The late 19th Century was an extraordinary time in Japan.
For more than half a millennium, samurai were the knights, the police, and the hired muscle in Japan. But in 1850, their time was almost at an end.
The wise men of Japan recognized that their country needed to centralize and militarize quickly or else they were certain to be colonized like Africa and India.
Japan’s modernization movement was an astounding success. Not only did it avoid being colonized, the western powers actually invited Japan into the imperialism club by sanctioning its conquest of Korea. The makeover from medieval to modern culminated in Japan’s decisive victory over Russia in 1905.
So, what about those proud samurai? Not all of them were willing to hang up their swords and get factory jobs. Some wandered Japan looking for employment and action. These masterless samurai were called ronin.
“Yojimbo” shows us a darkly funny and ultra-violent week in the life of a wandering ronin called Sanjuro.
Sanjuro stumbles into a small town that is in the grips of two rival gangs. One gang is led by the rich silk manufacturer and the other gang is led by the sake brewer.
Sanjuro sees an opportunity for employment and entertainment. He offers his services to one gang leader and then the other. The samurai’s real goal, however, is to manipulate the gangs into annihilating each other.
The key to “Yojimbo”’s greatness is Toshiro Mifune’s eccentric performance. We root for Sanjuro because he’s funny and fearless, but the samurai never looks or acts like a traditional hero.
Sanjuro is filthy, unkempt, and wears a shabby kimono. He’s always rubbing his scraggly beard or scratching his uncombed hair. It isn’t clear whether he’s thinking, he has a nervous tick, or if he’s simply a dirty man with fleas.
Sanjuro’s motivations are unexpected and unheroic. Does he want justice? Nope. Is he doing what he thinks is right? Nope. As best as we can figure, the samurai fools dozens of men into killing each other simply because he finds it amusing.
Sanjuro is not interested in money. As soon as he earns a few gold pieces, he gives them away. Writer/director Akira Kurosawa is making a pointed criticism of the greed of modern Japan and the way that money corrupts the soul and destroys communities.
“Yojimbo” was made in 1961: during the height of Japan’s extraordinary post-war industrial boom. With hard work, a weak yen, and predatory pricing, Japanese exporters were systematically destroying America’s domestic television and stereo industry.
Kurosawa makes a clear statement to rural Japanese viewers: stay on the farm; do not be lured into the city and moral degradation. “Yojimbo” was Kurosawa’s biggest box office hit. It wasn’t quite big enough to slow down Japan’s industrial juggernaut, however.
“Yojimbo” is a rousing success in every conceivable way. It’s thoroughly entertaining. It was a hit. And it plainly influenced Sergio Leone, Clint Eastwood, Quentin Tarantino, and even John Belushi. It’s a flat-out great film.