Akira Kurosawa’s storied career is exemplified not just by his cinematic masterpieces, but also how he subverted genre film. From detective noir like Stray Dog to thrillers like High and Low, he never shied away from challenging how audiences experience familiar genres. Never is this more on display than in his 1961 film Yojimbo.
The film is part of the jidaigeki genre, which encompasses period pieces set during the Edo period (1603-1868). More specifically, it is part of the chanbara (samurai) subgenre. Typically, films in this subgenre follow valiant warriors, whose moral code shines through from the very beginning and never wavers. The violence on screen is meant solely to entertain. Rarely do we see critiques of this, but in Yojimbo, Kurosawa steps up and calls this into question.
Yojimbo follows Sanjuro, a ronin (a masterless samurai), played with equal parts passion and ennui by Toshirô Mifune. In the film’s opening, Kurosawa presents the audience with a shot of a stoic Mifune in front of a majestic landscape, only to be immediately followed by a nonchalant head scratch as he saunters on his way, with the score shifting from triumphant to a bouncy jaunt. That introduction sets the tone that continues for the rest of the film, expertly straddling the line between the dramatic and the comedic.
From the moment Sanjuro enters the nameless town where the film takes place, he enters a world of heightened reality that verges on the cartoonish. Almost right away, it’s established that this town is one that is desensitized to violence in all forms, with a dog holding a dismembered hand in its mouth trotting down the main thoroughfare.
The village has been torn apart between two warring families: Seibei and Ushitora. Over time, tensions have risen to a point where almost all of the townspeople stay boarded in their homes, never risking going outside. Gripped by the throes of terror, one would assume a setup like this would result in a dour narrative. This is hardly the case. While many choose to hide from the gang warfare, there are those who take advantage of the situation with glee. With this schism comes a more blasé attitude towards violence, highlighted by eccentric characters. These characters don’t manipulate the situation with deft skill, though, but through incredible buffoonery.
Typically, characters that would enable violence, taking advantage of a gang war for their own benefit, would be portrayed as nefarious and calculated. However, the trickery and manipulation that occurs throughout the film is not calculated, but rather messy and unpredictable.
This is exemplified by Daisuke Kato’s magnificent performance as Ushitora’s younger brother, Inokichi. Calling him dim-witted would be doing this character a service. As one of the top leaders in the clan, he is easily mislead and confused. However throughout the film, he enacts horrible acts of savagery, cutting down a number of innocents as well as members of Seibei’s clan.
Kurosawa plays many moments of brutality for laughs. In this way, he uses comedy as an incredibly effective critique of competitive industries and their inherent recklessness and the catastrophic impact they have on the lives of others. Everyone from the town constable to the mayor are portrayed as groveling and whimpering cowards, who do nothing to stop the two clans. They enable the corrosive actions of the Seibei and Ushitora clans for their own benefit. As tensions continue to rise, these moments play off as part of a game, with Sanjuro continuing to manipulate the two foolish clans against one another much to his pleasure. However, this gleeful manipulation doesn’t last forever.
For most of the film, the death and destruction that happens has little to no impact on Sanjuro because of his persistent indifference, or on the town, which has become completely desensitized. It is only when these violent actions have direct and personal consequences, that the drama begins to unfold.
The drama surrounding Nui (Yôko Tsukasa) and her family is perhaps the film’s most wrenching subplot. She is taken prisoner by Tokuemon (Takashi Shimura), the local sake magnate and self proclaimed “new mayor” of the town after her husband is unable to pay his debts. Her family is torn apart and suffers greatly. Kurosawa doesn’t shy away from this, choosing to depict this storyline seriously. The music swells in dramatic fashion as Nui’s child cries out for her when she is trotted out in bondage for the town to see. Tears flow and emotions run high. However, this sequence is capped off with Sanjuro’s deadpan delivery, “That was amusing.” It creates a sense of dissonance that makes the viewer aware of the impact that the violence not only has had on the characters but on themselves.
Sanjuro ends up saving Nui and reuniting her family in the following scene, but uses this as another way to pit the two clans against one another. He falsely accuses the Seibei clan as being the ones who freed her. In previous scenes, this fib would lead to another act of petty foolishness. However in this instance, things finally boil over.
One of the most emblematic scenes comes towards the end, when an injured Sanjuro (who had been tortured after Ushitora discovers that he freed Nui) is being carried to safety in a coffin. During this scene, the Ushitora clan burns down Seibei’s stronghold. Sanjuro asks to see the action, and watches Seibei and his entire family brutally murdered. This scene is bookended by Inokichi helping carry Sanjuro to safety, blissfully unaware that he is being manipulated. However, it feels wrong after watching so much death, with the bumbling antics of Inokichi being overshadowed by his brutality.
Kurosawa’s use of comedy and violence in Yojimbo is perfectly balanced. It creates an incredibly powerful dissonance that gradually makes the audience question how they themselves can be desensitized to brutality. It’s a powerful tactic, luring viewers in with comical antics and eventually showing how those antics have implications, ultimately resulting in intense suffering. This is even more effective when considering that the film exists in the chanbara subgenre, one that is marked by violence that is often celebrated and encouraged. Through Sanjuro, we see how violence has strong psychological effects on individuals and entire communities, turning once trusted officials into sniveling cowards and apathetic vagabonds into unlikely saviors.