#512: Yojimbo

Akira Kurosawa brings us the Rōnin with No Name in his seminal samurai flick

june gloom
4 min readMay 16, 2023

Initial release: April 25, 1961
Director: Akira Kurosawa

In the pantheon of Japanese filmmakers, perhaps none are so familiar to Western audiences as Akira Kurosawa. With films like Rashomon, Ran, and especially Seven Samurai, Kurosawa has cemented himself in the West as the king of the samurai flick, and for decades was the face of Japanese filmmaking.

Which is ironic, given how much he and Western filmmakers have influenced each other — Star Wars wouldn’t have been the same without George Lucas lifting from Kurosawa (where do you think the word “Jedi” came from, anyway?), and Kurosawa has long been accused of being perhaps too influenced by American and European film — a claim he regularly denied.

But it’s worth considering how frequently he turned to Western storytelling to tell stories to a Japanese audience. He especially liked Shakespeare: Throne of Blood is an adaptation of Macbeth, translated to feudal Japan; The Bad Sleep Well mixes Hamlet with post-war white collar crime; and Ran is a feudal Japanese take on King Lear. And in turn, Seven Samurai has frequently been compared to westerns (the movie genre, not European or American films) to the point that Kurosawa endorsed The Magnificent Seven as a westernized (in both senses of the word) remake. This was a big change from his reaction to A Fistful of Dollars, a shameless spaghetti western ripoff of Yojimbo… which itself drew heavily from Dashiell Hammett’s crime novels, chiefly the 1942 film adaptation of The Glass Key but also, allegedly, Red Harvest. In short, Kurosawa might be seen as sitting at an intersection of Japan and the West, spending the postwar decades helping bridge a cultural gap.

But for all that, Yojimbo is a surprisingly straightforward tale, in spite of its seemingly complex plot. We open with a wandering rōnin, traveling at random through the Japanese countryside in 1860 — just a few years after Commodore Perry forced Japan’s borders open and a few years before the Edo period would end for good. He eventually wanders into a town that’s in fairly dire straits. An internal split in the gang that previously ruled the town has resulted into an ongoing gang war, and our wandering swordsman, who identifies himself as Kuwabatake Sanjuro (or, in English, “30-year-old mulberry field” — in other words, an assumed name) takes it upon himself to rid the town of both. With help from the local tavern owner, who initially dislikes him, he offers his services as a bodyguard first to one gang’s leader, then the other, playing them off each other and taking delight in watching them destroy each other.

It’s a film shot through with moments of humor and drama, and short, sudden flashes of violence — witness Sanjuro massacring a group of gangsters to free the kidnapped wife of a local farmer, then framing it on the opposing gang. Sanjuro is played expertly by longtime Kurosawa collaborator Toshiro Mifune; though he obviously embodies the grizzled wandering warrior archetype, he brings a wry sense of humor to the role, something that plays to Kurosawa’s own quirkiness as well.

It’s that quirkiness of Kurosawa’s that gives the film its distinctive stamp; it’s in solid gags like the coffin-maker who serves as an unofficial scorekeeper for the gangs’ respective body-counts, an eclectic — and electric — soundtrack that accentuates the scene rather than just fills the sound space, and a psychopath with a gun (Tatsuya Nakadai) who does his best to outsass Mifune’s nameless rōnin — this movie is bananas, and it’s Kazuo Miyagawa’s cinematography that ties it all together.

There’s a lot of samurai flicks out there, but if you’re going to pick one to start with, best start with one from the master.




june gloom

Media critic, retired streamer, furry. I love you. [she/her]