Director: Akira Kurosawa
Screenplay: Hideo Oguni, Shinobu Hashimoto, Akira Kurosawa
Starring: Toshiro Mifune, Eijiro Tono, Suuzo Yamda, Seizaburo Kawazu, Isuzu Yamada
Running Time: 106 minutes
Genre: Action, period, drama
In around 1860, a masterless samurai (or "ronin") (Mifune) arrives by chance in a small village which is being torn apart by a vicious, long-running war between rival criminal gangs. When he learns of the situation, the samurai decides to hire himself out as a bodyguard (or "yojimbo") to one of the gangs. However, he very quickly realises that the gangs are each as loathsome as each other, and so he decides to play both sides, setting them against each other and in the process increasing his fee.
The film was the second production from Kurosawa's own production company. The first film, The Bad Sleep Well (1960) in which Kurosawa sought to expose the corruption of the modern world by setting the plot of Shakespeare's Hamlet in the context of a modern Japanese corporation, had somehow failed to pull in the popcorn guzzlers of the world en masse, and had lost a lot of money. For the company's second production, Kurosawa returned to the jidai-geki (period films) with which he had had his greatest successes. Influenced by the 1928 Dashiell Hammet novel Red Harvest and the American Westerns which Kurosawa loved, Yojimbo proved to be a massive worldwide hit.
The film is a classic action movie mixing tension and dark humour with sudden bursts of kinetic violent action. The film is visually striking with artfully composed widescreen images (it really has to be seen in widescreen on the biggest screen possible to work at it's best). The violence is expertly choreographed into almost a ballet of action. It also features Kurosawa's penchant for memorable action sequences set in the pouring rain (he was one of the few directors who really made effective use of the weather in his films). One of the main reasons behind the success of this work is the lead actor Toshiro Mifune who creates an iconic presence as the sardonic taciturn samurai who regards the world with a wry smile and remains nameless throughout (in one scene he is asked his name while gazing out of the window at a field of mulberry bushes and answers to the effect of "mulberry field... thirty... That's good enough. I am nobody"). Mifune's character is smart, orchestrating the gangs against each other and watching the fun from a lookout tower, like a referee. He also behaves in his own way with conscience and honour. While he is not averse to killing for money, he also helps weaker or victimised people for no personal gain. He also has a sense of humour, such as in the scene where, while spying on his enemies he puts his finger to his lips and sticks his tongue out when he learns how they plan to kill him. He arrives in the village purely by chance and stays for no particular reason other than to make some money and because he apparently thinks it would be fun to give the gangsters a richly deserved ass kicking. The character is almost a superhero, Kurosawa himself dubbed him "a samurai of the imagination".
The film has numerous blackly comic scenes, such as the image of the dog wandering around with a severed human hand in it's mouth, and is hugely entertaining for anyone who enjoys action and suspense.
The film was popular enough to warrant a sequel, Sanjuro (1962), which was also directed by Kurosawa. It was also famously remade as A Fistful of Dollars (1964) and less famously as Last Man Standing (1996).
Toshiro Mifune in Yojimbo