Some filmmakers are so good at their craft that their skill, execution and artistry is such that other filmmakers cannot help but imitate them. It is an involuntary reflex borne not from flattery, but the innate desire to copy a master out of respect. Likewise, there are movies that do the same themselves; they capture such pure energy of expression that they create a wake of derivative work. With Yojimbo, we get both at once: Kurosawa at the height of his powers creating a movie so compelling on its own that it stands, even today, as a kind of cinematic shockwave that has been remade, interpreted and outright copied so many times that even people who haven’t seen it probably know the story just from having seen some of the other movies that reflect it.
Our story begins in 1860 Japan, during a time when Japan was entering the modern world, and the samurai warrior caste was rapidly finding itself out of a job. A nameless ronin—a samurai who serves no master—enters a ramshackle little town in the middle of the countryside and notices that the place has been reduced to poverty thanks to the lack of any kind of credible law or law enforcement, and the presence of two warring criminal gangs. Take away the crooks, and there is virtually no town left at all. Things are so bad that local farmers’ kids are running away to join one side or the other because crime is the only industry. The ronin, who calls himself Kuwubatake Sanjuro for lack of a better name, decides he’s seen enough and that all of these gangsters have to go. But rather than charging in to cut them all down with his unstoppable swordsmanship, Sanjuro hatches clever scheme to play each side against the other in the hopes that if he can get the gangsters to kill each other off, he won’t have to bloody his hands any more than he has to. It’s a good plan, but Sanjuro knows better than anyone how rarely a plan survives contact with the enemy. Good thing his swords are sharp.
Compared to the sprawling scope of some of Kurosawa’s other films. Yojimbo (which means “bodyguard”) is a spartan and severe affair, a small story told with relatively few characters in a battle over the fate of what has already become a ghost town. That it is soon to be depopulated further almost doesn’t seem to matter. This is the kind of town so ravaged by bloodshed that the first thing Sanjuro sees upon arrival is a stray dog with a severed human hand in its mouth. The only tavern has no customers, an the only business that does well at all is the local coffin-maker. There is almost nobody who is innocent here, so what is there, really to fight for? As things progress, we get the notion that it isn’t so much about good vs. evil or even law vs. chaos, but something simpler than that: professionals vs. amateurs.
Throughout the movie, the story’s inevitable sword fights are carefully times outbursts of violence that are as fast as they are unannounced. This isn’t a movie about protracted ballets of steel once blades are drawn. Rather, it is about how, when fought by trained specialists, these kinds of battles end before they begin. Most times, the best way to win them is to not get in them at all. And yet, the more we watch Sanjuro ply his own bloody trade, the more we realize his skill is almost superhuman compared to those around him. But Sanjuro isn’t Japan’s greatest swordsman. He’s just one who got very good at what he did through years of single-minded practice and dedication. Once upon a time, there were many more samurai just like him who maintained an order that has, by the time our story begins here, all but vanished. The order that is poised to follow it is unfocused, undisciplined, unskilled, and prone to incompetence and corruption. The old order was hardly perfect, but when Sanjuro sees what his country stands to inherit in the near future, it’s no wonder he decides that maybe a house cleaning is in order. It’s not for him. It’s for the farmers’ kids who decide to run away from home. If they have to abandon their families for some youthful dream of easy riches, then let at least not be in this town, with these people. Find some other way to pursue fame and fortune that doesn’t necessarily require hard work and dedication. Just not…this.
The moment of truth in the movie is in its final showdown, when Sanjuro takes on ten men in an iconic sword fight that stands as one of the landmark action sequences of motion picture history. It begins with a dramatic walk down the town’s only street, and the rhythm that accompanies Sanjuro’s footfalls contrasts sharply with the jangled mess of broken beats that accompanies the approach of his unruly opponents; a kind of sonic observation about a battle not just between two opposing sides, but two different world views. Once the fight begins, it ends mere seconds later, surely leaving some movie-goers wondering why they sat through so much pacing and dialogue for such a brief payoff. The answer comes in how he handles one opponent who begs for mercy, and another who not only brings a gun to a swordfight, but who tries to kill Sanjuro through treachery after having been mortally wounded. Here, as in the preceding battle, Sanjuro doesn’t even blink because he knows incompetence when he sees it. He is in a world full of it. And what’s worse, it’s the future that awaits him. That is why he fights. Because as long as he does, that past worth preserving will never die, even if everything else around it must in a flash of steel and a splash of blood. And that is worth remembering.