"A truly good movie is really enjoyable, too. There's nothing complicated about it. A truly good movie is interesting and easy to understand."
-- Akira Kurosawa
Because it was so popular in Japan and the U.S., deliberately blending the samurai genre with the American western, Yojimbo has often been slighted by critics who see only its dark humor and high entertainment value. Mind bending irony abounds. Borrowing heavily from John Ford's westerns, Kurosawa in turn inspires the famous "American" clone that established the "spaghetti western" genre and firmly planted Clint Eastwood as an icon—Sergio Leone's A Fistful of Dollars. Thus, not only does Kurosawa's landmark film set the standard for the modern samurai film, but he makes an indelible mark on the modern American western genre.
Note: Leone plagiarizes details beyond the basic narrative; consider Eastwood's "Man with No Name" character and the metaphor that Kurosawa employs. His samurai gazes out a window, spots a mulberry field, and routinely identifies himself as "Kuwabatake Sanjuro," which translates as "30 year old mulberry field."
Perhaps we are so mesmerized by Kurosawa's habitual use of torrential rains, swirling dust, deep focus with telephoto lens, and black and white cinematography (this time by Rashômon's Kazuo Miyagawa) that we can become indifferent to Kurosawa's artistry. It becomes expected, so perhaps rightful recognition is achieved "merely" by enjoying the film. Yojimbo deserves its rightful place alongside Kurosawa's strongest works. Inevitably and unfairly compared with his epic Seven Samurai, Kurosawa has an entirely different purpose for this film. Being popular doesn't negate its mastery.
Kurosawa creates a supreme iconic new samurai character in Yojimbo that Toshirô Mifune carries on his broad twitching shoulders. Cynical and indifferent, his powerful presence defines virtually every frame—his Sanjuro deliberately directs the action, judiciously flashing his katana economically to sever limbs and cut down foes. This new breed of samurai marks the standard for all subsequent films of the genre (and firmly established Mifune as an international star).
Set in 1860 after the collapse of the Tokugawa Dynasty, Sanjuro finds himself in a transitory times (that parallel post-war Japan). Like all samurai of the times, he remains unemployed and homeless; we follow behind as he roams through the countryside and comes to a crossroads. Sanjuro tosses a stick into the air to determine his path, and soon he arrives in a dusty old town with a main street reminiscent of High Noon.
But this is no ordinary town. A small dog struts by, carrying a fresh human hand in its mouth. The expression on Sanjuro's face is priceless—here's something he's never experienced before. In contrast to Tombstone (a town "too tough to die"), it's more like an evil Sodom & Gomorrah that deserves to be wiped off the earth. The bizarre frontier town intrigues Sanjuro, and he's non-committal when the comic sheriff attempts to convince him to display his swordsmanship to gain employment as bodyguard for one of the two factions that lie on opposite ends of the town. The sake business and the silk business continually battle for supremacy, each surrounding themselves with a "yakuza" that regularly rumbles and keeps the local coffin maker in steady business.
Sizing up the situation—all underscored by a corrupt capitalist system—Sanjuro plays out his chess strategy: joining one side and then the other to dupe the rival gangs into wiping each other out while receiving enough food, lodging, and sake to keep him amused. In fact, many times Sanjuro sits atop the roofs to observe the developing drama, much the same way that a film director overviews a large scene. Occasionally Sanjuro demonstrates his swordsmanship to establish his dominance, but a new ronin arrives in town with a gun to upset the balance of power. This is Unosuke (Tatsuya Nakadai, who will later lead Kagamusha and Ran), and Sanjuro realizes that his position has become tenuous.
To think the film plays primarily as an existential comedy shortchanges our protagonist. Sanjuro is a realist, playing his strategy like a chess grandmaster, but silently maintains the core values of his samurai code. At one point he betrays his employer by killing six guards to free an innocent farmer and his wife, and then blames the opposing gang for the slaughter. But we've already seen how neither group has a sense of honor—Sanjuro previously overheard his original employer planning to kill him after victory to regain his high fee. Now he assists the only righteous people in the town (even donating his bodyguard payment), which leads inevitably to complications and an unforgettable finale.
Beautifully photographed and ideally framed for the widescreen, Yojimbo has received an upgraded Criterion DVD treatment that includes a 45-minute background documentary and insightful commentary by Kurosawa scholar Stephen Prince. Since so many regard this as a lightweight comedy, it will never receive the critical acclaim of the Kurosawa's more “serious” work, yet it equals the cinematography of Kurosawa's finest films and engages viewers with its larger than life protagonist and easy to follow narrative. And going by Kurosawa's definition, that makes Yojimbo a "truly good movie."