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#59. Throne of Blood & #60. Yojimbo & #61. Sanjuro - Review / Analysis

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Akira Kurosawa’s 1961 film Yojimbo was the precursor to the great Italian westerns made famous by Sergio Leone in the 1960’s. Himself inspired by the American director John Ford, Kurosawa transformed a single village from feudal Japan into a dusty war zone. Similar to many of his earlier works, Kurosawa succeeds with Yojimbo by creating complex, sympathetic characters and setting them in locations full of rich, palpable atmosphere. Be it a confused tale of mixed-up agendas and memories like in Rashomon, a re-imagining of Shakespeare’s Macbeth again set in feudal Japan like Throne of Blood, or an American western told with samurai swords instead of pistols like Yojimbo; Kurosawa was a master of ambience and tenor.

Yojimbo stars Kurosawa regular Toshiro Mifune as the “man with no name,” a master-less samurai (ronin) who one day wanders into a small village in the middle of a bloody civil war. Mifune uses his wits and his superior sword fighting skills to manipulate both of the town’s gang lords currently at war with each other. By playing both sides, double dealing, double crossing, and never hesitating to use his lethal blade, Mifune cleans up the streets by being both an amoral conman and a loyal samurai.

Toshiro Mifune in Throne of Blood

Although not as haunting as Throne of Blood or as humorous as Yojimbo’s quasi-sequel Sonjuro, this film is a perfect example of Kurosawa’s ability to create a completely believable environment. The director is capable of pure occidentalism, borrowing themes and motifs from American western pictures and then believably engaging these western techniques in his oriental setting. In Rachel Hutchinson’s essay Orientalism or Occidentalism? Dynamics of Appropriation in Akira Kurosawa the author explains that Japanese cinema is, “… set up as confined, limited and in need of techniques and ideas from the West, achieving success when it assimilates or incorporates Western Cinema.” (174) Yojimbo is a classic American genre film, but at the same time Kurosawa is able to assimilate, embracing its “japaneseness.”

Yojimbo film posterWhile Throne of Blood was an adaptation of Shakespeare’s classic play, many of his other films deal with the samurai, and his code of honor called bushido. Kurosawa seems fascinated by Japan’s ancient warrior, and never hesitates to put him and his ethical code to the test. In Rashomon the only truth the audience knows for sure is that a samurai has died. Between the disheveled remembrances of all concerned, it is just as easy to accept the samurai’s version of the story as the bandit’s or the wife. In Yojimbo, Mifune’s samurai is a ronin, left master-less assumedly during the Tokugawa Shogun’s era of peace. Although a time is never given in the film, I would speculate that Kurosawa might be making a comment about the samurai’s transition from noble warrior to bureaucratic paper pusher during the Meiji restoration of the 19th century. During the years leading up to the end of the Shogun’s reign and Emperor Mutsuhito’s goal of unifying Japan, the samurai class and way of life was slowly becoming extinct. During the feudal era of Japan a samurai served only his lord, dedicating his life to his master. The ronin in Yojimbo has no lord, and instead takes advantage of the two bosses’ own belief that the samurai would serve whomever he chose wholeheartedly. Like the warriors of the Meiji restoration, men were expected to honor not their lord, but their boss. In the heavily bureaucratic restructuring of Japan’s government during the last half of the 19th century, the samurai/master relationship evolved into a subordinate/superior relationship. Where there once was love and honor between two men was now just a respect, easily transferred to the next man brought in to replace the last boss. Even though the ronin in Yojimbo does commit honorable actions throughout the film, I would argue he purposefully manipulates everyone involved by his actions and their own assumptions of the bushido code.

Be it a commentary on the lost way of the samurai, or just another example of Kurosawa’s “appropriation of the western genre in the 1960s,” (176) Yojimbo is an incredible film. Its village and characters serve the story and the ronin, while Kurosawa’s ability at producing the perfect ambience for his films is no different in this samurai-western. Perhaps not as accessible as Leone’s own A Fistful of Dollars, Toshiro Mifune as the wondering warrior with no name is far more enjoyable than Eastwood’s cigar chomping cowboy.

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