Yojimbo (review)

In a similar vein as yesterday's The Big Sleep, Akira Kurosawa's Yojimbo (1961) is a classic which, in some circles, needs no recommendation. The thing is, these movies are classic for a reason and modern audiences who may be intimidated or feel that they won't be able to understand should not be afraid to watch them. Yojimbo was the first live action movie in another language that I left wanting to watch again. In the first place, the movie is simply hilarious, and not in an accidental funny-because-it's-so-old kind of way. On top of that, Kurosawa stacks some solid action and drama, thought-provoking musings on ethics and morality, and his personal cinematic style. For anyone looking to spread their tastes outside the English language in a serious but still fun way, this is probably the movie you should start with.

The story of Yojimbo follows a ronin (a wandering, masterless samurai) named Sanjuro (Toshiro Mifune) as he stumbles upon a town divided into two gangs, one allied with the sake brewer and the other with the silk merchant. Sanjuro befriends the nonpartisan tavern keeper who explains the town's history and its current situation as a product of greed and selfishness. This leads Sanjuro to decide that many of the town's residents deserve to die and that he is the one to swing the sword. His plan begins with him offering his services as a bodyguard (after displaying his strength), and involves him switching sides and playing each against the other. The situation becomes more complicated and begins to get out of hand with the arrival of the gun-wielding half-wit brother of Ushitora, the leader of the stronger gang.

A lot of what keeps me coming back to this movie is it's wonderful comedic flair. It's almost an odd place to find comedy, as its other main influences include the more dramatic samurai and western genres. It points out how silly these genre's reliance on a show of masculinity looks while simultaneously revealing our own reliance on that masquerade. Characters like Unosuke and Inokichi (below) make laughable and obvious attempts to cover up their shortcomings with masculine stereotypes, but at the same time Sanjuro becomes completely neutralized when one of them disarms him of his sword. The mood is masturfully controlled: it's fun when it wants to be and serious when it needs to be.

Inokichi attempts to be menacing.

(Spoilers being here.) Speaking of masculinity, Yojimbo's main character arc involves Sanjuro's struggle with and eventual transcendence beyond his reliance on stereotypes of masculinity. While the film's ending involves a masculine display of violence, there is one important nuance which changes our perspective on the scene. When Unosuke catches Sanjuro off his guard and takes away his sword, Sanjuro becomes defenseless against his previously harmless foes and is beaten nearly to death. After a long period of recovery, Sanjuro returns to finish off the remaining evil elements living in the town. He is given a dead man's sword, something which was not only taboo but which is a sign of Sanjuro's (almost) death, reversing the traditional symbolism. Sanjuro's sword is no longer a sign of his strength and vitality as a man and a warrior, but of his weakness and of his mortality.

Yojimbo's central thematic construction also revolves around a similar disposition. In the film's opening dialogue, a young farmer argues with his father: "Who wants a long life of eating porridge? I want to eat good food, wear nice things. A short, exciting life for me!" After the film's final fight scene, Sanjuro tells the last living warrior, "Go home. A long life eating porridge is best!" While this may seem hypocritical coming from a samurai who just killed the majority of the town's residents, in Sanjuro's view those men were unchangeable whereas the young man he advises has a future. Sanjuro's ethics in the movie may be questionable at times, but for the most part he plays the two rival gangs against each other, and little comes to them they don't bring upon themselves.

Much of the scholarship with regard to Yojimbo involves analyzing its relation to spectatorship. There are multiple scenes where Sanjuro watches the scene with the audience from a removed location (below). Aligning the protagonist with the viewer in this way not only serves the commonplace goal of immersing the viewer in what they're watching (e.g. eyeline matches), but also attempts to transfer the samurai's code of ethics over to the viewer to both make the hero more relatable and implicate the viewer in the film's morals. It's also just funny and enjoyable to watch.

Sanjuro watches the two gangs face off.

My favorite aspect of Yojimbo when I watched it this time through was something I hadn't noticed before: the film's position as a samurai western and it's relationship to Shane (1953). In my review of Layer Cake (2004), I discuss Todd McGowan's analysis of the structure of Shane which relies on the philosophy of Giorgio Agamben and provides a template for looking at westerns and explaining why the protagonist has to leave at the end. Sanjuro must leave town at the end of Yojimbo because he constitutes a state of exception, a figure beyond the law. He uses this exceptional status to do what the law cannot by using violence to return to an equilibrium from which justice can once again be served by the law. Because of his exceptional status, however, Sanjuro must leave once the rule of law has been reestablished. The founding violence of the law has no place once room for the law has been cleared out.

Further Reading:
 - My analysis of Escape from New York, where I further discuss the state of exception and its relation to the law.
 - My article on violence in film, where I discuss Walter Benjamin's theories of violence and especially constructive violence.