When they ask him what his name is, he’s not even sure at first. It’s been so long since it mattered, he’s simply forgotten. He glances out the open window, sees a mulberry field undulating in the wind, and says, “Sanjuro Kuwabatake.” Kuwabatake means mulberry field, and sanjuro means thirty years old. It’s as good a name as any, he figures. Everyone here is so preoccupied with their own problems that for them to call him anything other than yojimbo — “bodyguard” — would be too much like work. Fine by him.
That was the whole reason he came here, you see: to find work if anyone was paying. He was just wandering along one day when he came to a fork in the road, tossed a stick up in the air to see which path to take, and ended up here, where two equally bloody-minded gangs are tussling over what little there is to take hold of. The first thing he saw when he came into town was some mangy cur trotting by with someone’s hacked-off arm in its mouth. Never a good sign. The only person in town who’s prospering is the cooper, from his sales of coffins. It didn’t take Sanjuro long to figure out that neither side is really better than the other here. And since he’s out for himself anyway, maybe the best thing to do is to play the middle as artfully as he can. If they rip each other to pieces, it saves him the trouble of having to do it, right?
This is the setup for Yojimbo, one of Akira Kurosawa’s best, most influential, widely-copied and widely-seen films. Even people who have never seen Yojimbo have seen it in some form: either in one of its endless remakes (A Fistful of Dollars, Last Man Standing, etc.), in any number of the movies it influenced with its visual style (Kill Bill), its conceits (The Road Warrior) or its flamboyance and dark humor. If the bare outlines of the story sound familiar, you are probably right: it was, in fact, a fairly direct remake of Dashiell Hammett’s pulp-noir Red Harvest (even if Kurosawa didn’t credit Hammett directly), and a mocking re-visitation of his own earlier Sugata Sanshiro. It is also a hell of a lot of fun, the sort of movie that you can simply enjoy for its surfaces and then go back to pick apart later with your movie-buff buddies.
Even when movies weren’t copying the plot or the look of Yojimbo, they were copying the character Sanjuro, as embodied by Kurosawa’s longtime collaborator Toshiro Mifune. He was never more in his element than he was in this film — wandering the dust-blown streets, unshaven, smirking, his arms folded inside his kimono. He serves notice to both sides early on in the film when some of their hired thugs come to harass him: “No sense in trying to help idiots,” he grouses, then kills two and slices a third one’s arm off. He doesn’t suffer fools gladly, and in him you can see the origins of Clint Eastwood’s Man With No Name and the dozens of other steely-eyed loners that have appeared everywhere in action cinema since.
Sanjuro's approach: Play the scumbags against each other. Does it make him better, or just cleverer?
The local saké vendor just wants things to settle down, so he’s only too happy to tell Sanjuro the whole vile story: Seibei (Seizaburo Kawazu) and Ushitora (Kyu Sazanka) used to be all buddy-buddy before they started each getting too greedy for their own good, and are now at all-out war. Sanjuro smells an opportunity, and through a series of complicated machinations sells himself to both sides at the same time. In another scene that has been widely copied, the two gangs stalk each other on a desolate street while Sanjuro watches, laughing, from the fire tower. The fight is aborted when a local official arrives, and everyone scrambles to present a unified front so they can bribe him efficiently. They’d rather kill each other than let government troops come in and straighten them out.
Sanjuro is outwardly selfish and callous, but as things evolve we realize he has the morality of the impassioned outsider, and that may also be his downfall. At one point Ushitora kidnaps a woman and ransoms her as a way to broker a peace deal (which will almost certainly be broken immediately); this makes Sanjuro hopping mad, and he puts himself at great risk to not only save her and her family, but pin the blame for the whole thing on Seibei. Unfortunately it backfires when Ushitora’s brother Unosuke (Tatsuya Nakadai, later immortalized for his role in Ran) comes sniffing around and suspects treachery. Unosuke also has the only firearm in the whole village, which gives him an edge over everyone else’s swords and fists that threatens to tip the balance for keeps.
It's hard to underrate the way Yojimbo has influenced movies in general, even for people who've never seen it.
Many of the best movies are masterpieces of tone. They find a note and hold it, or they move deftly through many notes without stumbling — or, as in this case, they pick a note that would seem dissonant but make it work. Yojimbo has the plot of a pulp Western, but the timing and manners of a black comedy: it’s not about who gets to be the toughest guy, but the one who will be able to walk off laughing up his sleeves at the end. Kurosawa sees most of the bad guys not as evil, but as pathetic bumblers: we’re not scared of them because we’re too busy laughing at them. Sanjuro works the same way — even when Unosuke, presumably the most dangerous of them all, ties him and beats him savagely, he still drags himself back into the fray. Unosuke’s gun is, to him, the badge of a coward, and if there’s anything that genuinely enrages Sanjuro, it’s cowardice.
Kurosawa never made a movie that didn’t in some way reflect his social conscience, and the end of Yojimbo moves out of black comedy and into something like tragedy. The squabble over the village has destroyed it — but rather than help rebuild the place, the only survivor worth mentioning takes his leave. Is he acting out of contempt, or because he doesn’t believe he would be of much help anyway? It’s a remarkably cynical ending, but considering the way Yojimbo is so often compared to the movies that it spawned, it’s taken on the power of a statement. Most action movies end when there’s no one left to kill. Yojimbo is one of the very few movies I know of that actually makes a point of this. They call them anti-heroes for a reason.