A Month of Kurosawa: Yojimbo (1961)

To celebrate the upcoming release of my book, Akira Kurosawa: A Viewer’s Guide, due out Dec. 15 from Rowman & Littlefield — preorder here! — I’ll be doing capsule reviews all month covering every single Kurosawa film and posting (very) brief excerpts. These will be short impressions and recommendations, nothing more. For a full, detailed analysis of each, grab the book!

Yojimbo (1961)

In 1957, Miles Davis released the album Birth of the Cool (though it was actually recorded in 1949 and 1950). It was a landmark record that helped change the face of jazz to come.

Akira Kurosawa’s 1961 samurai classic Yojimbo could also have been called Birth of the Cool, given that it spawned an entire genre of badasses in western flicks, led to Clint Eastwood being seen as the uber cool embodiment of western anti-heroes, and is the most lasting and beloved image of the great Toshiro Mifune, who here plays a wandering samurai with incredible skills and a mischievous thirst for making trouble for bad guys.

From the book:

This is not a traditional hero. He’s a showoff. He tells one gang he’ll prove his worth to them, strolls to the other side of town, taunts the other gang into a confrontation, and quickly kills two men while lopping off the arm of a third. “Casket maker! Two coffins,” he orders on his way back. “No, better make that three.”

Many of you may know that line from Sergio Leone’s Fistful of Dollars, which helped launch Clint Eastwood into stardom and kickstarted the Spaghetti Western genre, but it was nicked from Yojimbo — and in fact, so was the whole of Fistful of Dollars, which was an unauthorized remake of this movie.

It’s easy to see why this film was so influential. Mifune was never cooler than he is here. The tense standoff between two gangs struggling for control of a small town is gripping and comical. The action scenes are brief, intense and bold. And it’s just plain a lot of fun to watch.

This is a movie about a tough guy who wanders into town, knocks around some gangsters, then wanders off again. If that sounds even remotely appealing to you, SEE THIS RIGHT AWAY. It’s a classic.

Check out my upcoming book for a full analysis exploring this film’s ideas, themes, good points, and bad

You can get the movie in excellent edition by the Criterion Collection.