Yojimbo

A Fistful of Dollars

Yojimbo (Japanese: ‘bodyguard’) is a 1961 period drama directed by Akira Kurosawa. It tells the story of a ronin (a samurai without a master), portrayed by Toshirō Mifune (star of several of Kurosawa’s films), who arrives in a small town where competing crime lords vie for supremacy. The two bosses each try to hire the deadly newcomer for protection. The film’s look and themes were in part inspired by the western film genre, in particular the films of John Ford (e.g. ‘The Searchers’).

The characters—the taciturn loner and the helpless townsfolk needing a protector—are western archetypes and are reminiscent of Kurosawa’s own ‘Seven Samurai’ (1954). The cinematography also mimics conventional shots in western films, such as that of the lone hero in a wide shot, facing an enemy or enemies from a distance while the wind kicks up dust between the two.

Kurosawa stated that a major source for the plot was the 1942 film noir classic ‘The Glass Key,’ an adaptation of Dashiell Hammett’s 1931 novel. In particular, the scene where the hero is captured by the villains and tortured before he escapes is copied almost shot for shot. It has been noted that the overall plot of ‘Yojimbo’ is closer to that of another Hammett novel, ‘Red Harvest’ (1929). Kurosawa scholar David Desser, and film critic Manny Farber claim that ‘Red Harvest’ was the inspiration for the film; however, Donald Richie and other scholars believe the similarities are coincidental.

When asked his name, the samurai calls himself ‘Kuwabatake Sanjuro’ (meaning ‘mulberry field thirty-year-old’), which he seems to make up while looking at a mulberry field by the town. Thus, the character can be viewed as an early example of the ‘Man with No Name’ (other examples of which appear in a number of earlier novels, including Dashiell Hammett’s ‘Red Harvest’). In 1962, Kurosawa directed ‘Sanjuro,’ in which Mifune returns as a ronin, who claims to have the same given name, ‘Sanjuro’ (meaning ‘Thirtysomething’) but he takes a different ‘surname.’ In both films, he takes his surname from the plants he happens to be looking at when asked his name.

In 1964, ‘Yojimbo’ was remade as ‘A Fistful of Dollars,’ a spaghetti western directed by Sergio Leone and starring Clint Eastwood in his first appearance as the ‘Man with No Name.’ Leone and his production company failed to secure the remake rights to Kurosawa’s film, resulting in a lawsuit that delayed Fistful’s release in North America for three years. In ‘Yojimbo,’ the protagonist defeats a man who carries a gun, while he carries only a knife and a sword; in the equivalent scene in Fistful, Eastwood’s pistol-wielding character survives being shot by a rifle by hiding an iron plate under his clothes to serve as a shield against bullets.

The 1970 film ‘Zatoichi Meets Yojimbo’ also features Mifune as a similar character. It is the twentieth of a series of movies featuring the blind swordsman Zatoichi. Although Mifune is clearly not playing the same man (his name is Sassa, and his personality and background are different in many key respects), the movie’s title and some of its content do intend to suggest the image of the two iconic jidaigeki (period drama) characters confronting each other. ‘Incident at Blood Pass,’ made in the same year, also stars Mifune in a role similar to that of ‘Yojimbo.’ Mifune’s character became the model for John Belushi’s Samurai Futaba character on ‘Saturday Night Live.’ ‘Last Man Standing’ (1996), a Prohibition-era gangster thriller directed by Walter Hill and starring Bruce Willis, is an officially authorized remake of ‘Yojimbo.’

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