Yojimbo (1961)


Introduction

Yojimbo (用心棒, Yōjinbō, lit. ’Bodyguard’) is a 1961 Japanese samurai film co-written, produced, edited, and directed by Akira Kurosawa. The film stars Toshiro Mifune, Tatsuya Nakadai, Yoko Tsukasa, Isuzu Yamada, Daisuke Katō, Takashi Shimura, Kamatari Fujiwara, and Atsushi Watanabe.

In the film, a rōnin arrives in a small town where competing crime lords vie for supremacy. The two bosses each try to hire the newcomer as a bodyguard.

Based on the success of Yojimbo, Kurosawa’s next film, Sanjuro (1962), was altered to incorporate the lead character of this film. In both films, the character wears a rather dilapidated dark kimono bearing the same family mon.

Outline

In 1860, during the final years of the Edo period,[a] a rōnin wanders through a desolate Japanese countryside. While stopping at a farmhouse for water, he overhears an elderly couple lamenting that their only son, not wanting to waste his life as a farmer, has run off to join the “gamblers” who have descended on a nearby town overrun with criminals and divided between two rival bosses. The stranger heads to the town where he meets Gonji, the owner of a small izakaya who advises him to leave. He tells the rōnin that the two warring bosses, Ushitora and Seibei, are fighting over the lucrative gambling trade run by Seibei; Ushitora had been Seibei’s right-hand man, but rebelled when Seibei decided that his successor would be his son Yoichiro, a useless youth. The town’s mayor, a silk merchant named Tazaemon, had long been in Seibei’s pocket, so Ushitora aligned himself with the local sake brewer, Tokuemon, proclaiming him the new mayor. After sizing up the situation and recognising that no one in town cares about ending the violence, the stranger says he intends to stay, as the town would be better off with both sides dead.

He first convinces the weaker Seibei to hire his services by effortlessly killing three of Ushitora’s men. When asked his name, he sees a mulberry field and states his name is Kuwabatake Sanjuro (桑畑三十郎), where 桑畑 Kuwabatake = “mulberry field” and where 三十郎 Sanjuro (“thirty-years-old”).[b]

Seibei decides that with the ronin’s swordsmanship, the time is right to deal with Ushitora. However, Sanjuro eavesdrops on Seibei’s wife, who orders Yoichiro to prove himself by killing the ronin after the upcoming raid, saving them from having to pay him. Sanjuro leads the attack on the other faction, but then “resigns” over Seibei’s treachery, expecting both sides to massacre each other. His plan is foiled due to the unexpected arrival of a bugyō (a government official), which gives both Seibei and Ushitora the opportunity to make a bloodless retreat and cease their war.

The bugyō leaves soon after to investigate the murder of a fellow official in another town. Sanjuro soon realizes that Ushitora sent two men to commit the murder when he overhears them discussing it in Gonji’s tavern. With this knowledge, Sanjuro captures the killers and sells them to Seibei, but then tells Ushitora that it was Seibei’s men who caught them. An alarmed Ushitora rewards him generously for his help and orders the kidnapping of Yoichiro, whom he offers in exchange for the two prisoners. However, Ushitora double-crosses Seibei at the swap when his brother, Unosuke, shoots the assassins with a pistol; anticipating this, Seibei reveals he had ordered the kidnapping of Tokuemon’s mistress. The next morning, she is exchanged for Yoichiro.

Sanjuro learns that the woman, Nui, is the wife of a local farmer who lost her to Ushitora over a gambling debt; Ushitora then gave her away as chattel to Tokuemon in order to gain his support. Sanjuro tricks Ushitora into revealing the safe house where Nui is hidden, then kills the guards posted there and reunites the woman with her husband and son, ordering them to leave town immediately. Pretending to be on Ushitora’s side, Sanjuro is able to convince Ushitora that Seibei is responsible for killing his men. The gang war escalates, with Ushitora burning down Tazaemon’s silk warehouse and Seibei retaliating by trashing Tokuemon’s brewery. After some time, Unosuke becomes suspicious of Sanjuro and the circumstances surrounding Nui’s escape, eventually uncovering evidence of the ronin’s betrayal. Sanjuro is severely beaten and imprisoned by Ushitora’s thugs, who torture him to find out Nui’s whereabouts.

Sanjuro manages to escape when Ushitora decides to eliminate Seibei once and for all. As he is being smuggled out of town in a coffin by Gonji, he witnesses the brutal end of Seibei and his family as their home is set on fire and they are all cut down while trying to surrender. Sanjuro recuperates in a small temple near a cemetery. However, when he learns that Gonji has been captured by Ushitora, he returns to town. Sanjuro confronts Ushitora, Unosuke, and their gang, taking on all of them by himself in a duel and killing them easily. He spares only one terrified young man, who turns out to be the youth he met on the way into town, and sends him back to his parents. As Sanjuro surveys the damage, Tazaemon comes out of his home, in a samurai outfit and beating a prayer drum. Driven mad, he circles around town and then goes after Tokuemon, stabbing him to death. Sanjuro frees Gonji, proclaims that the town will be quiet from then on, and departs.

Cast

  • Toshiro Mifune as “Kuwabatake Sanjuro” (桑畑 三十郎), a wandering ronin and master swordsman drawn into a gang war.
  • Eijirō Tōno as Gonji (権爺), the izakaya (tavern) owner and the ronin’s ally and confidant.
  • Tatsuya Nakadai as Unosuke (卯之助), a gun-toting gangster and younger brother to both Ushitora and Inokichi.
  • Seizaburo Kawazu as Seibei (清兵衛), the original boss of the town’s underworld. He operates out of a brothel.
  • Kyū Sazanka as Ushitora (丑寅), the other gang leader in town. He was originally Seibei’s lieutenant but broke ranks to start his own syndicate in a succession dispute.
  • Isuzu Yamada as Orin (おりん), the wife of Seibei and the brains behind her husband’s criminal operations.
  • Daisuke Katō as Inokichi (亥之吉), younger brother of Ushitora and older brother to Unosuke. He is a strong fighter, but is very dim-witted and easily fooled.
  • Takashi Shimura as Tokuemon (徳右衛門), a sake brewer who claims to be the new mayor.
  • Hiroshi Tachikawa as Yoichiro (倅与一郎), the timid son of Seibei and Orin who shows little inclination to take over his father’s gang.
  • Yosuke Natsuki as Farmer’s Son, a young man seen running away from home at the beginning of the film who joins Ushitora’s gang.
  • Kamatari Fujiwara as Tazaemon (多左衛門), the town mayor and silk merchant who is going insane from fear.
  • Ikio Sawamura as Hansuke (半助), the town constable who is completely corrupt and concerned only with keeping himself alive.
  • Atsushi Watanabe as the town’s coffin maker, who is profiting heavily from the gang war but ultimately chooses to help Sanjuro and Gonji put an end to it.
  • Susumu Fujita as Honma (本間), Seibei’s “master swordsman” who deserts his employer before a battle with Ushitora’s men, allowing Sanjuro to take his place.
  • Sachio Sakai as Ashigaru
  • Yoko Tsukasa as Nui (ぬい), the wife of Kohei. She was taken prisoner by Tokuemon because of her beauty after her husband could not pay back his gambling debts.
  • Yoshio Tsuchiya as Kohei (小平), the husband of Nui who lost all of his money gambling and frequently gets beaten for trying to visit his wife.
  • Tsunagoro Rashomon as Kannuki (かんぬき), Ushitora’s tall enforcer.

Production

Writing

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 The Glass Key. 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”, 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).

Casting

Many of the actors in Yojimbo worked with Kurosawa before and after, especially Toshiro Mifune, Takashi Shimura and Tatsuya Nakadai.

Filming

After Kurosawa scolded Mifune for arriving late to the set one morning, Mifune made it a point to be ready on set at 6:00 am every day in full makeup and costume for the rest of the film’s shooting schedule.

This was the second film where director Akira Kurosawa worked with cinematographer Kazuo Miyagawa. The sword instruction and choreography for the film were done by Yoshio Sugino of the Tenshin Shōden Katori Shintō-ryū and Ryū Kuze.

Music

The soundtrack for the film has received positive reviews. Michael Wood writing for the London Review of Books found the film’s soundtrack by Masaru Sato as effective in its ‘jaunty and jangling’ approach stating:

The film is full of music, for instance, a loud, witty soundtrack by Masaru Sato, who said his main influence was Henry Mancini. It doesn’t sound like Breakfast at Tiffany’s, though, or Days of Wine and Roses. The blaring Latin sound of Touch of Evil comes closer, but actually you wouldn’t think of Mancini if you hadn’t been told. Sato’s effect has lots of drums, mixes traditional Japanese flutes and other instruments with American big band noises, and feels jaunty and jangling throughout, discreetly off, as if half the band was playing in the wrong key. It’s distracting at first, then you realise it’s not decoration, it’s commentary. It’s a companion to Sanjuro, the sound of his mind, discordant and undefeated and unserious, even when he’s grubby and silent and apparently solemn.

Release

Yojimbo was released in Japan on 25 April 1961. The film was released by Seneca International in both a subtitled and dubbed format in the United States in September 1961.

Box Office

Yojimbo was Japan’s fourth highest-grossing film of 1961, earning a distribution rental income of ¥351 million. This was equivalent to estimated box office gross receipts of approximately ¥659 million ($1.83 million).

Overseas, the film had a September 1961 release in North America, but the box office income of this release is currently unknown. At the 2002 Kurosawa & Mifune Festival in the United States, the film grossed $561,692. In South Korea, a 2012 re-release grossed ₩1.566 million.

In Europe, a January 1991 limited French re-release sold 14,178 tickets, equivalent to an estimated gross revenue of approximately €63,801. Other limited European re-releases sold 3,392 tickets between 2000 and 2018, equivalent to an estimated gross revenue of at least €18,995. This adds up to an estimated $678,950 grossed overseas, and an estimated $2,508,950 grossed worldwide.

Adjusted for ticket price inflation, at 2012 Japanese ticket prices, its Japanese gross receipts are equivalent to an estimated ¥9.75 billion ($122 million), or $144 million adjusted for inflation in 2021. The overseas gross revenue of North American and European re-releases since 1991 are equivalent to approximately $1.4 million adjusted for inflation, adding up to an estimated inflation-adjusted total gross of over $137 million worldwide.

Critical Response

Yojimbo ranked at #95 in Empire magazine’s list of the 500 Greatest Films of All Time. A 1968 screening in the planned community of Columbia, Maryland was considered too violent for viewers, causing the hosts to hide in the bathroom to avoid the audience. The film was nominated for the Academy Award for Best Costume Design at the 34th Academy Awards. Toshiro Mifune won the Volpi Cup for Best Actor at the 22nd Venice Film Festival.

Trivia

  • Yojimbo received highly positive reviews, and, over the years, became widely regarded as one of the best films by Kurosawa and one of the greatest films ever made.
  • The film grossed an estimated $2.5 million worldwide.
  • It was unofficially remade by Sergio Leone as the Spaghetti Western film A Fistful of Dollars (1964), leading to a lawsuit by Toho.
  • Akira Kurosawa challenged his assistant directors to come up with an image for the film to let Sanjuro know he was entering a bad town.
    • He shot down all of their ideas, since all of them had already been done.
    • Kurosawa himself then came up with the idea of the dog carrying the human hand.
  • Akira Kurosawa told Toshirô Mifune that his character was like a wolf or a dog and told Tatsuya Nakadai that his character was like a snake.
    • Inspired by this direction, Mifune came up with Sanjuro’s trademark shoulder twitch, similar to the way a dog or wolf tries to get off fleas.
  • Akira Kurosawa asked his sound engineer Ichirô Minawa to come up with a sound effect to be used when a sword is cutting, and killing, someone.
    • After testing out slicing a sword into beef and pork, he finally found the perfect sample – putting two wooden chopsticks inside a raw chicken, then hacking it with a sword.
  • In one scene the samurai shows incredible skill at knife-throwing by impaling a blowing leaf against a wooden floor.
    • This was accomplished by running the shot backwards.
    • In the frame before the knife hits the leaf, you can see a slit in the leaf the same size and at the exact point where the knife penetrates it a frame later.

Production & Filming Details

  • Director(s):
    • Akira Kurosawa.
  • Producer(s):
    • Ryûzô Kikushima … producer (as Ryuzo Kikushima).
    • Akira Kurosawa … producer.
    • Tomoyuki Tanaka … producer.
  • Writer(s):
    • Akira Kurosawa (story and screenplay).
    • Ryuzo Kikushima (screenplay).
  • Music:
    • Masaru Sato.
  • Cinematography:
    • Kazuo Miyagawa.
  • Editor(s):
    • Akira Kurosawa.
  • Production:
    • Kurosawa Production Co.
    • Sammy.
    • Toho Company.
  • Distributor(s):
    • Toho Company (1961) (Japan) (theatrical).
    • Janus Films (1961) (USA) (theatrical) (subtitled).
    • Seneca Productions (1961) (USA) (theatrical) (subtitled) (as Seneca International).
    • Cineriz (1963) (Italy) (theatrical).
    • Action Film (1964) (Sweden) (theatrical).
    • Gala Film Distributors (1967) (UK) (theatrical) (subtitled).
    • Public Broadcasting Service (PBS) (1972) (USA) (TV).
    • Palace Video (1983) (UK) (VHS).
    • Palace Video (1983) (UK) (video) (Betamax).
    • Festival Records (1990) (Australia) (VHS).
    • Festival Video (1990) (Australia) (VHS).
    • BFI Video (2000) (UK) (DVD).
    • Cowboy Pictures (2002) (USA) (theatrical) (re-release).
    • Continental Home Vídeo (2002) (Brazil) (DVD).
    • Madman Entertainment (2004) (Australia) (DVD).
    • The Criterion Collection (2004) (USA) (DVD).
    • Sandrew Metronome Norge (2003) (Norway) (DVD).
    • Sandrews (2003) (Sweden) (DVD).
    • New KSM (2008) (Germany) (DVD).
    • The Criterion Collection (2009) (USA) (DVD).
    • The Criterion Collection (2010) (USA) (Blu-ray) (DVD).
    • WOWOW (2012) (Japan) (TV).
    • Future Film (2015) (Finland) (Blu-ray) (DVD) (6-disc Akira Kurosawa: Samurai Masterpiece Collection).
    • Star Media Entertainment (2015) (Norway) (Blu-ray) (DVD) (Akira Kurosawa – Samurai Masterpiece Collection 1950-1962).
    • Carlotta Films (2016) (France) (theatrical) (re-release) (restored version).
    • Aito Mäkinen (1963) (Finland) (theatrical).
    • Centrala Wynajmu Filmów (1962) (Poland) (theatrical).
    • Espectáculos Rivus (1969) (Portugal) (theatrical).
    • Kommanditbolaget Mårten Kihlman Ky & Co (1980) (Finland) (theatrical).
    • Epoca (Argentina) (VHS).
    • HBO Max (2020) (USA) (video) (VOD).
    • Leopardo Filmes (2020) (Portugal) (all media).
    • Palador Pictures (2007) (India) (video) (Mumbai) (Hindi subtitles).
    • Sandrew Metronome Distribution (2004) (Finland) (DVD) (as part of Akira Kurosawa Box).
    • Sandrew Metronome Distribution (2005) (Finland) (DVD).
    • The Criterion Channel (2019) (USA) (TV) (digital).
    • Tocantins (Brazil) (VHS).
    • Yleisradio (YLE) (1989) (Finland) (TV).
  • Release Date: 25 April 1961 (Japan).
  • Rating: A.
  • Running Time: 110 minutes.
  • Country: Japan.
  • Language: Japanese and English (subtitles).

Video Clip(s)

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