Release Date: September 13, 1961
How It Got Made: By the time Akira Kurosawa made 'Yojimbo,' he had already spent a decade as the Japanese director most admired in the West, thanks to international successes like 'Rashomon' and 'Seven Samurai.' (The latter film had even been remade as a Hollywood Western, 'The Magnificent Seven.') With 'Yojimbo,' Kurosawa returned the favor, distilling the two most American of genres (the gangster film and the Western) into a new kind of samurai picture. The result was not only a terrific success but also a vastly influential film, with its premise eventually retranslated back into the western and gangster genres, most memorably as 'A Fistful of Dollars.'
The screenplay for 'Yojimbo,' written by Kurosawa and Ryuzo Kikushima, borrowed heavily from American crime novelist Dashiell Hammett -- notably, from his works 'The Glass Key' (which Hollywood filmed twice, in 1935 and 1942) and 'Red Harvest.' In terms of screen composition, it owed a huge debt to Westerns by John Ford and others, with its showdowns on the dusty, wide street of a lawless town. In samurai lore, it marks a clash between the traditional and the modern, pitting its sword-wielding antihero against a pistol-packing villain.
That antihero, a ronin without a master or even a name (he calls himself Sanjuro, which just means "thirtysomething"), was something new in samurai movies. He has a moral code, but not one that older, more selfless samurai would recognize. While his actions free a despoiled town of two rival criminal gangs, he's not an altruist. He's just out for himself, cannily playing the two gangs against each other by hiring himself out to both sides as a mercenary and protector ('Yojimbo' means "bodyguard").
To play Sanjuro, Kurosawa hired his frequent leading man Toshiro Mifune. The similarly popular Tatsuya Nakadai as the primary bad guy, Unosuke.
Kurosawa was meticulous about the production design. The construction of an entire town from scratch made 'Yojimbo' his most expensive film yet. To get the dust-blown effect he liked, he imported truckloads of dust from a nearby military firing range. To make sure the street didn't look too newly-built and perfectly flat, he simulated the effect of erosion from rain dripping off the village rooftops by hiring a local fire department to spend a whole day spraying the roofs with water.
Kurosawa hired two cinematographers and pitted them against each other, much like Sanjuro did with the rival gangs. He had veteran Kazuo Miyagawa create classically composed shots with beautiful lighting, while he had newcomer Takao Saito do more jagged work, with his camera darting back and forth. And for one amazing tracking shot, in which the camera follows Sanjuro as he crawls beneath the floorboards, focus puller Daisaku Kimura dangled the heavy CinemaScope camera from above like a marionette, moving it with wires held in both hands, his mouth, and his big toe. He couldn't see what Mifune was doing, but he had mapped out his route in advance and followed it from memory.
One other celebrated shot, in which Sanjuro throws a knife and impales a fluttering leaf, was created by running the film backward; in the actual shot, the leaf is already pinned, the knife is yanked out with a wire, and the leaf is blown out of the frame.
The film was unusually violent by the standards of the day. The movie's tone is set when Sanjuro arrives in the town and sees a dog trotting by with a severed hand in its mouth. (Kurosawa got the idea when he saw a glove that a lighting technician had dropped.) The movie is not shy about showing severed limbs, and it's one of the first to use gruesomely realistic sound effects for the sword's blade slicing through flesh. As a swordsman, Mifune moved with remarkable speed; in a climactic scene, he cuts down ten opponents in ten seconds. After that massacre, there's so much blood that Nakadai broke out in a rash all over his body after lying in a pool of fake gore for three days of shooting.
How It Was Received: 'Yojimbo' was Kurosawa's biggest hit yet in Japan. One reading of the film suggests that younger Japanese audiences embraced the film as a political allegory of recent Japanese history. In that reading, the ruined town is Japan after World War II, and the two corrupt gangs are the old Japanese establishment (which led the country into the disastrous war) and the Americans (who disgraced Japan with defeat and occupation). Kurosawa himself never endorsed such a viewpoint; if he had any resentment over the supposed cultural imperialism of America, it was belied by his clear admiration for Hollywood genre movies.
'Yojimbo' met similar success around the world, catapulting Kurosawa and Mifune to new levels of international fame. It earned an Oscar nomination for Best Costumes. Mifune won the Best Actor prize at the Venice Film Festival and began to receive international job offers. But first, he and Kurosawa made a sequel, called 'Sanjuro,' which was not as well received.
Long-Term Impact: 'Yojimbo' was much-copied, most notoriously in 1964 by Sergio Leone, whose 'A Fistful of Dollars' is a virtual remake of 'Yojimbo' as a western. As a remake, it was unauthorized, leading to a lawsuit that kept the film out of North American theaters for three years. Nonetheless, 'Fistful' launched a whole genre of revisionist Westerns and made the careers of both its director and the star who played its nameless antihero: Clint Eastwood.
At home, 'Yojimbo' inspired a wave of "cruel films," known for their similarly black-comic tone and cavalier approach to violence. In 1970, Mifune starred in 'Zatoichi Meets Yojimbo,' in which he played a Sanjuro-like character who meets the blind swordsman played (as in 19 earlier films) by Shintaro Katsu.
Having parted ways with Kurosawa in 1965 after 16 films together, Mifune continued to enjoy success for another quarter-century, with his highest-profile role in America as Lord Toronaga in the TV mini-series 'Shogun.' The years after their rift were less kind to the director, who made only seven more films over the next three decades. (Two of them were the '80s epic masterpieces 'Kagemusha' and 'Ran,' both starring Nakadai.) The two men died within a year of each other: Mifune in 1997 and Kurosawa in 1998.
Still, 'Yojimbo's influence continued to be felt far and wide. There was an authorized remake, Walter Hill's 'Last Man Standing' (1996), that brought the story back to its gangster-drama roots. The Coen brothers' mob-movie homage 'Miller's Crossing' (1990) added large helpings of Hammett to the familiar premise. George Lucas turned the swordsmen of 'Yojimbo' (and of Kurosawa's 'The Hidden Fortress') into the lightsaber-wielding Jedi of the 'Star Wars' movies, while Quentin Tarantino turned 'Yojimbo's limb-lopping antihero into an antiheroine in 'Kill Bill.' Even John Waters emulated Kurosawa in 'Desperate Living,' with a scene with a dog with a severed human appendage in its mouth. (It's not a hand.)
How It Plays Today: 'Yojimbo' has become such a fixture of film culture, whether on its own merits or through its imitators, that it's hard to see it through fresh eyes. As a work of artistic depth with grand humanist themes, it doesn't stand up to Kurosawa's earlier adventures ('Seven Samurai') or later epics. Still, it's a terrific action film, one whose iconoclastic attitude, inventive camera work, and fearsome swordplay have kept it vital and cutting-edge.
Follow Gary Susman on Twitter @garysusman.
Photo Credits: The Criterion Collection