The Cinema of Japan: Yojimbo

Here we are with the final post in my week (and a bit) focus on the cinema of Japan. I hope you guys have enjoyed these posts and thanks to the guest bloggers that have helped me along the way. Don’t forget that you have a shot at winning three Japanese films from Madman and entries will close a week from this post going up.


It is a little surprising that Akira Kurosawa’s iconic Yojimbo (1961) does not feature on the 1001. I have seen a few of the great man’s films, but this is the first from what I guess you would call his really classic, samurai focused phase that I have managed to catch.

Apparently this film had a particular influence on (or even just supplied the entire plot for) a whole bunch of Western films. Even if you did not know that fact going in, it is pretty plain to see. A lone, violent man called Sanjuro saunters into town. He attracts the attention of the locals who are transfixed by this stranger. The town that Sanjuro wanders into is in the midst of a bloody and closely fought gang war. After showing his prowess by slicing and dicing a couple of hapless minions, he is courted by both sides looking to buy themselves some muscle. It is these really well scripted negotiations with both sides that take up a majority of the film’s running time. These elongated sequences of both sides bidding for his services are really interesting. They are quite detailed and multilayered, but the script is good enough not to need to get unnecessarily (or even at all) dense. Not get too concerned though. This isn’t Margin Call (2011) with everyone sitting around the boardroom table talking shop. There is plenty of quality sword fighting action to go around as well.

yojimbo minot characters.Sanjuro is actually a really interesting central character. He is I guess an anti-hero. For much of the film he is pretty unlikeable as he plays a bunch of (all admittedly unlikeable) people off against one another. Not exactly noble, he is content to sell himself to the highest paying crew, or preferably just rip them all off repeatedly, causing chaos in the town in the process. As such, it is a bit of an abrupt change where toward the end of the film, we as the audience are meant to now sympathise with this character, because up to that point he has done nothing in the slightest bit heroic. I kind of respected him as a dude who walked to the beat of his own drum the whole way through, but there is a definite jump from that to out and out sympathy.   In the end though, after a fair dose of humility is beaten into him, it is hard not to feel the exact things for Sanjuro that Kurosawa was angling for the whole time. It just takes him to be literally beaten down so badly that it is borderline impossible not to feel sympathy for the man for this to happen. The character is played really well by Toshiro Mifune, one of Kurosawa’s creative muses throughout his career. He brings a searing, yet quiet intensity to the character of Sanjuro, keeping his motives hidden from the rest of the characters, but letting them know he definitely always means business.

I am not sure if there is folk source material behind Yojimbo that I don’t know about, but this pretty cool tale definitely did feel like an old fashioned fable to me. Bound by a single town and for much of it consisting of negotiations, it is lucky the script is so good. It is also refreshing in an age of ultra-seriousness in serious film, that this particular flick is not afraid to add in a rich sense of humour to the action. I am not sure if the soundtrack was influenced by classical Westerns or influenced them. But there is clearly some cross-pollination one way or the other which that just feeds into the notion that this is an Eastern Western of top class.

yojimbo tower

I can definitely see why Yojimbo is not just one of Kurosawa’s most famous films, but also a highly influential one in world cinema. As possibly the best samurai film I have ever seen, a distinctly Japanese genre if one exists, this is a highly apt way to finish off this look at the Japanese cinema.

Verdict: Pint of Kilkenny

This week thanks to Madman Entertainment, you have the chance to win a copy of AceAttorney, Black Belt and Yojimbo on DVD. Head here for all the details on how to enter.

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4 responses

  1. Great essay! This movie is indeed a fable at it’s core and is one of my favorite Kurosawa films. Sanjuro is also one of my favorite anti-heroes. This film is timeless and classic on so many levels. Good job and a very informative post. Thanks!

    1. Awesome, cheers for reading and commenting Vic. Glad you enjoyed it.

  2. I’m so glad you did this series on Japanese films. Yojimbo is a movie I definitely need to revisit. Mifune and Nakadai are so, so great in it and the theme music is just right.

    1. Thanks for commenting and glad you enjoyed the series of posts. Agree with you on the theme song. Fits the rest of the film spot on.

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