A nameless warrior happens into a windswept, godforsaken town over which two criminal gangs are at war. Believing the world would be better off without either of them, and that he could profit from the process, he plays each against the other. If you’ve never heard of this film and yet that seems familiar, you’ve probably seen Sergio Leone’s Fistful of Dollars or Last Man Standing starring Bruce Willis, both of which are remakes of Yojimbo. While Dollars is a classic in its own right and Last Man Standing is an enjoyable movie, neither can compare to Akira Kurosawa’s original: a picture so exciting, and so brilliantly made, it is perhaps the only film that holds equal appeal to the most po-faced art house audiences and beer-sodden students in search of an action movie.
As usual, playing John Wayne to Kurosawa’s John Ford (or rather, Clint Eastwood to his Sergio Leone) is Toshio Mifune, possibly the greatest of Japanese film stars and certainly the most popular in the West. His performance – comic, frightening, violent and heroic –is just as central, and just as intensely entertainingly, as Marlon Brando’s in On The Waterfront or Alan Ladd’s in Shane. Mifune was one of the greatest stars of 20th Century cinema, and if you’ve never seen one of his performances this is the one with which to start. Equally memorable is Masaru Sato’s score, which – percussive, persistent and brilliantly foreboding – is one of the finest I’ve ever heard, and easily the equal of Ennio Morricone’s equivalent, and iconic, music for A Fistful Of Dollars.
Impressive as the contributions of Mifune and Sato are, the star-turns in Yojimbo are given by its director and his cinematographer, Kazuo Miyagawa. What’s most striking about this film, after just how much fun it is, is the amount and clarity of information Kurosawa manages to put onscreen at one time. In my favourite shot, a moment before the film’s eruptive climax, we see (from left to right): the hanging feet of the friend whose capture has drawn Mifune out of hiding and into battle; the imposing semi-silhouette of Mifune himself; the ruins of a building destroyed in the violence he has set in motion; and two of the henchmen who, if previous skirmishes are anything to go by, he is about to relieve of their limbs. The shot creates in seconds a level of tension other films would require whole scenes to convey – and it is because every shot in the film is just as intelligently assembled that the script can be so deliciously terse, and yet never confusing. Certainly, the plot is complicated, and unfurls rapidly, but we never feel we have to work to keep up with it.
This is not Kurosawa’s best film, but to be included in this or any other collection of classic films it doesn’t have to be. If there are such things as ‘must see movies’ – and much as I love great films, I don’t think there are – then Kurosawa directed at least six of them. If you only ever watch one samurai film, make it Seven Samurai – but if you watch two, make the second Yojimbo.