The situation is very familiar. A mysterious loner enters a town in the midst of a power struggle between two warring factions. Through cunning trickery and killings when necessary, he sets the gangs against each other and creates mayhem for his personal gain. He ends up connecting with some villagers and shows that he’s not a heartless mercenary. This scenario has worked brilliantly in Sergio Leone’s A Fistful of Dollars and fell on its face in Walter Hill’s Last Man Standing. Where did this story come from, you ask? Although its original source varies, the movie answer is Akira Kurosawa’s Yojimbo. This 1961 film stars the legendary Toshiro Mifune as a ronin who stirs the pot in a divided town. It’s been on my watch list for a long time and is the perfect choice for the Blind Spots series. The widely heralded movie is highly influential and uses devices that remain prevalent in today’s cinema.
The ronin enters the stage with the swagger of a guy who knows the ways of the world. He asks a farmer for water, and the older man recognizes that trouble is on the horizon. We see the bloodlust in his son, who wants easy money without working for it. The kid doesn’t know any better, but it’s all bluster for him. The ronin doesn’t need to convince people he’s for real. It just takes a stare and a sword at his side. He kills a few guys and even slices off another’s arm, and that’s all for show to eliminate any doubts. Mifune conveys the deliberate approach of a thinker who treats the others like pawns in a chess game. He sits back and only speaks when it’s absolutely necessary, and that gives the impression he’s quite a force. Of course, he may be over playing his hand and could be heading for a ruinous finish.
Yojimbo is my ninth Kurosawa film, so I still have a long way to go. His movies sneak up on you with a deliberate pace to set the stage. This story includes plenty of action, yet it takes its time in showing the various parties within the town. The forces of Seibei (Seizaburo Kawazu) and Ushitora (Kyu Sazanka) seem ready to keep the peace, yet it only takes a few nudges to get them back to fighting. The ronin finds himself in the right place to learn key information and then sneaks over to the other side to make the best use of it. Kurosawa’s camera moves slowly around the town to keep us aware of the double crosses in the works. It’s a subtle, effective way to reveal the ronin’s plans without extra dialogue.
Why does this simple formula work so well? It helps to have a master filmmaker behind the scenes, but that’s hardly the only reason. We’re aligned with a guy who kills without remorse and seems to care little for anyone, yet he’s our entry point into this universe. When the vicious henchman Unosoke (Tatsuya Nakadai) captures the ronin and has him tortured, we’re still pulling for the guy against all odds. One reason is his genuine move to save a young couple and their son who are caught in the middle of the mess. Another is the callous nature of virtually everyone in this town. It’s not like the ronin is taking out virtuous people who’ve just gone astray. They’re too far down the road to come back to the light.
From a moral perspective, Yojimbo essentially shows a descent into hell for evil killers who will do anything to succeed. Once the chaos begins, the stakes keep rising until almost no one is left. The ronin serves as the angel of death who arrives to punish them for veering so far into wicked deeds. He may start out hoping for commercial gains, but those disappear by the final act. When he gives the money to the couple and sets them free, it’s a move away from sin while accepting that more will come. Mifune’s weary face shows us that he’s done his own share of terrible deeds. The ronin’s punishment is wandering the earth alone like John Wayne in The Searchers. He may have saved this world from these evil men, but more penance is needed before he gains any peace.