Yojimbo means bouncer or bodyguard in Japanese. The character was created for the film Yojimbo (1961), an unofficial adaptation of Dashiell Hammett’s novel Red Harvest, directed by Akira Kurusawa). Korusawa never admitted publicly that his film was an adaptation of the novel, but acknowledged that he was familiar with Hammett’s work, and was indebted to him as a story-teller. He actually mentioned a second novel, The Glass Key, and the Hollywood adaptation of it by director Stuart Heisler, as a possible influence. This film features the torture scene, absent in Red Harvest.
The character of the yojimbo is based on The Continental Op, created by Hammett, and would, on his turn, serve as a model for The Man with No Name and – to a certain extent – also for Django. He is played by Japanese actor Toshiro Mifune. In the film the character calls himself Kuwabatake Sanjuro, meaning Mulberry field, thirty years old. He makes this name up looking at a mulberry field, and makes a joke about his appearance: he has turned to drinking and hasn’t treated himself very well lately, and therefore looks more like forty than thirty. Mifune was actually forty-one years old when he made the movie.
Kuwabataka Sanjuro is a ronin, a masterless samurai. Stories about ronin have always been popular in Japan. The most famous and essential of them all, is the legend of the 47 Ronin, based on an incident that took place at the beginning of the 18th Century, about a group of ronin who were left without a leader, after their feudal lord had been forced to commit seppuku (ritual suicide) for assaulting a corrupt court official. The ronin avenged their master’s honour and were, on their turn, forced to commit ritual suicide. The incident with the forty-seven ronin inspired a series of plays, books and movie adaptations, and according to many Japanese, it’s a perfect expression of the feelings of loyalty, honor and the readiness to make sacrifices that all good people should preserve in their lives. It’s among the most popular and familiar of all stories in Japanese culture. It has been adapted no less than ten (!) times for television in the last two decades.
|* Zaitochi meets Yojimbo (1970)|
In modern samurai stories, the ronin is often a loner who roams the countryside, in search of someone willing to pay for his services. He has neglected his bushido, but is offered a chance to redeem himself when he is confronted with social corruption of the violent abuse of helpless people. In Yojimbo the ronin has become a cold-blooded killer. “I am paid for killing people,” he says, arriving in a town run by two corrupt families, “and all these people had better be dead.” He can’t do this job all by himself, and therefore plays the two warring parties off against each other in the style of the Continental Op: he offers his services first to one family, then to the other, urging both to take violent action. But, as said, he’s a samurai, and samurai stories are about redemption: when he discovers that an innocent farmer’s woman is forced into adultery by one of the factions (her husband had lost his money and his woman by gambling), he saves her life. As cynical as he may have become, to see how a ‘good’ family is ruined by gambling and forced adultery, makes him sick.
Toshiro Mifune played the same character in the – more farcical – sequel Sanjuro (1962). In that movie he adds another “"surname" (Tsubaku = camellia) to Sanjuro, because he’s looking at another plant when he’s asked for his name. In this movie he helps a group of young and rather clumsy samurai to fight corruption within their own clan. In both films his main opponent is played by Tatsuya Nakadai (who would later appear in the spaghetti western Today it's me ... Tomorrow it's you!). Both movies reflect the endangered values of the traditional Japanese culture, menaced by modernity and its gambling, whoring and drinking. In Yojimbo, Nakadai’s character is in possession of a handgun, in those days a very unusual, even illegal weapon. Sanjuro beats him with a traditional weapon, a small dagger, by using it as a throwing knife. Ironically, this handgun may also have been a small homage by Kurosawa to the genre of the western, especially those of John Ford, one of his favourite directors.
In 1970 Mifune appeared in a film called Zatoichi Meets Yojimbo; In spite of the title, the character he plays has been given a different background and name. In the Samurai Jack cartoons, several direct and indirect references are made to the movie and the character.
- Learn the story of the 47 Ronin: http://www.47ronins.com/
- For a list of Samurai Movies, see: http://bushidomovies.com/