Sunday, June 10, 2012
Toshirio Mifune plays a masterless and nameless samurai wandering the countryside in 19th century Japan. As fate would have it, he comes across a town paralyzed by the blood feud between gangs, one for silk merchant and the other a sake dealer. Looking for work, the samurai (who when asked his name only replies Sanjuro Kuwabatke, which is translated as 30-year-old mulberry field) plays both sides off each other, hiring himself to one gang as a bodyguard (or a Yojimbo) then the other and in the process killing a lot of people in a town "filled with a lot of people who deserved to be killed."
At the same time, Mifune plays him very calmly and collectedly. While everyone else in the cast is busy being chest-beating thugs, hysterical villagers, corrupt officials, despondent observers, or self-important crime bosses, he's at the center stroking his beard, betraying little emotion, offering droll insights, and casually dismissing anyone else's ideas. Yojimbo has a nice streak of sardonic humor mainly because so many of the low-lifes try to act tough or smart only to be put down, outsmarted, or killed by Sanjuro. In a funny little framing device, the young farm boy who ran away from home at the start of the picture is confronted by a rampaging Sanjuro in the climax, begins crying "Mommy!" and is told "children shouldn't play with swords."
In a way, Yojimbo is about the approaching change of modernity. Sanjuro does not fit the traditional image and expectations of his class - i.e. loyalty to his employers - and his cynicism is a lethal counter to everyone locked in their old roles and way of thinking. They cannot fathom that once they pay this samurai for his services he would sabotage them behind their backs. This samurai is willing to adapt to survive. Meanwhile, Unosuke and his gun are the harbingers of new technology that will completely outclass and render obsolete the balance of power. It is the end of an era.