, at the tail end of the Edo period (1603–1868), and thus, the demise of the Tokugawa shogunate, in which the samurai were largely exhausted and their importance diminished, Yojimbo tells the tale of a lowly ronin (a samurai without a lord or master) who stumbles upon a town in crisis as two warring factions engage in criminal activities to denounce the other’s control over the townsfolk. Essentially a jidaigeki film about the ill consequences of the two conflicting criminal enterprises, Kurosawa establishes a tale about the seemingly unceasing nature of gangsterdom, as each faction fights to maintain corrupt control over a certain area only to permit more and more irrevocable violence and injustice.

Yojimbo, the Bodyguard (Akira Kurosawa, 1961)
Photo Credit: Cinemania
Tatsuya Nakadai in Yojimbo
Photo Credit: Twitter

A Samurai’s Swansong

While Kurosawa’s Rashomon attempts to discern the extent of human fallibility, and Seven Samurai that of conviction through strength and the true nature of courage, Yojimbo, on the other hand, tends to dabble with the prospect of bushido, the code of honour historically practiced by samurai and one which Sanjuro arguably fails to meet.

Sanjuro (Toshiro Mifune) plays with his foes in Akira Kurosawa’s Yojimbo
Photo Credit: Cine FIles

A Fistful of Copyright

Perhaps our samurai’s disillusionment and lack of purpose in Yojimbo is why the movie has been so well recaptured in western cowboy epics as Sergio Leone’s A Fistful of Dollars released in 1964. Sanjuro’s passive violence and refusal to accept any sort of governance is irrefutably cowboy in nature — a silent, brooding outlaw, looking for the nearest buck or the easiest place to rest his head. Leone’s version starring Clint Eastwood as the central warrior is undoubtedly cruel and unchained, only helping those when it suits him or when the pay is good. It’s no wonder that Leone was sued for failing to secure the rights to Kurosawa’s samurai epic, leading to a 3 year delay and a legendary settlement out of court. See here for a side-by-side of Kurosawa’s Yojimbo and Leone’s A Fistful of Dollars.

Clint Eastwood as the Man with No Name in Segio Leone’s A Fistful of Dollars
Photo Credit: Film Daily
Toshiro Mifune, Akira Kurosawa and Tatsuya Nakadai on the set of Sanjuro
Photo Credit: How Creatives Work

Sayonara, Samurai

And with that, we end our three-part run on a select few of Akira Kurosawa’s legendary jidaigeki-chanbara films. Detailing the collective impact that they impelled on the world of western film, as well as the monumental resonance of each of their particular and diverse narratives. Yet, as per the myriad masterpieces in Kurosawa’s repertoire, there’s so much more to see.

Watch Akira Kurosawa’s Yojimbo on the BFI Player.

Originally published at www.japannakama.co.uk on September 10, 2020.

Japan Nakama are a London based online publication that investigates and explores all aspects of Japanese Culture.

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