Discovering Kurosawa: Yojimbo and Sanjuro

yojimboA smaller film than Seven Samurai, Yojimbo still managed to be a huge influence on not only samurai movies but action-adventure cinema around the world. It’s not hard to see why. Yojimbo’s plot and characterisation feel archetypal and yet haven’t withered from being so emulated. Kurosawa also harmonises so many discordant tones that, despite being ‘simpler’ than Seven Samurai, the film remains a true accomplishment in its seeming effortlessness.

Toshiro Mifune plays a  nameless ronin (he uses the name Sanjuro) who wanders into a village dominated by two warring factions. Each tries to recruit him as a bodyguard. Believing the village would be better off with both sides dead, Sanjuro uses his value to play them against each other. Mifune is radically different here to his Seven Samurai performance, more stoic and intimidating but radiating an amusing disdain. Kikuchiyo’s manic energy and glee burst out on occasion, but I’m fully aware now of Mifune’s versatility. He’s virtually unrecognisable for much of the film.

The scenario of the wily samurai outwitting crime lords may have been a pre-existing trope of samurai films. I’ve seen it in the early Zatoichi films I’ve watched, which immediately followed Yojimbo, so it seems likely. However, Kurosawa executes it with such command and flow that this is surely one of the leading examples. Each side has numerous key players, but it’s never hard to follow who’s who and what’s going on. Any confusion comes from not fully knowing Sanjuro’s agenda in the early part of the film and what his actions mean, but once he is confirmed as a slightly mischievous anti-hero happy to kill self-interested criminals while looking out for their victims, the intrigue comes into full focus.

Based on these two performances, Mifune excels at playing dubiously heroic characters. Sanjuro is a delight to watch because he’s highly competent but still enjoys running rings around foolish opponents. His begrudging decency keeps him from being smug and unlikeable, and yet the film wouldn’t be nearly as interesting or fun with a hand-on-heart do-gooder in the lead. So many future cinematic anti-heroes echo Sanjuro, especially those who gave their films vital flavour. Han Solo springs to mind.

Despite the similar village setting, the scale of Yojimbo isn’t as grand as Seven Samurai. The village isn’t as large and we never leave it, but the iconography is still striking. Much has been written about Yojimbo being a samurai Western, especially given A Fistful of Dollars was an unofficial remake* . The two sides slowly walking down the long main street to confront each other is straight out of a Western, as is the gorgeous shot near the end of Sanjuro standing in the distance, ready for revenge. Yet the style so suits the samurai genre that it could credibly have developed in isolation. It places the characters at a stoic remove from each other that’s appropriate to Japanese culture. Kurosawa didn’t necessarily adopt the style of the genre because of its iconic flair. Perhaps he recognised its inherently Japanese qualities.

The fluctuating tone of Yojimbo does differentiate it from Westerns, however. Sanjuro’s easy back-and-forth manipulation of the two sides is inherently farcical, confirmed by the playful trumpet score. While the film isn’t primarily a comedy, Kurosawa is willing to portray his villains as buffoons. A Western would rarely have a villain who wasn’t the pinnacle of imposing machismo.

But Yojimbo still has serious stakes. We feel relief and gratitude when Sanjuro gives the young family his payment and tells them to escape, and recoil at his beating by Unosoke’s men. It doesn’t reach for the heights of Seven Samurai’s poignancy, but violence and survival have meaning beyond plot devices. That Kurosawa can not just toggle effectively between these tones but merge them into a cohesive and superior whole is another confirmation for me of his genius.

And unlike Seven Samurai, I wanted to spend more time with Mifune’s character and actually can. Kurosawa made another film with the character, Sanjuro, and Mifune played similar characters in Zatochi meets Yojimbo (what luck!) and Incident at Blood Pass.

Sanjuro was originally meant to be a direct adaptation of Shūgorō Yamamoto’s short story “Peaceful Days”, but the popularity of Mifune’s Sanjuro prompted the studio to have Kurosawa incorporate him into the new film. With more political intrigue and complex plotting, it’s less a Japanese Western and more a samurai caper flick. But without the clear geography and opposing gangs of the previous film, Sanjuro isn’t as striking a vision as Yojimbo. The plot can be even be hard to follow at times.

Sanjuro overhears nine young samurai talking about the corruption of their lord chamberlain. He makes them realise that the official they assume is acting properly is their true enemy, and offers to help when he realises the chamberlain and his family are in danger. Echoing the first film, he appears to play both sides at points and some doubt his motives. But this time he’s undercover and committed to helping one side, not manipulating both so they’ll destroy each other.

By cementing a Zatoichi-like format of the lead wandering into the serious but not disturbing conflicts of a small town, Sanjuro takes the formula approach to a sequel rather than creating a radically different film around the same character. The film therefore can’t pack the same punch as its predecessor, but it remains superb entertainment.

More films starring Mifune as Sanjuro under Kurosawa’s direction would have been a joy. The wandering samurai format is uniquely captivating in combining action and intrigue with the grace and stoicism of Japanese culture. While the Zatoichi films are a pleasure to watch for these reasons, Kurosawa’s duology are richer and more finely crafted. This is formula filmmaking of the highest calibre. The pleasures of a format that’s twisted and shaken slightly with each installment shouldn’t be undervalued. Breaking new ground isn’t a prerequisite for quality cinema.

Kurosawa and Mifune evidently saw that appeal in returning to the character. Both films are expert examples of escapist filmmaking and probably highly rewatchable. Kurosawa is proving to be a more tonally diverse filmmaker than I anticipated based on Rashomon and Ran. An unexpected pleasure of working through his filmography is not knowing what style is coming next.

* I had already seen A Fistful of Dollars, but found Yojimbo far more engaging. The first two films in the Dollars trilogy were too aloof for my taste. The Good, the Bad, and the Ugly may change that though.

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