Film Review: Yojimbo Written and directed by Akira Kurosawa, copyright 1961 for Toho Studios

Average: 3 (1 vote)



My name is Matthew Williams. This past fall (2015) I watched Akira Kurosawa’s Yojimbo for my NCTA seminar class at the University of Pittsburgh.
Before I get into my review I should provide a little background about me so that the perspective from which I am reviewing this movie is fully apparent - I am a ninth-grade World History I teacher at an all-girls Catholic high school in western Pennsylvania. At my school, World History I covers the contributions of global mankind from the Stone Age to approximately 1000 CE, with a major focus on the original river valley civilizations and some of the civilizations that sprang up near these origins, including Greece and Japan. Teaching at a single-ed private institution I am fully aware that my review and my ideas for how to utilize this material are somewhat different from many other educators. That said, hopefully my recommendations are still useful.
The easiest way to think about Kurosawa’s Yojimbo is to a) imagine any spaghetti western with Clint Eastwood and then, b) replace Clint Eastwood’s classic cowboy and the 1800s lawless ‘western’ backdrop with that of a samurai in a 1800s lawless Japanese village. The explanation for this is simple – director Sergio Leone’s 1964 film A Fistful of Dollars, starring Eastwood, is almost scene-for-scene a remake of Yojimbo.
Kurosawa’s film opens on the protagonist, a lone Samurai played by Toshiro Mifune, scratching himself with an almost comedic scowl across his face (while this is a film with deep meaning, clearly Kurosawa intends for the viewer to have some fun too). The lone samurai enters a town riddled with violence and instability resulting from a feud between two warring gangs. After initially wishing to keep traveling, the samurai decides to stay and hatches a plan to eliminate both gangs. The rest of the film follows the samurai as he puts his plan into action, which mainly involves getting both gangs to believe that he is actually on their side. Throughout, the characters are almost ridiculously one-dimensional – there is no gray area between good and bad – but the acting, storyline and soundtrack are superb. I found this movie to be really entertaining. It also provides an interesting explanation for the origin of plots and characters dreamt up by Westerners such as Leone and Tarantino.
As a potential resource in the ancient history classroom, Yojimbo strikes me as possibly useful but more easily disregarded. It is a movie that takes place in a different Japan than the one covered in early World History and as an example of Bushido or samurai culture it is spotty at best (the story involves the very non-Confucian, non-Bushido plot of a samurai deceiving his masters). There are simply too many other, far better resources for covering Japan. Yes, one can possibly get a sense of the functionality and strength of Japanese governance in the 1800s, but this is highly diffuse within the narrative and cannot be easily represented in one or even a few clips from the film.
Where this film would best fit is in a class on 20th century art or filmmaking, or even a class on global culture and the impacts of globalization. As stated above, the film has been highly influential of Western directors and screenwriters and therefore could provide a great example of the dialogue between Western and East Asian art/culture in the post-WWII era. Such a discussion could be especially impactful if a scene or scenes from Yojimbo were paired with related scenes in A Fistful of Dollars.