Honestly…I don’t know if Yojimbo is best samurai movie to start with. I don’t even know if it’s my favorite of the samurai genre, made popular in the early 60s. But got-damn is it a good one. There are so many layers to it. Want some violent samurai action? It’s got that. Want some artistic metophor? It’s got that too. Shoot, even the score echoes the plot of the movie. AND, arguably, Yojimbo is responsible for making the Western genre popular in America. Fist Full of Dollars (1964) was an almost shot-for-shot remake of Yojimbo, except set in the American old west, and with Clint Eastwood as a gun slinger instead of a samurai.
All this to say that Yojimbo is an awesome friggin’ movie!
The movie was released in 1961 and directed by Akira Kurosawa. It stars Toshiro Mifune, who was the Humphrey Bogart of Japan in the 50s and 60s. Seriously, look at this guy:
Yojimbo (bodyguard) is about a wandering ronin (samurai with no master) who happens upon a small town, home to two rival factions. The leader of each faction has declared himself to be mayor of the town. The nameless ronin sees this as problematic for the town. He comments that’s it’s not good when there are two quarreling leaders, and that the town would be better off without them. Seeing an opportunity to make a little money and help the townsfolk, he hashes a plan to get rid of the two gangs by making them kill each other off.
He does this by offering his services as a bodyguard to one of the gang leaders. The gang leader, after some hard negotiation, will pay the ronin handsomely if he can prove his skills. The ronin heads over to the rival gang’s place and cuts down a few of their guys with no problem. Later that night he overhears his employer’s wife planning to kill him after he kills the rest of the rival gang. This way they won’t have to pay the ronin the large amount that was promised.
Obviously the ronin isn’t too happy about this. So when his employer, with his new, skilled swordsman, moves to attack the rival gang, the ronin declares that he no longer works for him. Leaving the gangs to fight each other without him. Oh, that Yojimbo, always stirrin’ up trouble.
The ronin weaves his plan throughout the movie, playing one side off the other- very Sun Tzu. Kurosawa, genius that he was, foreshadows this theme from the very beginning using music. The second scene of the movie is the ronin approaching a house where a woman is actually weaving at a loom. You realize that the music that’s been playing since the credits, has almost the exact same rhythm as the loom. Here’s a link to the main score of the movie. Skip to about 00:40 to hear the music I’m referring to. Unfortunately I couldn’t find a clip of the loom scene for comparison. Guess you’ll just have to watch the movie!