Sanjuro (Toshiro Mifune) plots his next move in Yojimbo.
You know how every movie buff has his or her "cinematic blind spots"—the movies, genres, or directors who he or she should be totally familiar with but aren't? I have a lot of those, but the biggest is undeniably Akira Kurosawa. How big is this blind spot you ask? Well, Yojimbo is the first film is his I've ever seen.
I know, I know. Terrible, right? But before you start cursing me and leave this site forever, I have to say the only reason it's taken me 23 1/2 years to watch one of his films is because of the shame for not having started sooner. A little backward, I realize, but the daunting task of beginning one of cinema's greatest filmographies ever so late in the game was scary and embarrassing. I grappled telling you readers the truth, but I knew the only way to come to grips with this shameful fact is to be 100% honest.
So right now, I'm coming clean. Hi. My name is John, and I'm no longer an Akira Kurosawa virgin! Man, that feels good.
Expectedly, my first time was magical—something I know I'll never forget. The movie was Yojimbo, Kurosawa's 1961 Western/samurai film mash-up that's exciting, hilarious, and supremely important to film history. Not only does it feature some iconic moments and characters, but it was remade a few years later as A Fistful of Dollars, a great film in its own right. But Yojimbo is where it originated, and there's no topping this one. It's addictive cinema—the kind of movie you could watch over and over again and be entertained by it every single time.
The film follows Sanjuro (Toshiro Mifune), a samurai without a master, who's wandering from town to town with nothing to do but try to find some money and maybe a job—and should that fail, at least something do occupy his time. Sanjuro is extremely clever, great with a sword, and he knows how to manipulate a situation to his advantage. This all comes in handy when he stumbles into a town torn apart by rival gangs. As Sanjuro learns from the local sake seller, Gonji (Eijiro Tono), Seibei (Seizaburo Kawazu) and Ushitora (Kyu Sazanka) had been allies, but now consider themselves bitter rivals, and virtually everyone in town has taken sides. When Sanjuro displays his toughness and proficiency with a sword, both men vie for his allegiance. But Sanjuro is out to rid the town of both men, and should he make a little money out of the whole situation, he certainly wouldn't complain. Thus begins a cat-and-mice game between the samurai and his suitors, but is Sanjuro clever enough to keep both men from comparing notes and turning against him?
The elements of the Western genre are apparent from the outset, though I expected those going in. What I was really surprised to find was how funny Yojimbo was. I laughed out loud on more than one occasion. One scene in particular (when Sanjuro observes a near brawl from the safety of a rooftop perch) had me in stitches. There are also a few characters thrown in purely for comic relief. There's Ushitora's brother Inokichi (Daisuke Kato), who's as buffoonish as he is fat, as well as Seibei's wife, Orin (Isuzu Yamada) who dominates her husband in a hilarious way.
It's Sanjuro, however, who's the center of the film from start to finish. He's just so damn cool that you can't help but be drawn to him. And if you surround him with morons, like he is in Yojimbo, it's a recipe for a really fun time. Of course, it helps when you have Toshiro Mifune playing everything so brilliantly.
So with one Kurosawa film down, it's time to dig in to more. Yojimbo made me so excited to discover what else this master has up his sleeves that I'm not even sure where to start. But if I find even one film that's up this the level of Yojimbo, I'll consider myself a very lucky movie fan.