Oct 16, 2002 at 12:00 am

Yojimbo (1961), which translates as The Bodyguard, was director Akira Kurosawa’s most popular film in his native country, the only one to merit a sequel, Sanjuro (1962). It was also the inspiration for Sergio Leone’s seminal spaghetti western, A Fistful of Dollars (1964). It both draws from the American western tradition — being specifically reminiscent of a series of films made in the ’50s by director Bud Boetticher which featured Randolph Scott as a nearly infallible lone gunman — and adds something new to the mix, namely a nearly nihilistic streak of black humor.

The story takes place during a time in late-mediaeval Japan when the old order was crumbling and the middle class was on the rise. Many samurai, cut loose from their aristocratic masters, had become wandering mercenaries. One such sword for hire is Sanjuro Kuwabatake (Toshiro Mifune), who one day wanders into a small village where two clans are engaging in perpetual war. Sanjuro quickly sizes up the situation, one where any question of moral high ground is moot, and decides to play the two sides against each other, constantly switching loyalties and watching bemused as the escalating carnage threatens to totally destroy both sides.

Yojimbo is great fun, but in the context of the long Kurosawa-Mifune collaboration, and with its impact diminished by the many imitations it has engendered during the past 40 years (not just of its story, but of its anarchic mood), it seems like pretty lightweight fare. Some have read it as a parable of the more rapacious aspects of capitalism, but that seems like a mighty big stretch.

More interesting is Mifune’s embodiment of macho cool, which is both comic — when someone thanks him for a favor, he growls at them and calls them a pathetic fool — and noble, since underlying the gruffness is a working sense of right and wrong. Sanjuro is essentially a good guy who knows better than to show it — significantly, it’s an overt act of kindness that leads to his temporary downfall. But he rebounds because he’s a mythic hero, towering above the puny, greedy mere mortals he supposedly serves. A Superman in sandals, he is, in short, one bad mother.


Showing exclusively at the Detroit Film Theatre (inside the DIA, 5200 Woodward Ave., Detroit), 7:30 p.m. on Monday. Call 313-833-3237.

Richard C. Walls writes about film for Metro Times. E-mail him at [email protected].