A nameless samurai (Toshirô Mifune) wanders into a town divided by two warring clans, each equally unscrupulous. Offering his services as a yojimbo, or bodyguard, to the highest bidder, the cunning ronin switches from one side to another, scheming to ensure their mutual destruction so that the long-suffering townsfolk can live in peace. All goes according to plan until Unosuke (Tatsuya Nakadai), a crafty, six-gun toting killer grows suspicious after the yojimbo comes to the aid of a captive woman (Yoko Tsukasa), her husband and little son.
Here’s a strange sort of “six degrees of seperation” for you: what links master samurai film maker Akira Kurosawa with buxom country and western icon Dolly Parton? Nope, it’s not their mutual love of sequined outfits. The answer is Yojimbo, which inspired the young Lawrence Kasdan to pen The Bodyguard (1992) which starred the late Whitney Houston who of course sang the hit theme song “I Will Always Love You” which was written by the great Dolly herself. Aside from this unforseen legacy, Kurosawa’s classic chanbara film is equally notable for inspiring A Fistful of Dollars (1964), thus indirectly kicking off the spaghetti western craze and setting Clint Eastwood on the path to international stardom too.
Later uncredited remakes or variations on its plot include the Coen Brothers period gangster film Miller’s Crossing (1990), the Bruce Willis vehicle Last Man Standing (1996), the rural Italian crime thriller Cry of a Prostitute (1974), and basically every Django movie right down to Takashi Miike’s underrated Sukiyaki Western Django (2007). However, more than a few critics charged Kurosawa with mounting an uncredited adaptation of Red Harvest, a crime novel written by hard-boiled author Dashiell Hammett, whilst a key scene in which the hero is roughed up was allegedly drawn from another Hammett novel, The Glass Key, twice adapted for the screen in 1935 and 1942. Strangely, no-one thought to mention this when Kurosawa sued Warner Bros. and Sergio Leone over A Fistful of Dollars.
Controversy aside, Yojimbo is a masterwork from a cinematic genius, the first production made by Kurosawa’s own film company and a statement of purpose. Its scruffy, uncouth, seemingly amoral antihero marked a radical break from the sort of virtuous samurai Toshirô Mifune had played in his Musashi Miyamoto films, although the seeds had been sown with Seven Samurai (1954). Although the yojimbo adopts the name Sanjuro, he is actually as anonymous as Eastwood’s Man with No Name. Mifune’s Yojimbo is a man who lives by his wits, certainly, but masks a deeply moral code beneath his cynical bluster. His true allegiance lies with those victimised and downtrodden. It is like the old saying, a cynic is the definition of a modern romantic because he searches desperately for beauty and truth.
This deft balance a dynamic and visceral filmmaking style with a profoundly humanist outlook is what seperates Kurosawa from the many action film imitators who followed in his wake, or drew superficially from his past work. Yojimbo is also a model of tight, economical yet evocative storytelling packed with moments of dry wit, dark surrealism (e.g. the stray dog carrying a human head - a potent image of social depravity) and an array of lively, memorable characters right down to the bit players. Its stark, limb-lopping violence paved the way for the ultra-gory chanbara films of the late Sixties and Seventies onwards, but its core values are those of an old-fashioned Hollywood western: by removing violent, war-mongering men, civilisation can grow. The great Tatsuya Nakadai - incidentally the first Asian actor to star in an Italian western with Today We Kill... Tomorrow We Die! (1968) - gives a sterling performance as the wily antagonist. He later succeeded Mifune as Kurosawa’s leading man of choice, but Yojimbo remains primarily a showcase for Japan’s greatest movie star who damn near burns celluloid with his swaggering charisma. Of Mifune, Kurosawa once said: “He said in a single action what took ordinary actors three seperate movements to express.” Kurosawa and Mifune returned with another outing for the yojimbo character: Sanjuro (1962). Cracking score by Masaru Sato.
Japanese director and writer, and one of the most important figures in 20th century cinema. Kurosawa was greatly influenced by Hollywood - John Ford being his idol - but more than any other film-maker was responsible for introducing Japanese films to West. He originally trained as an artist and worked as a studio scriptwriter, before directing his first film in 1943, the martial arts drama Judo Saga. Kurosawa's next few films were made during World War II and had to adhere to strict state guidelines; it was 1948's gangster movie Drunken Angel that first saw the director's emerging personal vision, and was his first film to star regular leading man Toshirô Mifune.
Rashomon was the film that brought Kurosawa acclaim in the West, winning top prize at the Venice Film Festival in 1951, and a string of classics followed - Throne of Blood, The Hidden Fortress, Yojimbo, Seven Samurai - all set in Feudal Japan and combining incredible cinematography and thrilling action with humour, sadness and deep insights into human behaviour. The director also turned in some superb non-period film around this time too, such as the thrillers The Bad Sleep Well and High and Low.
The following decade proved a frustrating one for Kurosawa, as he struggled to get projects off the ground, culminating with the box office failure of Dodesukaden and a suicide attempt in 1970. The director's fortunes turned when 1975's Russian epic Dersu Uzala won the Best Foreign Language Oscar, while his next two films were among his very best - the beautifully shot Kagemusha and 1985's spectacular, hugely successful King Lear adaptation, Ran. Kurosawa's final films were smaller and more personal - Dreams, Rhapsody in August and Not Yet. He died of a stroke in 1998, aged 88.