A man walks down the only street in a small town. The wind blows dust everywhere. The street is empty and all the windows are shuttered. We soon find out the town isn’t abandoned. The people are just too scared to leave their homes, But before we learn that, we already have a good idea why: The only sign of life is a dog holding a human hand.
The man is the nameless Yojimbo, or bodyguard, played by Toshiro Mifune. Learning that the town is being terrorized by two rival gangsters, Seibei and Ushitora, who each own their own rival mayor and have the corrupt sheriff so far in their pockets that he helpfully points the Yojimbo towards them if he’s looking for work. The town is full of intriguing characters — including a literal giant carrying around a hammer that resembles an enormous cartoon mallet. Akira Kurosawa’s love of interesting faces is at its height here. Next time some racist piece of shit claims all Japanese people look alike, show them this movie.
The Yojimbo is a ronin, a samurai left homeless and unemployed in the collapsing Tokugawa Shogunate. So he comes to a logical conclusion: “I can make money killing, and this town is full of people who deserve to die.” With a few well-placed nudges, he gets the two gangs to slaughter each other. He orchestrates it all like an untouchable divinity. At one point, he promises to lead one gang in a showdown with the other and then backs out to watch the fight from the watchtower. He’s above it all, literally. Until he isn’t.
Akira Kurosawa’s film has often been described as an Eastern Western — or, with apologies to Patrick Star, a Weastern. As far from the American West as it is, it even briefly took the lead in a poll on our Facebook group for greatest Western of all time. The Yojimbo is certainly a classic Western hero. He doesn’t say a word until over ten minutes in. He arrives to tame the town, and the only reason I don’t say he literally rides off into the sunset in the end is because the sun’s not setting and he can’t afford a horse. There’s a difference, though — the town isn’t tamed so much as it’s completely destroyed.
The closest ancestor to Yojimbo seems to be John Ford’s great noir-tinged Western My Darling Clementine. Both films follow heroes whose private battles within themselves define them as much as the more obvious shootouts. And they both take place in worlds as dark as any noir city, maybe more so because the tiny wooden shacks offer so much less shelter than modern skyscrapers.
There’s deeper noir connections in Yojimbo too, and they’ve been talked about less than its Western influences. Its world is even more corrupt than Clementine’s Tombstone. It’s much closer to noir’s urban dens of iniquity. Kurosawa even cited a noir, The Glass Key as his inspiration. Sergio Leone and Clint Eastwood famously cycled Yojimbo back into the Western genre with A Fistful of Dollars. That movie’s often cited as the beginning of the genre’s revisionist period, but could that injection of noir cynicism really be Kurosawa’s doing?
If so, it’s not as complete in his films as it is in Leone’s. Make no mistake: the Yojimbo, the original Man with No Name, is a mean bastard. But as the film goes on, we come to learn that’s not all he is. Gonji the barkeep, the closest thing he has to a friend, dismisses him as a mercenary who’s forsaken the samurai code that says to protect whoever pays him with his life. But the Yojimbo has learned the hard way how little loyalty is worth. He seems to have no code, but only because he follows a higher code. He’s something like an avenging angel, wiping the gangs off the face of the earth simply because they deserve it.
And we learn that his harsh justice has a flipside too. He doesn’t just punish the guilty, he protects the innocent. He meets a man whose wife, Nui, has been sold into sexual slavery, and when he says, “Guys like that make me sick,” it’s ambiguous whether he’s referring to the man himself or the gangsters who destroyed his family. We find out later, when the Yojimbo and Ushitora’s brother Inokichi go to check up on Nui. The Yojimbo runs out of her house, breathlessly telling Ushitora that someone’s killed all the men guarding her. The only lie was in the verb tense, as the Yojimbo proceeds to slaughter them all in under a minute. He brings out her son and husband and tells them to run.
When he returns from setting up the crime scene to make it look like a mere mortal was responsible (or is he taking his anger out on the house?), he finds the family still there, kneeling in gratitude. He’s so hardened he has no idea how to respond. This isn’t a cruel man. This is a man who’s learned how to survive in a world where kindness is seen as weakness.
Both Men with No Name are men with no history, but Kurosawa opens up more intrigue about his hero’s mysterious past, just by his status as a ronin. This is a man who was made, not born. The Yojimbo’s status as the Man with No Name would have carried extra weight to Kurosawa’s Japanese audience too — they would have known that samurai at the time were the only people to use a family name, meaning his lack of name and lack of history make his fall that much more apparent. Kurosawa uses visual metaphors to highlight the Yojimbo’s tragic rootlessness, encouraging Mifune to scratch and twitch like a stray dog.
And his kindness is exploited as weakness. Ushitora’s men discover a letter to the Yojimbo from Nui’s family. If he’s capable of human tenderness, he’s capable of human vulnerability, and our image of him as invincible super samurai is shattered when we next see him days later, beaten and near death. This is the kind of vulnerability we never see from Eastwood’s Man with No Name — even when Tuco marches him across the desert in The Good, the Bad, and the Ugly, he still has the strength to cuss him out.
But the Yojimbo’s ability to care for others is Ushitora’s undoing. Gonji nurses the Yojimbo back to health, and when Ushitora threatens him, it is, in Jaws terms, personal, and the entire gang is wiped out in the space of a minute.
The gangsters were only able to capture the Yojimbo in the first place because of Ushitora’s brother Unosuke. He arrives on one of the movie’s dark, windy nights. When the sheriff greets him, Insouke grins demonically and asks, “Do you want to see something interesting?” And then, with all the shock value of a horror-movie jump scare, he produces a handgun. For all its genre-bending, Yojimbo up to this point has played by the rules of the samurai film. Just by existing, Unosuke breaks those rules, and it’s only by holding the Yojimbo at gunpoint that he can prevent him from reaching his sword and turning him into hamburger. The Yojimbo has a certain battered core of bushido honor, but Insouke betrays everything the old order stood for, cold-bloodedly shooting a man he had seconds earlier promised to leave alive.
This is an anti-Western in a much more literal way than Leone’s films. When the Yojimbo returns for his final showdown, he proves the superiority of the old, indigenous ways over the new, foreign world of gunplay, disarming Unosuke with a single knife toss to the wrist. As Unosuke dies, the Yojimbo displays another glimmer of human kindness as Unosuke shows his human frailty, pathetically crying that he can’t die without his gun. Does the Yojimbo know it’s a trap? If he does, he doesn’t care. He hands Unosuke his gun and watches impassively as Unosuke raises it to kill him. Unosuke fails of course, and howls like a toddler when he sees he doesn’t have the strength to shoot.
Kurosawa’s filmography is valuable, if for no other reason, then to show us a pacifist’s action films. Nothing here bursts the illusion of machismo quite as harrowingly as the final, true recounting of the fight in Rashomon. But scenes like the above show how little Kurosawa believes in the posturing of violent men. The Yojimbo’s lightning-fast slaughter reflects his superhuman skill. But maybe it also reflects Kurosawa’s disinterest in violence, almost as if he was getting it over with as fast as he could. At one point, he even skips a town-spanning battle royale, only showing its aftermath. And the Yojimbo’s capture and beating do more to deflate his machismo than anything the second Man with No Name ever did, at least until his return in Unforgiven. Kurosawa encourages us to laugh along with the Yojimbo in the watchtower, looking down on men hungry to kill but scared to die — can you believe they think this makes them men?