A tall dark stranger ambles into a rural japanese town…and proceeds to lop off forty arms, half a dozen legs, the occasional head and ALL ORGANIZED CRIME, in a matter of three days, thus is the seemingly straightforward but, in practice, delightfully tangled knot of betrayal and deceit in Akira Kurasawa’s masterpiece of samurai ass-whoopery and the highest grossing foreign film in American history, Yojimbo.
‘Twas the days of the ronin, they were samurai whose boss was either forced to commit ritual suicide or was assassinated in the clusterfuck of Japanese clan wars that choked Japanese history for a brief, barely-noticeable five centuries, either way there was A LOT of dangerous hobos walkin’ around. Yojimbo means ‘bodyguard’ and this is exactly the service he offered to the two crime bosses in town, both fighting for dominance like the orange fish with the medieval-looking fins that your buddy in college kept reminding you were ‘totally illegal’ because one ate a baby’s foot in Michigan or some damn place, and there you stand, over the tank in his dorm room, and he’s bragging like he’s an international smuggler, the Pablo Escobar of stupid high-T psycho fish.
Yojimbo’s fish fight over gambling, farmers from many-donkey-rides away, flock to this seat of reluctant prostitutes, cheap rice wine and ramshackle gangs that are more bluster than bushido, to plop good Rho down on the cho-han table while his family ate millet. And though they all think of themselves as the Shogun of Shoving a Wooden Sandal Up Your Ass, they’ve never come across the definite article, our friend the ronin, Sanjuro,played by the incomparable, Toshiro Mifune.
Admittedly he doesn’t look like much, his kimono is dirty and ripped, he looks like he has serious B.O. and that beard puts him square as the keyboardist for a japanese garage band…”The Very, Very Cool Shotgun Elvis, Okay!” (they’re actually not that bad)–but he can spin his blades like a helicopter, going from dead stillness to human-salad-shooter then back to dead stillness in the blink of an ever-squinting eye.
“Yeeeeah, maybe I could save a lot of money by switching to Geico.”
The first sign of trouble for Sanjuro (the name means ‘Mulberry Field, Japanese culture still mystifies me: badasses named the pussiest, most floral things imaginable, What I wouldn’t give to hear the introductions of three bloodthirsty killers, but in English: “Cobb-san, these great killer, many dead by the hand…this is Rose Blossom, Lily Pad, and Menstruating Dolphin” “Honorable to meet, Cobb-san. What does “Cobb” mean in your language: Cobb?” “Oh, um…it, uh…it means, uh–‘Fairy Queef’.” “Mmmm,” as he bows, “I am humbled great warrior.”)…so, dirty, unwashed Sanjuro overhears a son arguing with his parents about how he doesn’t want to stay on the farm, he wants to gamble, “A short, exciting life for me!” he screams, looking on Sanjuro sees the boy throw his father to the ground and march away towards town.
From this, in the Japanese context, BLASPHEMOUSLY disrespected father, the ronin learns of a town drenched in blood, with daughters forced into prostitution to pay debts. As he walks further on into town, he stops by a bed & breakfast (It’s a bed and breakfast, okay, what else would you call it?! the owner lives there and cooks for you, he sleeps on the other side of a piece of rice paper, for God sakes, IT’S A BED&BREAKFAST!) and the harrowing truth of this benighted town is made clearer. There is no law, the mayor works for one gang, the original gang, we’ll call them the ‘Blue’, but there’s a second mayor, announced as legitimate by Blue’s enemies, we’ll call them the ‘Red’, a split-off faction created by the Big Red not liking who the Big Blue chose to be his successor: his pig-faced son who had all the wit of a dry turnip.
“There’s Bitcoin, there’s Eth-Ethernium, there’s Do-Do-Do,um, Dogee, Dojie…coin, and…I don’t know how many exactly there are, but there’s no digital Rho with a square hole in the middle, THIS COULD MAKE TRILLIONS, DAD! All I need is the start up money for my business partners….Well, let’s see, there’s Abdul (I don’t know his last name) and there’s Mustafah (He has a mustache), there’s Walid, then there’s the other Mustafah (he doesn’t have a mustache) and then there’s the Nigerian development team who will actually put the square hole in the cyber-currency, there’s Ussata aaaaand ….”
So, there’s Big Beef from Big Red getting passed over for that porcine dunderpate, and Bigger Beef from Blue who, in usual gangster fashion, gets prickly when a new venture threatens to undercut his customer base, especially when they start gaining 50+ market share smack at the end of Quarter 2…in other words, they’re winning, with their new phony mayor, giving them the false patina of legitimacy, instead of the original false patina of legitimacy established by the Blues, which, you know, is older and, uh, makes it a more legitimate false patina of legitimacy…that turncoat just doesn’t respect the norms of Civil Governance.
As for the Mayors themselves, they’re feckless puppets who spend the movie making speeches to the four people who give a rat’s ass, then beating their breast and renting their clothes for all the violence those other guys are committing…they’re about as earnest a steward of the emperor’s honor as those magic tailors who sold him the invisible clothes.
Here it should be noted that the entire plot for the movie is adapted from Dashell Hammet’s 1931 novel The Glass Key…a shoot’em-up with Bruce Willis called Last Man Standing was also based on this work, though where Yojimbo is a signature menu item at the International House of Guy Cinema, Bruce’s offering had none of the simmer and none of the savor and while it was the same noodle as Yojimbo, it was drowning in a weak narrative broth and served in a giant bowl of Dolby Surround-sound gunfire which detracted more than it added.
As are most drifting, jobless badasses with a bajillion-to-nuthin’ kill ratio, our boy is broke and can’t even pay the old man for his rice, but a plan is forming, he tells the proprietor of the B&B to run him a tab of food and booze and he’ll not only get paid, but in spades.
The old man, of course, doesn’t believe him, but since he hasn’t had a customer at his hibachi in months due to the, you know, orgy of violence and the mass poverty in which it ultimately results, he might as well get some shinto karma out of it (yes! I know! tell it to Twitter!).
Sanjuro sets upon a course of such pure Machiavellian chaos you’d think he was a Medici, He goes to the Blues and their battered boss, henpecked by a crone of a wife whose only offspring is a rutting dolt who giggles at farts, and offers to turn the tide of the gang war all by his lonesome. And he demands a fat bag of Rho (funny Japanese coins with a square hole in the center) for his trouble. Naturally Big Blue (actually his Hillarian wife) wants proof he can do it…so he steps out into the dusty street, walks fifty steps to the HQ of the Reds and promptly slices three guards into sashimi, then scabbards his sword and nonchalantly walks back to Blue HQ to finish his sake before it gets cold. THAT’S WHAT THIS TOWN HAS BEEN MISSING! The goose-egg eyeballs of the Blues tell the story, King Kong ain’t got nuthin’ on old ‘Mulberry Field’.
It slices, it dices, it juliennes!…Don’t spend hours in the kitchen hunched over a cutting board, get yourself the Ronin™ –dinnertime is saved with this masterless killer of men, using his lifetime worship of carnage to split your BBQ prep time from head-to-crotch in half! Completely safe due to his patented system of pagan blood-honor, he’ll give your family effortless coleslaw, french fries, sweet potato chips…onions without tears! Could it be true?! Yes indeed– the Ronin™ is here! (Do not look Ronin™ in the eye. When you pass Ronin™ you must bow, failure to do so has resulted in headlessness. If Ronin™ recites cryptic poetry about nature, grab children, run. If damaged or foul tempered order Ronin™ to murder itself and redeem top-knot for 10% off next purchase of Ronin. Offer not available in TN, UT and the Virgin Islands.)
The plan is set, the Blues take out the Reds first thing in the morning, but a samurai isn’t just a swordsman, all war-art is known to him, including espionage—so he stays awake a creeps through the HQ to hear what he knows he will: a plot to murder him.
Shrews. Ladies Macbeth. Hillarys. They’re what is biblically known as a Jezebel: resentful, boorish women who seek to control through their weak husband, women without honor, entitled and lacking all humility…these women, these days, like to call themselves ‘alpha females’ but as with all Jezebels they present their character flaws as virtues…so it is with Lady Blue, another characteristic of a Jezebel as biblically defined: insatiable greed…also a stupefying misapprehension of men, as in, totally unaware and incapable of assessing which one with whom she should not fuck. The wise soldier knows to keep these women, not their husbands, in their sight, so Sanjuro parked himself outside her bedroom to listen to her tongue-whip Big Blue for offering such a princely sum to that hobo, she calls on her son and tells him if he should deserve his father’s place he must prove himself by killing the ronin…after the raid on the Reds, so she/they/your father/you/me/us wouldn’t have to pay him.
Here we see into the past, it was this shrike who insisted her pig-faced brute of a son take over, making the decision that caused the schism that now threatens to burn their whole house down, (Big Red, obviously, could not be controlled, but her beta male son, like his father, could, these women are like frogs who keep a menagerie of turtles around so she can cross violent water unscathed…but fuck the turtles, she’ll get more–with these women it’s always about them) and now she’s splitting 9s and doubling her folly by plotting to murder the only talented killer in town.
“You raped a ‘who’ in a hotel room?!—Excuse me, what part of ‘loveless, cynical, marriage-of-appearances’ don’t you not understand, Seibei?! The ‘appearances’ part! I can’t become the first female emperor if my coke-addled, VD-riddled husband is RAPING SECRETARIES IN EDO!…stop crying, it makes me sick, I’ll take care of this, I’ll call Carville-san, he may look like an ogre had sex with a scarecrow, but he’s all we got!”
You can taste Sanjuro’s glee as he strokes his beard, smiling, as this dull twat lays out her scheme, and the delicious plans he has for them all.
I don’t want this review to turn into a treatment of the film–watch this one! Yeah, you’ll have to read the subtitles…do it! I’ve given you enough so you won’t get lost in the higgledy-piggeldy of Japanese names, places and customs, which is why this review is your best start to this great movie. There’s also a love story, in case you have to convince a woman to watch it with you…thankfully for us, the love story is between two marginal characters, a failed gambler and his wife whose been taken in pledge to pay his debt and is currently on the skin train to whore town, while her husband and child tearfully look on at her disgrace, Sanjuro takes heroic pity on the couple, manufacturing an escape for them while saying how much they disgust him because he’s ashamed of himself for caring. Good shit.
Kurosawa took the American western and threw it on the screen dressed in a kimono and decorated with a top-knot. The western cinematic flourishes which made big use of wind, weather, dust and rain are masterfully utilized in his work, in fact Kurosawa’s use of weather as more than backdrop is the subject of one of my favorite film essays (link). He arrests the viewer with beautiful framing of very ugly scenes, and packs a wallop of meaning in background, foreground and facial tics better than anyone outside of Chuck Jones. Yojimbo is framed like a western. The two swords of the ronin, by mad good fortune, bracket the subject just like two Peacemakers, the quick draw is salvaged, but rather than a sudden clap of thunder, a cloud of smoke, and a bad guy , as if magically, dropping to his knees then creakily falling face first in the dust as the hero freezes, gun out, in a hold-for-editing death pose–here it’s a quick snap, the glint of carbon steel, the swish of the cleaving air then a meaty chownk as the bad guy’s arm falls into a dusty puddle of its own hubris.
If you saw a tumbleweed somersault across the long, main drag with the shinto temple set far in back like a clapboard, Baptist church, you wouldn’t even blink…people like me would, laughing at this artistic hero for being a ‘bumbling poseur’, we’d throw silly barbs, for instance, saying he was ‘betraying his veritae’ with his ‘hamfisted homage’ because we love nothing more than feeling superior to a person of greater talent–but you wouldn’t, provided you aren’t also a correspondence school film analyst (and private investigator) and you, my friend, are the point. BUT THANK GOD HE DIDN’T!–Wait, did he? I remember some jetsam flung in the wind, maybe I should check…NO! I love this film and its director too much to check and/or care and/or use more labored French words like milieu, so, like John MacLaughlin: Next issue!
“Next Week: What is it with all this self-referential film writing, are today’s internet critics going gonzo, and if so, why? Are we entering a future where every Captain Rimshot with a keyboard reckons himself Hunter Thompson. That and Pat Buchanan returns, until then BOIYE-BOIYE!“
The muthafuckin’ score. This should have been first, but I refuse to outline, so it’s last. Only three movie soundtracks have literally given me a sarcasm boner: Reservoir Dogs, Deadpool and this Fuck-You-to-Every-Music-Teacher-Ever, why? because Masaru Sato, the composer…a flat-out film genius…made a snarky, unserious, ironic and dissonant guffaw at gore in what I know would have gotten his knuckles rapped by whatever gray, bun-topped biddie first taught him the ivories (He’s using tubas, French horns and sousaphones…which should tell you something: this guy’s writing love letters to sound using the most boorish, obnoxious, single-use ampersands of brass that ever rattled a tuning fork…and he makes that shit work! He makes it funny! He makes it badass! And he does his job, he explains Sanjuro, the dissonance reflects his state of mind, his contempt for everyone involved, once you see the movie, you’ll realize you wouldn’t have understood it without the score.
Everyone’s an MVP on this one.
I keep lookin’ for a crack so I can wiggle a hair in the fissure and call more attention to it than would be reasonable just so this review doesn’t sound like a thirteen year old girl waiting near the stage exit at a Justin Bieber concert.
But I can’t help it!
Yojimbo is….! Yojimbo is…! I LOVE YOU, YOJIMBO, I’M BART COBB FROM OPELOUSAS, I LOVE YOU, MARRY ME!
AHHHH! HE LOOKED AT ME ! HE LOVES ME! WE’RE GONNA GET MARRIED AND LIVE IN NEPAL AND RAISE MOUNTAIN GOATS AND….!
[Sudden blackness. Wake up to the cop gently kicking me in the ribs] “Yojimbo’s gone, sir. Are you all right? Can you stand up? Okay, I think you should call your mom, now.”