Yojimbo (用心棒, 1961) is an Akira Kurosawa classic starring Toshiro Mifune, this time as a rōnin who happens upon a forsaken backwater village in the turbulent time before the end of the Tokugawa shogunate, in the 1860s. The film starts off with our hero wandering aimlessly on dusty country roads and, like a coin toss, he chucks a stick into the air to let chance determine which direction he'll take when it drops.
Two rival gangs are at war for control of the village when the rōnin arrives. He befriends the saké brewer, who runs a little tavern next to the coffin maker. The coffin maker has been doing good business, what with all the gang killings (but points out later that while truces are bad for business so is full-on bloodshed, as no one bothers to pay for a coffin when chaos reigns).
The rōnin resolves to take advantage of the conflict, at first for money, we assume, but then out of a sense of honor, or at the very least to bring some peace and quiet back to the place. Kuwabatake Sanjuro (meaning: 30-year-old mulberry field) is what the rōnin names himself upon glancing at the field out the back door. He joins one gang and then switches sides, part of his scheme to get these thugs to destroy themselves. After all, he alone can't take out that many, and so he plays this game with them, although we're never really sure how in control of the game he actually is. Is he a master of deception? Or just a reckless rōnin whose wits are as aimless as his countryside meanderings?
Kurosawa put together a great cast; whenever the two gangs face off at the center of town, each actor/thug has his very own villainous mien, not to mention unique weapon, including a gargantuan wooden mallet lugged about by the giant actor and wrestler Namigoro Rashomon. Surely Martin Scorsese pulled some ideas out of those scenes for the opening battle in Gangs of New York. (Yojimbo was also remade as A Fistful of Dollars (1964) with Clint Eastwood and gangster movie Last Man Standing (1996) with Bruce Willis.) In Yojimbo even the geisha each have their own unsettling countenance and demeanor. Tatsuya Nakadai plays a creepy, gun-toting baddie (well enough). And we're treated to a performance by Isuzu Yamada (as a villain), who played Ayako Murai in Kenji Mizoguchi's Osaka Elegy and was in dozens of other films during her long career.
Yojimbo's atmosphere is an entity unto itself, the product of Kurosawa's inventive imagination and meticulous eye for detail. Dirt's sucked up by the wind, and blasts the eyes. Smoke billows through cracks in the woodwork. Light is vanquished by layers of grey. The village is secluded and also feels enclosed somehow, as if the outside world could never find it for all the towering weeds and dull trees penning it in. And the desperation. When someone mentions silk merchants, we think how can that be so? Silk? In such a place this just can't be—only violence and greed and grit. A soft, gentle village, though, is what our hero hopes to ultimately leave behind.
I very much enjoyed Seven Samurai (1954), but Yojimbo is great too. Fewer stand-out scenes but all in all a solid, memorable action film and a cleverly unraveled, amusing story, with Kurosawa's magic cinematic touch. Definitely a must-see-again.