WARNING: The following article assumes the reader has seen the movie being discussed. It may likely include key plot points, spoilers, and references to the movie's ending.
Directed by Akira Kurosawa.
The Acclaimed Samurai Comedy Western
For years, I had been hearing about the reputation of Akira Kurosawa, the great Japanese director who inspired so many western directors (most notably George Lucas). He directed Rashomon and Ran, and his Seven Samurai was remade in to The Magnificent Seven, his Yojimbo was remade as A Fistful of Dollars and Last Man Standing. My dad loved these movies as well. I think it was just a matter of time before I would catch one for myself.
Since I was interested in seeing A Fistful of Dollars, I decided to watch Yojimbo. Expecting perhaps some grand, sweeping samurai tale, I was a little surprised to see what I saw: a scruffy samurai as the main character; a couple of warring feudal Japanese gangs portrayed mostly as bumbling cowards; and some really goofy characters, such as a dopey chubby ganglord's brother, a gleeful undertaker, an irascible cafe owner, and, of all things, a maniacal looking guy with a gun. A dog runs through the street with a severed human hand in its mouth, accompanied by funny music. The samurai's theme music is also funny but cool. As it turns out, the movie was enjoyable, but it made me wonder what it was about Kurosawa that was supposed to be so majestic.
After doing some reading about his movies, it turns out that Yojimbo and its sequel, Sanjuro, were the acclaimed deviations in Kurosawa's career; that is, instead of his usual epics, these two were mostly known as the "samurai comedies." Ahhhhh! I'm not sure if they were quite comedies, but most of the things that happened in Yojimbo seemed so goofy that I could see where this distinction was made.
Yojimbo is also called Kurosawa's attempt at making a "western," and that is quite apparent. It is said that Kurosawa loved the American western, and this was his homage to it, featuring a dusty town, a mysterious hero, and even a showdown. The overall plot is about a ronin (a samurai with no allegiance, played by the great Japanese actor Toshiro Mifune) who wanders into a town besieged by two warring gangs, whom he decides to manipulate into competing for his services, thus benefitting himself. It's only fitting that it was remade as A Fistful of Dollars by Italian director Sergio Leone, placing the story in an actual western setting.
I will have to admit, though, that one aspect of the movie bothered me, and this has to do with the plot (hence, it bothers me in A Fistful of Dollars as well). Just why was it so easy for one side to totally destroy the other side when they were just really angry enough to? It seemed that the two sides were never really serious about conducting a war to actually annihilate one another until one side was made particularly furious, and then certain death was inescapable for the other side. It's as if one could've destroyed the other at any time they really wanted to, they just never felt like it. Was this really the case? Oh well. I don't think it was anything to lose sleep over, just kind of a curiosity to me in the end.
So, overall, 'twas a good movie, albeit kind of strange. I do consider this required viewing if one ever plans to see A Fistful of Dollars, the movie that sent Clint Eastwood's career skyrocketing. You will see that A Fistful of Dollars is practically the same movie, only with less humor. It was also remade as the Bruce Willis gangster movie, Last Man Standing, and I have yet to see that.
©Jeffrey Chen, October 2000