Akira Kurosawa Series – Yojimbo (1961) and Sanjuro (1962)

The Akira Kurosawa double-feature of Yojimbo (1961) and Sanjuro (1962) sees Kurosawa scaling back the scope of his previous samurai features like Seven Samurai (1954) and The Hidden Fortress (1958) for a more concentrated focus on one warrior’s interactions with small towns, rival gangs, juvenile samurai pupils, and political warfare. In Yojimbo and Sanjuro, Toshirô Mifune acts in the lead role as the samurai who calls himself Kuwabatake Sanjuro, which translates to “30-year-old mulberry field.” He only gives himself this name when he’s asked by a group of townsfolk, as he sits staring out at a – you guessed it – mulberry field. He is the blueprint for Clint Eastwood’s “Man With No Name” from Sergio Leone’s Spaghetti Western Dollars Trilogy, which would come a few years later in 1964-1966. (However, Leone did a little bit more than simply pay homage to Kurosawa – there was an entire plagiarism lawsuit with A Fistful of Dollars [1964] in particular, which Kurosawa and Toho Co., Ltd. ended up winning. But that is another story entirely). Kurosawa’s pair of films are action-adventure serials, yes, but they are also fascinating character studies on a sociopathic protagonist.

Side-by-side comparisons of Yojimbo and A Fistful of Dollars.

“Listen, old man. I’ll get paid for killing. And this town is full of men who deserve to die,” says Mifune’s character, who will be referred to as “The Samurai” hereafter. In Yojimbo, he finds a community brimming with all the conflicts of regional politics, family loyalty, and greed. It is a small pop-up town, with dried leaves blowing across the dirt, and dust swept up in the wind. Blood flows in the streets, and the casket maker can barely work fast enough for the demand of his product. The setting becomes a major player in the narrative structure. The Samurai stumbles into this volatile environment and sees an opportunity. He obviously knows what he is capable of on a physical, intellectual, psychological, and emotional level – and does not shy away from taking advantage of any individual in his path. Kurosawa uses The Samurai as a vessel for a metaphorical commentary on filmmaking, as he has been known to do in previous projects. (In my Seven Samurai reflection, I noted how the plight of the small group of warriors facing seemingly insurmountable odds against a battalion of deadly bandits, backed into a corner with limited resources, was similar to the troubled production of the film and Kurosawa’s reaction to the circumstances). In the story of Yojimbo, The Samurai takes on the role as the de facto screenwriter in the drama of the town’s civil war. He lies, cheats, steals, and manipulates courses of events so that he ultimately sees more benefits than any of the other parties involved. It is unclear how much of this is for personal gain, and how much of this is based on his infatuation with pure chaos. There are moments in which The Samurai seems to a certain extent to be, as Alfred Pennyworth would put it, “a man who just wants to watch the world burn.” Yet, what separates Mifune’s character from Heath Ledger’s Joker in The Dark Knight is The Samurai’s soft spot for truly innocent people. There are glimpses of a heart and conscious underneath his hard-boiled shell.

Toshirô Mifune (right) as The Samurai.

By the time The Samurai reaches the events of Sanjuro –which is essentially a sequel to Yojimbo, albeit with Mifune’s titular character as the only returning figure – he has developed a slightly more altruistic approach to living in a corrupt world. He does not make every decision for himself. The slivers of his soul that shone through in Yojimbo are much more discernible in his words and actions in Sanjuro. Although he retains his aura of presumptuousness – as is apparent from quotes like, “aren’t you tired of being stupid yet?” – the motivations behind his attitude are of a purer nature. The Samurai becomes a father figure to a troupe of nine young and naïve samurai in their quest to rescue their mentor, the Lord Chamberlain Mutsuta (Yûnosuke Itô), from his unenviable position as a hostage in the clutches of the crooked Superintendent Kikui (Masao Shimizu). The Samurai does not have to involve himself in these messy affairs, but he happens upon the ennead of young warriors by chance, and feels a responsibility for their mission and safety. Granted, he is well aware that his experience and competence far outweighs that of the ungainly crew of youth, and does not shy away from chastising them for their shortcomings. (Let the record show that they are not exactly “kids,” but compared to Mifune’s character, they may as well be). Yet, there is a genuine benevolence to his behavior. He cares for these kids. Even in Yojimbo, he might have simply walked away and avoided the thick of the fight for the sake of self-preservation – if there was not any personal gain to be found in the ordeal, that is – but the arc of his character reaches an identifiable benchmark in Sanjuro. And, The Samurai undergoes further maturity as a character as he collaborates with the faction of young wannabe heroes. He teaches them the value of group synergy and patience, and they unveil the goodwill and sensitivity hiding in his personality.

Mifune (center) as The Samurai, surrounded by the group of younger warriors.

Another significant figure in the equation who drops a few odd pearls of wisdom to The Samurai is the Lord Chamberlain Mutsuta’s wife, portrayed by Takako Irie. While she is grateful for The Samurai’s rescue of her and her daughter, Chidori (Reiko Dan), and appreciates his intentions to liberate her husband from the Superintendent Kikui’s captivity, she is also displeased with The Samurai’s extreme tactics that leave corpses in his wake. Sure, he is killing the “bad guys,” but as the Lord Chamberlain Mutsuta’s wife says, “The best sword is kept in its sheath.” There is honor in restraint, control, and mercy. Even as the “father of action cinema,” Kurosawa always finds a way to thematically explore the ills and woes of violence, and why alternatives should be sought out if at all possible. Watching this, I was reminded of similar philosophical ruminations from the Jedi in Star Wars, with their entire religion and worldview based on peacekeeping and self-discipline. Anakin Skywalker’s internal and external conflict with the code of the Jedi – keeping the sword in the sheath – is essentially the core of the Star Wars story as a whole.

(L-R): Mifune as The Samurai, Takako Irie as Mutsuta’s Wife, and Reiko Dan as Chidori.

Even as Kurosawa laments violence through the character of the Lord Chamberlain Mutsuta’s wife (who is never given a name on screen), he also shows that action on film can look – as one of my favorite film critics, Noel Manning, would say – DANG AWESOME. The Samurai is a one-man wrecking crew. The choreography and direction in the action set pieces that see him facing down dozens of opponents at a time would be considered impressive even by the standards of today’s action filmmaking, which has evolved and advanced greatly over the last 60 years. Toshirô Mifune is not only one of the finest screen actors of all time, but one of the most consistent action stars as well. What’s more – he was known to do his own stunts. Action stars from both the East and West through the generations owe a lot to Mifune’s paving the way for them. His Nameless Samurai character walked so that Uma Thurman’s Beatrix Kiddo could run in Quentin Tarantino’s epic homage to classic samurai films, Kill Bill, about four decades later. The famous “Showdown at House of Blue Leaves” in Kill Bill: Volume 1 is reminiscent of an action scene from Yojimbo or Sanjuro, but on steroids. Heck, you even have a few instances of outrageous blood spatter in this Kurusawa double-feature. The practical makeup effects are, dare I say, “bloody brilliant.”

The “bloody brilliant” practical effects.

Yet, even if you take away all the tightly composed technical direction from Kurosawa and his crew (other MVPs are cinematographers Kazuo Miyagawa, Fukozô Koizumi, Takao Saitô, and production designer Yoshirô Muraki) that make Yojimbo and Sanjuro so entertaining to watch from an aesthetic standpoint, you still have Kurosawa’s indelible fingerprints on the narrative motifs. His films do not require physical blood to earn bloody brilliant status. The blood spatter is a fun bonus, but it is really the blood and sweat that Kurosawa puts into his stories and character development that hold everything together. And it is the blood and sweat that I put into these metaphors that hold this written reflection together.

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