Who would have thought that a 1961 jidaigeki film directed by Akira Kurosawa would attain such a cult following over the years? Incorporating competing crime lords and a ronin (a masterless samurai – Mifune), who arrives in a small town where two gangster-like mob bosses each try to compete to hire the newcomer as a bodyguard.
The narrative opens as this wandering samurai overhears an elderly couple lamenting that their only son has given up farm work to run off and join the rogues who have descended on a nearby town divided by a gang war.
The stranger then heads to the town where he meets Gonji, the owner of a small izakaya, who advises him to leave. He tells the ronin that the two warring clans are led by Ushitora and Seibei. After sizing up the situation, the stranger says that he intends to stay, as the town would be better off with both sides dead. As the plot unfolds, Sanjuro (the stranger) plays one side off against the other in an effort to maximize his earnings and to ensure that goodness prevails.
He first convinces the weaker Seibei to hire him as a swordsman by effortlessly killing three of Ushitora’s men. When asked his name, he sees a mulberry field and states that his name is Kuwabatake Sanjuro. Although Sanjuro is a proper given name, when spoken aloud it can also be interpreted to mean ‘thirty years old’. Aware of this double meaning and that those he’s speaking to know that he used Kuwabatake as a pseudo-surname, he slyly quips, “Though I’m closer to forty, actually!”
Perhaps what really distinguishes Yojimbo, as a motion picture and as a morality play, was Kurosawa’s deliberate combining of the samurai story with the western, so that the wind-swept main street could be in any frontier town, the samurai could be a gunslinger. and the local characters could have been lifted from John Ford’s impressive gallery of supporting actors.
Yojimbo was followed quickly by Kurosawa’s Sanjuro (1962), which also stars Mifune portraying pretty much the same character. The difference between the two is that while Sanjuro is a comedy in which ancient samurai traditions are exposed as ludicrous, Yojimbo is more subversive in nature. The samurai were famed for their unyielding loyalty to their employers, but Sanjuro, finding himself unemployed because of the collapse of the feudal system, becomes a modern man and is able to manipulate both sides because they persist in thinking he will be faithful to those who pay him.