If you ask film buffs which is Akira Kurosawa's greatest film, most would say Seven Samurai. However, if you ask them which is Kurosawa's most popular film, they would point to Yojimbo, a 1961 film that gave a new definition to the samurai film genre. This entry discusses the Kurosawa film and its two remakes, one of which became a classic in its own right.
Precursors - Dashiell Hammett's Red Harvest
Many film critics point to Red Harvest, a pulp novel written by Dashiell Hammett, as one of Yojimbo's major influences. In the novel, Hammett's series character, the unnamed Continental Op, is called into the town of Personville (nicknamed 'Poisonville') to investigate corruption problems. When the man who called him in is murdered, the Op takes action by meeting all the criminal elements of the town and turning them against each other.
Although Red Harvest is certainly an influence on the film script written by Kurosawa along with his writing partner Ryuzo Kikushima, Yojimbo is not an adaptation of the novel. There are enough differences in plot elements and execution to mark Kurosawa's work as an original.
Comparison of Elements in the Three Films
The story script is written by Ryuzo Kikushima and Akira Kurosawa.
|Plot Element||Yojimbo (1961)||A Fistful of Dollars (1964)||Last Man Standing (1996)|
|Our hero is ...||A scruffy ronin in 1860s Japan (Toshiro Mifune)||A scruffy gunslinger known as the Man With No Name, in late 19th Century Mexico (Clint Eastwood)||A scruffy hit man on the run, in Prohibition-era Texas (Bruce Willis)|
|Who decides his path by ...||Throwing a dead tree branch in the air and following its direction when it lands||Letting his mule follow the road||Spinning an empty whisky bottle on the road and following its direction when it stops|
|He arrives at ...||An unnamed dry, dusty Japanese village||The dry, dusty Mexican village of San Miguel||The dry, dusty village of Jericho, Texas|
|And is startled by the sight of ...||A dog with a severed human hand in its mouth||The dead body of a Mexican peasant sitting on a mule trotting out of town||The fly-infested remains of a draft horse, lying in the middle of the street|
|He gets some information about the place from ...||Hansuke (Ikio Sawamura), the corrupt constable and village time-keeper||Juan de Dios, the town's lunatic bell-ringer||Ed Galt (Bruce Dern), the corrupt sheriff|
|And is almost immediately confronted by ...||Tough guys working for the ganglord Ushi-Tora (Kyu Sazanka), who jeer him as he goes to the local bar||Tough guys working for gun-runner John Baxter (Wolfgang Lukschy), who fire shots at his mule, causing it to stampede towards the local bar||Tough guys working for liquor smuggler Doyle (David Patrick Kelly), who vandalize his car before he decides to refresh himself at the local bar|
|He gets more information about the situation from ...||Gonji (Eijiro Tono), the local tavern keeper||Silvanito (José Calvo), the local tavern keeper||Joe Monday (William Sanderson), the local tavern keeper|
|The town is infested by two rival gangs ...||The gang of Seibei (Seizaburu Kawazu), who backs the silk merchant Tazaemon (Kamatari Fujiwara), and the gang of Ushi-Tora, who backs the sake merchant Tokuemon (Takashi Shimura)||The Baxters, who smuggle guns across the border, and the Rojos, led by Benito (Antonio Prieto), who smuggle liquor||The Strozzis, led by Fredo (Ned Eisenberg), and the Doyle gang, who both smuggle liquor from Mexico|
|Deciding to hire himself out, he makes an impression by ...||Confronting and killing three of Ushi-Tora's henchmen||Confronting and killing four of John Baxter's henchmen||Confronting and killing Finn, who was one of Doyle's henchmen|
|Upon being hired by the rival gang, he introduces himself as ...||Kuwabatake Sanjuro (after looking at a field of mulberries)1||Actually he doesn't, but the local undertaker calls him 'Joe'||John Smith, from back East|
|And quits the gang after ...||He overhears Seibei and his family plotting to kill him||He overhears The Rojos brothers plotting to kill him||He finds out the Strozzis have been asking questions about his past, ostensibly in a plot to kill him|
|He eventually meets the man who will become his main rival ...||Unosuke (Tatsuya Nakadai), Ushi-Tora's youngest brother who is an expert shot with a revolver||Ramon Rojo (Gian Maria Volonté), the Rojos' youngest brother who is an expert shot with a rifle||Hickey (Christopher Walken), a member of the Doyle gang who is an expert shot with both machine gun and pistol|
|One of the gangs commits a major crime when ...||Ushi-Tora arranges to have a government official assassinated||The Rojos ambush and massacre a Mexican Army expedition, capturing a shipment of gold||The Strozzis convince a corrupt Mexican commandant to ambush and massacre Doyle's booze-carrying convoy|
|Our Hero turns this event to his advantage by ...||Capturing the two assassins, selling them to Seibei's gang, and informing Ushi-Tora of their whereabouts||Setting up two corpses as possible witnesses, and tricking the Baxters into a gun battle with the Rojos over them||Tricking the Strozzis into renegotiating their deal with the commandant, and informing the Doyles of their whereabouts|
|As a result of Our Hero's machinations ...||Seibei's idiot son Yoichiro (Hiroshi Tachikawa) is captured by the Ushi-Tora gang||The Baxters' idiot son Antonio (Bruno Carotenuto) is captured by the Rojos||Strozzi's idiot cousin Georgio Carmonte (Michael Imperioli) is captured by the Doyle gang|
|The hostage is eventually exchanged for ...||Nui (Yoko Tsukasa), Tokuemon's mistress, who was taken away from her husband and son to settle her husband's gambling debt||Marisol (Marianne Koch), Ramon Rojo's mistress, who was taken away from her husband and son to settle her husband's gambling debt||Felina (Karina Lombard), Doyle's mistress, who was taken away from her husband and daughter to settle her husband's gambling debt|
|Learning of her history and plight, Our Hero ...||Joins Ushi-Tora's gang, then massacres her guards, reunites her with her family and sends them out of town||Joins the Rojos, then massacres her guards, reunites her with her family and sends them out of town||Joins the Doyle gang, then massacres her guards, puts her in a car and has her drive to Mexico to be reunited with her family|
|But he's caught by his rival, then beaten and tortured by ...||A giant hulking henchman (Namigoro Rashomon)||A giant fat henchman (Mario Brega)||A fairly big henchman (Tiny Ron)|
|Eventually escaping his captors, he is hidden in ...||A coffin barrel||A wooden coffin||The back seat of Sheriff Galt's cruiser|
|From there, he witnesses the extinction of ...||Seibei's gang, as each is either cut down or shot by Unosuke when they are driven out of their house by smoke||The Baxters, as each member is gunned down while their house burns to the ground||The Strozzis, as each member either burns to death or is gunned down while the roadhouse they're holed up in burns to the ground|
|When the bartender is captured for aiding Our Hero, he comes to the rescue armed with ...||A dead man's sword, given to him by the coffin maker||A pistol and a stack of dynamite, given to him by the undertaker||An pair of pistols, given to him by Sheriff Galt|
|In the end, Our Hero wipes out the other gang and defeats his rival by ...||Throwing a kitchen knife into his gun arm||Using an iron plate to deflect his rifle shots, then outdrawing him in a pistol vs rifle duel||Beating him to the draw of a hidden pistol with a single shot|
Further Notes on Yojimbo
For the first time in the jidai-geki genre, blood is seen onscreen and realistic sound effects of steel striking flesh and bone are used. This proved to be a huge influence on future samurai films.
In an early scene, our hero slices an arm off one of his assailants. This scene is echoed by director George Lucas in Star Wars: Episode IV, A New Hope (1977), when Obi-Wan Kenobi slices off the arm of one of Luke Skywalker's assailants.
Although Kurosawa included many funny elements in his earlier films, this is his first out-and-out comedy. The make-up of his villain characters is heavily distorted, and their actions while fighting are choreographed for humour.
The film may also be an answer to charges by Japanese film critics that Kurosawa was too heavily influenced by the films of the West. Much of the film's settings are clichés taken straight out of B-Western films.
Yojimbo was successful enough to spawn one official sequel. In Kurosawa's next film, Sanjuro (1962), Mifune's Sanjuro character aids a group of inept young samurai as they attempt to rescue an honest magistrate from the clutches of a corrupt police official. There are other films which claim to feature Mifune's Yojimbo character - notably Zatoichi vs Yojimbo (1970) - but due to inferior script work and Mifune's declining physical abilities (he was now in his mid-40s), such films lack the snap of Kurosawa's originals.
Further Notes on A Fistful of Dollars
Director Sergio Leone never actually got permission to remake Yojimbo, nor did the producers. Shortly after the film was released in Europe, Kurosawa launched a plagiarism suit. The suit was settled a year later, with Kurosawa receiving 15 percent of the movie's worldwide receipts and a minimum of $100,000. To this day, the connection to Kurosawa's film has never been mentioned in film publicity by MGM/United Artists, the film's American distributor.
The film was so low-budget that actor Clint Eastwood was obliged to buy his own clothing from a second-hand shop in California in order to create the look of The Man With No Name. There was one exception to his wardrobe: Leone provided the poncho from a shop in Spain.
The film was shot mainly in Spain, to take advantage of the terrain. Very few members of the production crew spoke English. To encourage distribution in North America, Leone had many of the film credits Anglicised; in the original print, for example, he is listed as 'Bob Robertson'.
As a cost-saving measure, Leone decided to use extreme close-ups of the actors' faces to convey emotion. This became one of Leone's favourite techniques.
When the film was first broadcast on American television, a new sequence was added by network executives (unknown to either Eastwood or Leone). In this prologue, the Man with No Name (played by a look-a-like) has his prison sentence commuted by the prison warden, provided he cleans up the Mexican village of the film. The prologue was dropped from later releases and broadcasts of the film.
A Fistful of Dollars was the first of Leone and Eastwood's Dollars Trilogy, featuring the Man with No Name. The other two are For A Few Dollars More (1965) and The Good, the Bad, and the Ugly (1966). Contrary to some accounts, neither has anything to do with Kurosawa's sequel Sanjuro.
Further Notes on Last Man Standing
This is an official remake of Yojimbo, with Kikushima and Kurosawa receiving a story credit on the film. The actual screenplay was written by director Walter Hill.
When New Line Cinema bought the remake rights in 1992, the initial intention was to reset the story in 21st-Century America. Eventually, the story was moved to the 1920s.
The film is normally decried as an inferior remake, although it does have some supporters. Critics concede that Hill's use of cinematography and lighting are first rate, but he has also been both praised and panned for his stylized use of violence. As the lead actor, Willis attempts to blend a sense of humour into a film-noirish character; unfortunately, the results are uneven; 'John Smith' alternates between a wooden demeanour and a 'wise-guy' attitude.
An interesting innovation is the use of music by Ry Cooder. When Kurosawa asked Masaru Sato to compose music for Yojimbo, he wanted the main theme to be reminiscent of a bull-dozer. Cooder actually achieves this effect with his electronic, blues-style main theme.
All three films have been released on DVD. Yojimbo was released by the Criterion Collection. A Fistful of Dollars was released by MGM/UA Home Entertainment, and Last Man Standing was released by New Line Home Entertainment.