The opening sequence of Yojimbo (The Bodyguard), Akira Kurosawa’s darkly comic samurai film from 1961, must have caught Japanese moviegoers quite off guard. First, there was the jazzy percussive score, with its almost African feel and slight nods toward Ravel’s Bolero. Second, the entire two-and-a-half minutes of the opening credits simply show a rear view of a lone samurai walking along a road, flexing his shoulders, occasionally scratching his back or his head; you never really get to see his face. By the time the credits and opening theme end, he has come to a fork in the road, where he chooses which way to go by tossing a stick into the air. I don’t know a whole lot about samurai films, but I’d venture to say that this was a bit of a bold move by Kurosawa, as Japanese historical films tended at that time to be quite serious. But the music is a giveaway, so that within the first few minutes the viewer knows that this is going to be something a little different.
Given the somewhat jocular nature of the credits, it should be no surprise that one of the things that sets Yojimbo apart from previous samurai epics is the humor. The film doesn’t play broadly for laughs – it’s not a parody or a farce. But there’s a certain knowing, smart-alecky feel to it, which seems very modern in some ways for a 1961 film. Most of the characters are almost caricatures – the bad guys border on the ridiculous, occasionally crossing the line, and the couple “good” characters are comedic types also (a sad sack restaurateur and a gleefully opportunistic constable). The samurai himself remains the closest thing to a real character. He manages to stand above all the shenanigans, so that it’s almost as if an adult has walked into a violent drama staged by children.
The plot of Yojimbo is fairly well known: a lone samurai wanders into a town which is besieged by two clans of warring criminals. The samurai, a mercenary, decides to play both sides against each other, freeing the town from both groups while getting paid by both in the process. If you haven’t seen Yojimbo, but this still sounds familiar, you may have seen one of the two remakes, the more famous of which is Sergio Leone’s A Fistful of Dollars, the film which put both Clint Eastwood and the “spaghetti western” on the map. The other is Walter Hill’s 1996 version Last Man Standing, with Bruce Willis. Leone sets his remake in the Wild West, of course, while Hill’s is set in Prohibition-era Texas.
Besides the humor, the other thing that was apparently rather shocking to the original audiences was the violence. By the end of the film the body count is pretty high, and while none of the killings is very bloody or graphic, the sheer number of them probably took viewers aback, especially in one scene where a group of unarmed members of one gang are killed by the other. (This scene was extremely brutal in Leone’s remake.) Modern viewers, though, unfortunately rather numb to this sort of thing, probably will find it tame by today’s standards.
Given the slightly cartoonish nature of the secondary characters (played very well, mind you) mention must be made of the great Toshiro Mifune’s performance as Sanjuro, the samurai. His character is the most realistic of the bunch, with just the right amount of swagger, and a number of tics which give him personality. He’s smart, and despite the violence of what’s going on in the town, finds a good deal of it humorous. Part of the fun is watching him play the other characters, pushing their buttons, and capitalizing on their responses. In some ways this is all a game to him, a game that the viewer is in on.
I remember when I first watched this movie many years ago, after having seen A Fistful of Dollars any number of times, I was a little disappointed by the tongue-in-cheek nature of the thing. Leone’s movie had a little of that, but the overall tone was much more serious. Of course in hindsight it’s plain to see that it was Leone who changed the tone, and that the change wasn’t necessarily an improvement.
Kurosawa didn’t make many “light” movies – most of his better-known works are fairly serious, both the historical films and the contemporary ones. Yojimbo stands out not only as the best among these lighter works, but as one of his best and most influential films overall. Of course, the “lightness” of the film is relative – it’s still generally considered “darkly comic,” as I said above. But it’s not one of those films in which the darkness totally subverts the comedy, so it manages to maintain its entertainment value without leaving a cloud over your head.
—Rob Grano has a degree in religious studies which he's put to good use working on the insurance side of the healthcare industry for the past 20 years. He's published a number of book and music reviews, mostly in the small press, and sometimes has even gotten paid for it. He lives outside of Pittsburgh, Pa.