“Yojimbo” is a classic film from the acclaimed Japanese director Akira Kurasawa. It was made in 1961, and it is based on the novel ‘Red Harvest’ by Dashiel Hammett. It is the first of three films that have adapted this story. (“A Fistful of Dollars” and “Last Man Standing” can be regarded as remakes of “Yojimbo” rather than the novel.)
I am a huge fan of Kurasawa’s films, and I think there is so much in this to be appreciated. It has strangely comedic elements that are missing from the subsequent films, with minor characters behaving in a way that seems foolish, ridiculous even. It lightens what is otherwise quite a dark story.
The plot is fairly simple. Two rival factions in a town have gone to war for control of trade. Their feud has become violent, leaving the rest of the town in fear and unable to go about their business safely. The hero is a wandering samurai without current employment, who observes this situation and believes he can turn it to his own benefit. No one has the moral high ground in this story. It is a good example that a good story does not have to be a complex one, though the machinations of the hero start to get more complex as the story progresses.
The film stars an actor used extensively by Kurosawa (in sixteen films), who is really quite marvellous in my opinion, Toshiro Mifune. He made nearly 170 films during his career and has a star on the Hollywood Walk of Fame. His character in Yojimbo was a forerunner to the ‘man with no name’ character made famous by Clint Eastwood. He is quite wonderful to watch in this movie, and there are many scenes in which he is saying nothing at all and just watching others where he is great fun to watch due to his reactions to their words or actions. This film would simply not be the same film without him in the role. The supporting cast are equally fun. Ejiro Tono, who plays the innkeeper, spends nearly the entire film in a state of extreme annoyance, complaining to anyone who will listen about the disgusting state of affairs in the town. He is extremely entertaining.
Kurosawa’s technique in filming scenes is great to watch. He often has a way of shooting something that is a little different than you might expect. He makes less use of close up head shots than is customary, shooting scenes wide so all the actors can be seen at once. Some of these scenes become more effective as more can be seen. For example there is a scene where the two opposing gangs are facing off in a street. The view is from above, mimicking the main character’s position where he has climbed up a structure to watch what is going on. The wide scene enables the viewer to enjoy the comic element of the not-so-keen gang members advancing and retreating, and on one side the wife of the leader standing guard at the rear with a big stick, which she uses on anyone who tries to sneak away. It’s a small detail of the overall scene but it adds to the humour.
This film has comedy, drama, and action. It is a great offering from a great director. I would highly recommend this, and, if you like it, check out Kurosawa’s other films.