“Yojimbo” directed by Akira Kurosawa (1961) & “A Fistful of Dollars” (1964) directed by Sergio Leone

Better if all these men were dead. Think about it! – Tagline for Yojimbo

In Yojimbo, Sanjuro (Toshiro Mifune) is a middle-aged traveling samurai (AKA ronin) who comes to a small town in 19th c. Japan. After learning from the old innkeeper that this town is divided between two rival gangsters, he plays one side off against the other. Then a younger man, Unosuke (Tatsuya Nakadai), the son of one of the gangsters, arrives in town w/ a gun. Insults fly, as do swords, and (selflessly) Sanjuro decides to help a kidnapped woman reunite w/ her husband and young son. Sanjuro survives a brutal beating and hides out in an abandoned temple. He returns to town after learning that the innkeeper has been beaten for helping him escape. In the “spaghetti Western” A Fistful of Dollars (AFoD), a drifter gunman w/ no name (AKA Joe) played by Clint Eastwood (in his first starring role at age 34) arrives in the Mexican village of San Miguel. He befriends the elderly owner of the local bar, Silvanito. Joe learns that the town is dominated by two gangster lords: John Baxter (Wolfgang Lukschy) and Ramón Rojo (Gian Maria Volontè). After Joe kills 4 men in Baxter’s gang, he’s offered a job by Ramón’s brother, Esteban Rojo (Sieghardt Rupp). Of course, Joe also decides to play both sides off each other.

This is the man with no name. Danger fits him like a glove. -Tag line for AFoD

Sergio Leone was inspired by Yojimbo (“bodyguard” in Japanese) to make his movie (which has a similar plot). Leone didn’t officially get permission for the remake, which was copyrighted Akira Kurosawa, so the Japanese director sued him and delayed the release of AFoD until 1967 (3 yrs). Leone had to pay Kurosawa a sum and 15% of the profits. Kurosawa was influenced by American Westerns, incl. High Noon (1952) and Shane (1953). He was also influenced by the film noir The Glass Key (1942). (I’ll have to check that out!) Kurosawa came up w/ the (darkly comic) idea of the dog carrying the human hand to show that Sanjuro was in a dangerous town. Kurosawa told Mifune that his character was like a wolf or a dog; he told Nakadai that his character was like a snake. Mifune came up with Sanjuro’s trademark shoulder twitch. Composer Masaru Sato was instructed by Kurosawa to write “whatever you like” as long as it wasn’t the usual period samurai film music. This film is part of the jidai-geki (“period drama”) genre which were usually set during the Edo Period. As for the violence (esp. sword fighting)- it’s done so fast!

I’ve never been to Italy. I’ve never been to Spain. I’ve never been to Germany. I’ve never been to any of the countries (co-producing) this film. The worst I can come out of this is a nice little trip. I’ll go over there and learn some stuff. I’ll see how other people make films in other countries. -Clint Eastwood, recalling his thinking after getting his role

In AFoD, we see Eastwood’s (now trademark) squint; it was caused by the combination of the sun and high-wattage arc lamps on set in Spain. The producers chose Spain- it was 25% cheaper than shooting in Italy. Eastwood (looking good) brought some pieces for his costume from home: black jeans, boots, hat, and cigars (though he was a non-smoker). At first, Eastwood had some major disagreements w/ Leone, particularly over the script. After convincing Leone to cut his dialogue to a minimum, the men began to collaborate better. Eastwood’s performance would later become a trademark of his Westerns and crime films. This was Leone’s first time working w/ composer Ennio Morricone; the (now iconic) music contributed much to its success. The theme song was originally composed by Morricone as a lullaby.

[after saving Marisol and her family and giving them money]

Marisol: Why do you do it for us?

Joe: Why? I knew someone like you once. There was no one to there to help. Now get moving.

Yojimbo is among the films in Roger Ebert’s list of The Great Movies. There are many creative creative shots, incl. one where Sanjuro is perched high above the two gangs as they (comically) threaten each other on the street below. Both Sanjuro and Joe (AKA The Man With No Name) are men of few words; however, some of the looks that Mifune makes are priceless (revealing this thoughts). The scene where Joe faces off with Ramón using the boiler plate as a bulletproof vest in AFoD is being watched by Biff in Back to the Future Part II (1989) and then re-created by Marty (Michael J. Fox) in its sequel Back to the Future Part III (1990). Marty dons an outfit similar to Eastwood’s and uses the name “Clint Eastwood”- LOL! In S2 E5 of HBO’s Westworld, you will also see influences from both of these films.

[1] The fact that this masterless samurai has deep compassion for strangers is different than most modern action movies alone. Toshiro Mifune is magical in the lead role. His presence is felt all throughout the film even when he isn’t on camera. All film buffs should watch this film, it is a perfect example of a director and actor with confidence in their craft.

[2] If I had to choose only one movie for film students to learn from, this would be it. Other films may be more profound, or their imagery more groundbreaking, but this one is so tightly constructed that nothing – not a frame, word, or gesture – is extraneous.

Kurosawa meticulously infuses every detail with meaning; there’s a purpose behind every shot, and aspiring directors should pay close attention (why is the camera slightly tilted? why are there concubines in the background?)

-Excerpts from IMDB reviews re: Yojimbo

[1] This is the beginning of the Man With No Name series. The visuals are beautiful, the character of the Man With No Name menacing and mysterious, the score is brilliant and the action is a blast. The one that launched a thousand copycat versions…

[2] see the nascent Leone visual style here, with the close-up style and contrast of close-ups and long shots appearing. This alone sets it apart from previous films, westerns and non-westerns alike, and still provides for great visual treats that one can appreciate today.

This films also marks the first brilliant score of Ennio Morricone. It is here that he introduced the lonely whistling, guitar music, chorus, and unusual combinations and styles that developed into the music that has become in the U.S. synonymous with westerns and duels in the same way that Leone’s visuals and themes have.

-Excerpts from IMDB reviews re: AFoD

One thought on ““Yojimbo” directed by Akira Kurosawa (1961) & “A Fistful of Dollars” (1964) directed by Sergio Leone

  1. Toshiro Mifune is one of the few Japanese actors with whose work I am familiar, and I think it’s because his face is so expressive. I definitely want to see him on the screen.

    Liked by 1 person

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