by Andrea Grunert
60 years ago – on 25 April 1961 – Kurosawa Akira’s Yōjinbō (Yojimbo) was released in Japan. Since then, much has been written about this highly influential film that inspired many Japanese and international productions, of which Sergio Leone’s Per un Pugno di dollari (A Fistful of Dollars, Italy/Germany/Spain, 1964) is the best known. The Japanese film’s ambiguous central figure – the yōjinbō or bodyguard, played by Mifune Toshirō (1) –, its graphic violence (2) and its various mise en scène devices (3) have left their indelible mark on filmmaking both in Japan and in the West.
Subverting genre conventions
Leone turned Kurosawa’s film into a Western (made in Europe), and Yōjinbō itself contains elements reminiscent of this most American genre, including shots of the protagonist emerging on the dusty main street of a small town where the final showdown will later take place. There are also numerous details that evoke Westerns as well as elements of the hard-boiled genre in film and literature. However, the setting and many other aspects are distinctively Japanese. The many references to a great variety of narrative and visual elements in Japanese and other cultures (4) reflect the history of Japanese cinema (and of the country as a whole), contributing further to the originality of Kurosawa’s film.
With its many fight scenes, Yōjinbō could be called a chanbara, a swordfighting film, but its complexity makes the label jidaigeki (period film) more appropriate. The action is set in the early nineteenth century in the last decades of the Tokugawa era, which ended in 1868 after more than 250 years with the samurai no longer the official rulers of the country. As in Shichinin no samurai (Seven Samurai, 1954), Kumonosu-jō (Throne of Blood, 1957) and Kakushi toride no san akunin (The Hidden Fortress, 1958), Kurosawa offers a critical view of the samurai class and its codes of behaviour. However, in contrast to these earlier films, he openly challenges genre conventions. The yōjinbō defeats his opponents using their methods, and Kurosawa reacts to the jidaigeki and chanbara genres from within by subverting their conventions.
Distancing himself from the mass productions by the successful Toei studio – the champion of chanbara production with its stylized fight scenes and stereotypical plots and characters – Kurosawa pushes graphic violence to new extremes. The shot of a severed arm falling to the ground or blood gushing from the neck of a victim create gore effects unknown at that time in mainstream period films. As Yoshimoto Mitsuhiro writes, “there was no direct representation of blood in conventional chambara. Yojimbo destroys this convention once and for all!“ (5). In Kurosawa’s ground-breaking film, the realistic approach to violence is also explored in the sound effects – one particular innovation being the sound of human flesh being slashed.
Kurosawa’s shift from formulaic expression had already inspired Araki Mataemon: kettō kagiya no tsuji (Vendetta of Samurai, 1952, Mori Kazuo), for which he wrote the script and in which Mifune was cast in the leading role as the famous swordfighter Araki Mataemon. The film starts with a ballet-like swordfighting scene reminiscent of early silent films and their origins in Kabuki theatre. A voice-over informs the viewer that this form of representation belongs to the past, new films being more realistic. Both Mori’s film and Yōjinbō present realistic fight scenes and have complex main characters. However, the critical reworking of the samurai ideal in Araki Mataemon is mainly expressed through narration whereas in Yōjinbō aesthetic aspects are important in the critical discourse on the values attributed to the samurai and on genre conventions. Moreover, Kurosawa’s film eschews the didactic intention that is revealed in the first sequences of Araki Mataemon. Yōjinbō’s various cultural references and its rich intertextual dimension that is an integral part of Kurosawa’s filmmaking and Mifune’s media image enhance the critical exploration of the film’s genre renewal. It is this multi-layered approach that makes Yōjinbō a masterpiece of modern cinema.
Hero and mise en scène
The hero of Yōjinbō has been described as the “the narrative attractor” (6), and in the film, he openly talks strategy with the innkeeper Gonji (Tōno Eijirō), who identifies his role as manipulator and initiator of violence when, referring to a series of killings, he asks: “Did you write this play?” This hero, a ronin (a masterless samurai) is reminiscent of the nihilist samurai and ronin figures in the films of the late 1920s and 1930s (7) but is adapted to fit the 1960s, making him darker and also funnier. Whereas the traditional image of the ideal samurai celebrated the value of loyalty, Kurosawa’s hero sells his services to two masters and his sole aim seems to be to make money – a further aspect of the film that is in strong contrast to the ethos of the warrior class. He is part of a society still ruled by the samurai but in the nineteenth century largely dominated by the merchants, the lowest of the four classes (8) into which Japanese society was divided in the Tokugawa period. In this world, notions of honour and loyalty are meaningless and so is the conflict between giri (loyalty) and ninjō (personal feelings) that is at the core of many period films. When asked his name, the ronin, looking at a mulberry field, says that it is Kuwabatake (mulberry field) and that his first name is Sanjurō (literally 30th man, which is his age). Instead of exploring the conventional relationship between the samurai, who often had a short life, and the cherry blossom – the delicate flower which only blooms for a short time – Kurosawa offers the mulberry as an ironical alternative, reinforcing his criticism of the warrior ideal perpetuated in many of the Toei productions.
This materialist hero who kills in cold-blood is a pivotal element in Kurosawa’s bushidō criticism and also an important figure in the intertextual discourse as a means to subvert genre conventions. The disparity between this unkempt ronin and figures such as the famous swordsman Miyamoto Musashi, whom Mifune played in Inagaki Hiroshi’s Samurai Trilogy (1954-1956), or the loyal general Makabe Rokurota in Kurosawa’s Kakushi toride no san akunin adds a touch of irony to the figure of this highly ambiguous ronin who then became the model for more modern cinematic heroes. However, the fact that Sanjurō does not hesitate to kill also reveals what the Samurai Trilogy and other period films of the 1950s only suggest – namely that their heroes are killing machines and alienated characters (9).
As in Shichinin no samurai, Kurosawa pursues a realistic streak in which external elements are a reflection of life conditions and an inner struggle and thus appropriate for this alienated loner hero. The yōjinbō’s kimomo is greasy, his hair unkempt, his face unshaven. To these physical aspects Mifune adds mannerisms that underline the character’s poverty, loneliness and marginality. Gestures are means of characterization. The way he tucks his hands inside his kimono to keep them warm, scratching himself frequently and chewing on a toothpick also contribute to the ironical detachment that inspires the portrayal of this hero (10). “Sanjurō never presents himself as a defender of social justice; he is a self-consciously humorous character who always maintains a critical distance from himself” (11), a description that Mifune’s economic acting supports magnificently with his amused, laid-back attitude. The speed with which he changes the expression on his face, – an ability that Kurosawa admired so much – and his enormous creativity as an actor made him the perfect choice for the role. As for his walk – swaying movements, his shoulders hunched –, it is Mifune’s own creation, heightened by framing, camera lenses and music (12).
Mifune’s performance is a marvellous match for Kurosawa’s complex mise en scène and Miyagawa Kazuo’s sublime cinematography. Constant use of deep focus, allowing maximum detail in the shot, together with unsettling close-ups create a highly elaborate visual experience. The unusual orchestration of Satō Masaru’s soundtrack prefigures Ennio Morricone’s music for Leone’s Spaghetti Westerns. Its playfulness, contrasting with the violent action, creates a comic counterpoint that is a further contribution to the genre subversion at the core of the film. Humour is an important part of the narrative and is also captured in a number of caricatures such as the cowardly town constable Hansuke (Sawamura Ikio). In the Toei productions and in the “cinema of cruelty” that followed the success of Kurosawa’s film, humour is absent. It is also the element that most clearly distinguishes Yōjinbō from “other graphically violent films” (13) such as Kobayashi Masaki’s masterpiece Seppuku (Harakiri, 1962).
The yōjinbō is a hero endowed with almost supernatural powers. The way he unbelievably escapes death in impossible situations also contributes to the film’s ironical dimension, bypassing realism. This combination of supernatural powers and alienation makes Sanjurō a symbol of his time, his marginalization creating a link to Japan’s recent past. “Although this film is set at the end of the Tokugawa era (1600-1868) when Japan was ‚forced‘ to open to the West and began to modernize, the roots of Yojimbo do not lie only in the imagined heroic past but also in the moral dilemma of the immediate postwar era.” (14) In one of the first sequences, the protagonist crosses paths with a stray dog carrying a severed human hand in its mouth. The sight of the dog with the human hand is a signal to the ronin of the state of anarchy in the town; and the viewer is also invited to identify the lone figure in his shabby clothes with the dog. Not unlike the animal, he lives on the margins of society, a reminder in 1961 of the Japanese soldiers returning from the battlefields in China or the Pacific who were regarded as outcasts by their compatriots and considered no better than stray dogs – a topic that Kurosawa addressed directly in Nora inu (Stray Dog, 1949). Here, Mifune plays a young police inspector who tries to overcome his war trauma and adapt to the new, peaceful Japanese society in a film dealing symbolically with the feeling of emasculation experienced by many Japanese men after defeat in 1945 (15). Sanjurō, by contrast, displays a newly regained masculine strength which is, however, tainted by alienation and loneliness as symptoms of a society dominated by materialism and greed. The past is inseparable from the present; and the historical setting becomes infused with social and political meaning. Addressing modern-day concerns about a corrupt society in which politics, the economy and crime are intertwined, Kurosawa’s 1961 jidaigeki continues the critical discourse of his previous film Warui yatsu hodo yoku nemuru (The Bad Sleep Well, 1960) set in 1960s Japan (16).
Intertextual elements support the film’s reflections on masculinity and heroism. The elderly yojinbō Homma, who leaves the town before the first fight, waving good-bye to his colleague, is played by Fujita Susumu, the star in Kurosawa’s directorial debut Sugata Sanshirō (Sanshiro Sugata, 1943). As Stephen Prince puts it, “the moment becomes self-referential, a scene in which the two heroes, past and present, of Kurosawa’s cinema meet.” (17) The idealistic young man represented by the judoka Sanshirō is replaced by the middle-aged alienated hero played by Mifune. “It is also a farewell to a more innocent conception of the past, as an era that could nurture Sanshirō’s childlike optimism and spiritual commitment. From now on, the force of history would be felt in terms incompatible with these conditions.” (18) This brief moment in the film is also a reminder that since Yoidore tenshi (Drunken Angel, 1948, Kurosawa), Mifune has presented a far more complex masculinity than Fujita did in Sugata Sanshirō and its sequel (19), a masculinity less concerned with physical prowess than with the inner struggle of the male protagonists.
However, this estranged and violent hero is still capable of altruism. He saves Nui (Tsukasa Yōko) and her family from violence and humiliation and, in giving them all his money, rejects his materialism. Nor does he kill the young peasant who has joined one of the gangs. Instead, he sends him back to his parents, repaying the couple for their kindness when they let him drink water from their well on his arrival in the town. Sanjurō’s violence contrasts with that of Unosuke (Nakadai Tatsuya), the younger brother of one of the gang bosses terrorizing the town. When the innkeeper asks whether he scripted the series of killings, Sanjurō answers: “Half of it. The other part was written by him”, referring to Unosuke. This reply perhaps suggests that he and Unosuke are two sides of the same coin, evoking the doppelganger motif Kurosawa so often explored in his films and with Unosuke, the incarnation of evil, being the yōjinbō’s dark side.
Unosuke, the younger of the two men and not a samurai is the symbol of a new, changing society and, as indicated by the fact that he uses a pistol, influenced by the West. He is the extreme version of modern Japanese youth, even though he does not wear an Aloha shirt like the yakuza Matsunaga in Yoidore tenshi or the rebellious teenager in Ikimono no kiroku (Record of a Living Being, 1955, Kurosawa). In Yōjinbō, the sword wins out over the firearm, tradition over modernity. Anarchy and crime are abolished, but order is only restored by resorting to violence and repression. There is no feeling of harmony or liberation in a world permeated by crime and corruption when the yōjinbō turns his back on the town to continue his solitary life on the road.
1. Shiba, the ronin played by Tamba Tetsurō in Gosha Hideo’s Sanbiki no samurai (Three Outlaw Samurai, 1964), is reminiscent of the character created by Kurosawa and Mifune in Yōjinbō. Mifune played the lead in the film’s sequel Tsubaki Sanjurō (Sanjuro, Japan, 1962, Kurosawa Akira) and he played the ambiguous, alienated figure of the yōjinbō in Inagaki Hiroshi’s Machibuse (Incident at Blood Pass, 1970) and Okamoto Kihachi’s Zatōichi to yōjinbō (Zatoichi Meets Yojimbo, 1970), both produced by Mifune’s production company. He also portrayed the ronin/yōjinbō in several television series produced by his company such as Kaya no surōnin (Ronin of the Wastelands, 1973-1974) and Surōnin makaritorū (The Lowly Ronin, 1981-1983), where this figure is a much less rounded character.2. “A new genre of film called ‚cruel film‘ (zankoku eiga) emerged in the wake of the commercial success of Yojimbo and its ’sequel‘ Sanjuro. In 1963, for instance, Toei’s most successful film at the box office was no longer a formulaic jidaigeki film but Imai Tadashi’s Cruel Stories of Bushido (Bushidō zankoku monogatari), an omnibus film that graphically depicts the masochistic sufferings of the protagonists over seven generations.” (Yoshimoto Mitsuhiro, Kurosawa: Film Studies and Japanese Cinema, Durham, NC, Duke University Press, 2012 , p. 290-291). The heightening of graphic violence is also visible in the Spaghetti Western, a genre that began with Sergio Leone’s remake of Kurosawa’s film.
3. The perpendicular, medium-length shots frequently used in Yōjinbō became an action film convention and were exploited by directors such as George Lucas, one of the many admirers of Kurosawa.
4. With regard to these possible references, Dolores P. Martinez (“Kurosawa’s Noir Quartet: Cinematic Musings on How to Be a Tough Man” in Chi-Yun Shin and Mark Gallagher, eds. London/New York, I.B. Taurus, 2015, p. 37-52) examines Yōjinbō in the context of film noir and Japanese folklore whereas Gerald Sim (“Cinematic Expressions of Rakugo in Akira Kurosawa’s Comedies Yojimbo and Sanjuro”, Asian Cinema, Fall/Winter 2011, p. 253-268) reveals the film’s close links with Rakugo, a traditional Japanese form of entertainment.
5. Yoshimoto, op. cit., p. 289.
6. Leonard Ginsberg, Rhapsody on a Film by Kurosawa, CreateSpace Independent Publishing Platform, 2013, p. 16.
7. The period film was very much an innovative genre in the second half of the 1920s and in the 1930s in which directors such as Shōzō Masahiro, Itō Daisuke, Itami Mansaku and Yamanaka Sadaō expressed social criticism through criticism of the bushidō. Their films, having abandoned the Kabuki-inspired style of earlier productions, contained spectacular swordfighting scenes and were characterized by more realistic acting. Their heroes often played by the stars of that period – Tsumasaburō Bandō and Ōkōchi Denjirō – were social outcasts and the settings the poor quarters of Edo (present-day Tokyo).
8. Japanese society of the Tokugawa era was divided into four classes: samurai, peasants, craftsmen and merchants. The merchants, whose world was money, were much despised by the ruling warrior class, whose ethos put honour above material needs.
9. In Inagaki Hiroshi’s Sohen Sasaki Kojirō (Kojiro Sasaki, 1950), Mifune had already played Miyamoto Musashi, a minor character in the film. This Musashi is clearly guided by his killing instinct, his savagery underlined by Mifune’s energetic acting and wild glares.
10. The reference to a toothpick has a historical foundation. Ruth Benedict writes: “They [the samurai] were forbidden to give way to hunger but that was too trivial to mention. They were enjoined when they were starving to pretend they had just eaten: they must pick their teeth with a toothpick. ‚Baby birds,‘ the maxim went, ‚cry for their food but a samurai holds a toothpick between his teeth.’” (The Chrysanthemum and the Sword: Patterns of Japanese Culture, Boston, Mass., Mariner Books. 2006 (1946), Kindle edition, no pagination. The fact that the poor ronin in Yōjinbō chews on the toothpick has nothing to do with honour – he is truly starving.
11. Yoshimoto, op. cit., p. 292.
12. See Donald Richie, who refers to a statement by Kurosawa (The Films of Akira Kurosawa, third edition expanded and updated with a new epilogue, Berkeley, University of California Press, 1996, p. 155).
13. Yoshimoto, op. cit., p. 292.
14. Martinez, op. cit., p. 37.
15. Yoidore tenshi (Drunken Angel, 1948), Shizukanaru kettō (The Quiet Duel, 1949) and Nora inu.
16. Warui yatsu hodo yoku nemuru and Yōjinbō were the first two films produced by Kurosawa’s own production company, established in 1959.
17. Stephen Prince, The Warrior’s Camera: The Cinema of Akira Kurosawa, revised and expanded edition, Princeton, NJ, Princeton University Press, 1999, p. 230.
18. Prince, ibid., p. 230
19. Two years after the release of Sugata Sanshirō, Fujita Susumu played the role of Sanshirō in Zoku Sugata Sanshirō (Sanshiro Sugata II, Kurosawa, 1945).