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Film / Yojimbo

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"I'll get paid for killing, and this town is full of people who deserve to die."

Yojimbo (Yōjinbō, 用心棒, meaning "bodyguard") is a 1961 Jidaigeki film directed by Akira Kurosawa, loosely based on Dashiell Hammett's novel Red Harvest. It stars Toshiro Mifune as a wandering rōnin who arrives in a town beset by criminals and decides to clean the place up (apparently for fun and profit). His method is simple, yet clever: he reduces the number of gangsters in the town by getting the two rival factions to go to war, then mops up the remainder. When asked about his name, he looks at a mulberry field and answers "Kuwabatake Sanjūrō".

An enormously influential film, it has had at least three direct remakes — Sergio Leone's A Fistful of Dollars (as a Western), Walter Hill's Last Man Standing (as a mob movie) and Albert Pyun's Omega Doom (as a sci-fi movie) — as well as homages in numerous other films and television shows, including being the inspiration for John Belushi's Samurai character on Saturday Night Live.


A year later it got a sequel titled Sanjuro, which was a bit more of a light-hearted comedy.

Yojimbo provides examples of the following tropes:

  • Action Film, Quiet Drama Scene: Quite a few of these. This is one reason this movie stands the test of time so well. In fact, although the plot revolves around the threat of violence, very little screentime actually depicts violence. So it hardly fits the modern concept of "action movie".
  • Adaptation Time Change: Yojimbo is loosely based on the novel Red Harvest.
  • Animal Motifs: Akira Kurosawa had this very clearly in mind. He told Toshiro Mifune to act like a stray dog, which is why he twitches his shoulders and scratches himself a lot during the film (see Character Tics below). Kurosawa told Tatsuya Nakadai (who played Unosuke) that his character was a snake, so Nakadai moves very slitheringly and doesn't blink a whole lot.
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  • Anti-Hero: Sanjuro is a vicious and remorseless killer, and he spends most of the film conning money out of the two criminal gangs fighting over the Dying Town rather than actively trying to help. But he never turns his brutal talents on the innocent, he can't quite manage to snuff out a deep-seated sense of compassion beneath his callous exterior and abandon the helpless in need, and almost everyone he kills really had it coming.
  • Ax-Crazy: Unosuke. Or rather, Gun Crazy. He really likes his pistol.
  • Badass Boast:
    • Recently recovering from an injury, Sanjūrō is out to rescue the innkeeper Gonbei from Unosuke's gang. When the sympathetic coffin-maker expressed doubt at the odds against him while he has a mere knife to fight with, Sanjūrō bellows: I'll turn them into sashimi!
    • And earlier, when he goes to rescue Nui, he goes into the house where she is being kept under guard and then comes back out to tell Inokichi that all six guards are dead. After Inokichi leaves, one of the guards comes out to see what all the noise is. Sanjūrō wasn't a liar for long.
    • And the coolest one of them all:
    "I guess there is no cure for stupidity except for death."
  • Batman Gambit: Sanjūrō is able to destroy the two rival gangs by exploiting their leaders' personalities and the fact that both of them desperately want his skills.
  • Big Bad: Ushitora is the one who starts the gang war.
  • Bittersweet Ending: The town is free of the gangs, but thanks to how badly the war had escalated before the end, there isn't much left of the town, with the restaurateur and the cooper being the only depicted adult males still alive and sane. As for Sanjuro, he may have conned some gold out of the gangs before wiping them out, but in the end he's still just a wandering ronin with little to his name but the clothes on his back and the sword at his waist.
  • Bloodless Carnage: Sometimes. During the fights, you won't see any wounds (except for one instance of Sanjūrō cutting off a guy's arm) and the swords often seem to slash nothing but air. There are a couple of times when this is averted, though: once when a thug gets cut up in an alleyway and blood spurts from his body almost immediately, and again when Unosuke has been slashed to bits and is very visibly bleeding out.
  • Character Tics: Sanjūrō has a habit of keeping one hand inside of his clothing and twitching his shoulders. The idea behind this is that he's like a wolf/dog and has fleas — making him a character with ticks.
  • Chekhov's Skill: Sanjūrō shows he's a crack-shot as a knife thrower by passing the time throwing a knife at a dry leaf blowing around in the wind. It helps him to defeat Unosuke, the gun wielder.
  • The Chessmaster: Sanjuro plays both families against each other.
  • Contract on the Hitman: Sanjuro leaves the first family he hires himself out to because he overhears them plotting to kill him when the job is finished, to avoid paying him.
  • Crippling the Competition: Sanjuro is beaten senseless for rescuing the family that Ushitora's gang was holding hostage, one of them as a Sex Slave.
  • Damsel in Distress: Nui, who is first sold to Seibei as a concubine, then held hostage by Unosuke who has a Villainous Crush on her before needing to be saved by Sanjuro and re-united with her husband Kohei and their son.
  • Deadpan Snarker: Sanjūrō, especially when talking to Ushitora's men.
    Thug 1: If they catch me, they'll put my head on a pike. Not to brag, but I've committed every crime in the book.
    Sanjūrō: So you wouldn't mind if I killed you?
    Thug 2: Kill us if you can!
    Sanjūrō: *shrugs* It'll hurt.
  • Deadly Euphemism:
    Sanjūrō: Cooper, two coffins... No. Better make that three.
  • Diagonal Cut: One of the last things Sanjūrō does: cut the ropes binding Gonji with a single stroke, before turning around to go Wander the Earth some more.
  • Dirty Cop: The local constable is useless and venal, and attempts to get a finders fee for recommending that Sanjūrō join one side of the gang war.
  • Dirty Old Man: Tokuemon, the Sake Brewer.
  • Distracted by the Sexy: Averted, although they give it a good try.
  • The Ditz: Inokichi doesn't even know how to count with his fingers. He later helps Sanjūrō escape from Ushitora's gang, involuntarily.
  • Don't Make Me Destroy You: Sanjūrō warns three mooks that mocked him earlier. Said mooks are all sentenced to death if caught and seem quite proud of it. Sanjūrō has thus no qualms and slays them all as a demonstration of his skills to the town's populace and utters the following badass line.
  • The Dragon: Inokichi and Unosuke to Ushitora. The latter is equipped with a brain, the former isn't.
  • The Drifter: Sanjuro. He comes across the town at random and leaves once his business is completed.
  • Evil Matriarch: Seibei's wife is the really nasty one in the family.
  • Evil Plan: Ushitora seeks to usurp his old boss and take over the town.
  • Evil vs. Evil: The status quo at the beginning of the movie. Sanjūrō's actions just turn it Up to Eleven.
  • Fakeout Escape: Sanjūrō's escape from Ushitora's house starts by crawling inside a large wooden chest, to make everyone think he's already escaped.
  • False Flag Operation: Sanjuro kills all of Nui's jailers while making it look like fifteen men did it. Unfortunately, he gets caught in the end anyway.
  • A Fistful of Rehashes: The one that's thought to have started the rehashing chain is itself an adaptation of The Glass Key, though its plot more closely follows Red Harvest.
  • Giant Mook: Former pro wrestler Kannuki the Giant, one of Ushitora' mooks. None of the other Mooks are even as tall as his shoulders and he wields a big freakin' mallet.
  • Gonk: Most of the bad guys, except for Unosuke. Inokichi's the real standout here.
  • Guile Hero:
    • While Sanjūrō is more than capable of handling open conflicts, he spends most of the movie implementing Batman Gambits against his enemies instead.
    • Gonji displays this when he has to hide and transport a seriously injured Sanjuro.
  • Guns Are Worthless: While it's a Game-Breaker for the rest of the film, being a gunslinger doesn't mean much when you've got a knife through the forearm of your shooting hand.
  • Guns vs. Swords: Sanjuro's katana vs. Unosuke's revolver. It should be noted that the gun makes Unosuke the only person in the movie who is a threat to Sanjuro until he finds a way to take it out of play.
  • Heads or Tails?: The film's opening shot shows Sanjūrō arriving at a fork in the road. After a few seconds of pondering, he throws a stick into the air and bases his decision on where it lands. The rest, as they say, is history.
  • Hollywood Healing: Played with. While Sanjūrō manages to heal quickly and apparently without lasting consequences after being beaten pretty badly, it takes him at least a week if not more to fully recover rather than being fine in a few days.
  • Homage: The scene where Sanjūrō is thrown around by his face is an homage to the 1942 film version of The Glass Key.
  • Improbable Aiming Skills: Averted. Unosuke can hit stationary targets just fine, but he misses badly in the climax when aiming at a moving Sanjūrō.
  • I Own This Town: The town has two parties that are out to run it.
  • I Surrender, Suckers: Subverted. Unosuke is so far into his death throes that he can't even finish Sanjūrō off at point blank range. Perhaps he considered Sanjūrō a Worthy Opponent.
  • It Amused Me: Although Sanjuro definitely has a certain ethical desire to aid the good and punish the wicked, he seems to be motivated a fair amount by this. He only got involved in the gang war by throwing a branch in the air and he is clearly amused by the prospect of earning a little cash while exterminating the two gangs by playing them against each other.
  • Jerk with a Heart of Gold:
    • Sanjūrō. He's coarse, devious, treats the closest thing he has to friends like crap, and kills a whole bunch of people, but inserts himself into a mob war because it's the right thing to do, and saves several people from their own stupidity.
    • Gonji is this as well. He could have left Sanjūrō to die, but took great risk to protect and heal Sanjūrō while the guy was injured and running from the mob. He even gets captured and strung up for his efforts, but scolds his rescuers for coming back and endangering themselves again.
  • Job Title: Yojimbo means "bodyguard."
  • Knight Errant: Sanjuro. He just stumbles on the town the film takes place in while wandering aimlessly and gets involved in the Mob War for both justice and profit.
  • Lady Macbeth: Seibei's scheming wife is a major power player in their faction of the mob war, and it's discreetly implied that she might've been behind the split in the first place by pushing Seibei to declare his obviously-unfit son Yoichiro as his successor within the operation rather than his right-hand man Ushitora.
  • Last Breath Bullet: Subverted. Unosuke makes a last request that Sanjuro allow him to die with his prized gun in his hand, claiming that it is unloaded. The hero gives him the gun and he tries to pull one of these, but is so deep in his death throes that he is unable to pull the trigger.
  • Line-of-Sight Alias: When asked what his name is, the ronin looks out over a field of mulberry trees and gives the name Kuwabatake (mulberry field) Sanjūrō (thirty-ish).
  • Lost Him in a Card Game: The husband of the family in the Pet the Dog example lost his wife (and their house) gambling.
  • Made of Iron: Startlingly averted. When Ushitora discovers that Sanjūrō has betrayed him, Sanjūrō is terribly beaten and kept under guard at Ushitora's place. The only way he can escape is by hiding in a storage chest, tricking the gangsters into thinking he's already escaped, and then pulling off the actual escape by the skin of his teeth while Ushitora's men dash around the house searching for him. He's reduced to crawling around underneath floorboards and can't even stand, let alone hold his own in a fight.
  • Master Swordsman: Sanjūrō, naturally. It comes back to bite him when Unosuke notes that he's the only one skilled enough with a sword to kill six men single-handed. In the final showdown, he takes on ten men, including a Giant Mook and a guy with a gun, killing nine of them (the tenth he lets go out of mercy).
  • Meaningful Name: Invoked and discussed: Ushitora (lit. Bull-Tiger) gets his name from being born during roughly between these years, though Ushitora is also the Northeast, direction of Oni. The Ino from Inokichi means "boar", and, as the innkeeper points out, he's brutal and can only charge forward. Averted with Unosuke, whose name contains the kanji for "Rabbit", but he's deadly as a serpent.
  • Minion with an F in Evil: Inokichi, who, while boisterous, is so slow-witted he's almost charming.
  • Mob War
  • Moment Killer: Just when Sanjūrō has manipulated the two gangs to go all out against each other, a messenger arrives saying that an official from the capital is coming, so the fight is called off and everyone conceals the evidence that there is a gang war going on until he leaves.
  • Mr. Exposition: Gonji, who lays out the present situation and what led up to it for Sanjūrō (and the audience).
  • Nerves of Steel:
    • Sanjūrō, as best displayed during the escape scene. Even after being beaten within an inch of his life, he's still able to think clearly enough to make an effective getaway.
    • Gonji, with none of the training or skills that Sanjūrō has, manages to bluff his way past gangsters and through a mob war to get an injured Sanjūrō to safety.
  • Never Bring A Knife To A Gunfight: Averted. Sanjūrō wins.
  • Nice Job Breaking It, Hero!: The family Sanjūrō saved sends him a letter of thanks. Unosuke spots it, leading to Sanjūrō's capture and torture.
  • Nice Job Fixing It, Villain!: Kannuki tossing Sanjūrō around like a ragdoll during one of the torture sessions breaks the lock on a storage box. Sanjūrō hides in it to trick the guards into thinking that he has escaped, and then makes a break for it as they go on the hunt.
  • No-Holds-Barred Beatdown: Sanjuro is severely beaten by the villains when he releases the family.
  • No Name Given: The main character's real name is not revealed. "Kuwabatake Sanjūrō" is just a name he made up on the spot.
  • One-Word Title
  • Only in It for the Money: Sanjūrō behaves like this at the start, and Gonji chews him out several times for it.
  • Pet the Dog
    • Sanjūrō manages to save a family that's been caught between the quarrels of the two gangs, which makes him less overtly antiheroic. In order to act a little more rugged, Sanjūrō threatens them with death if they don't get the hell out of there fast enough. He does so with good reason: if they're caught, they'll likely be killed. He also drags his beaten body out for a final showdown with the Ushitora gang rather than let them kill Gonji.
    • Also, at the very beginning of the film, he chances to see a farmer boy quarreling with his parents; he intends to join one of the gangs, thinking that the excitement and riches are preferable to a boring life of farming and eating gruel. Near the end of the film, Sanjūrō actually has that same farmer-turned-gangster at swordpoint. Rather than cut him down, though, Sanjūrō just remarks to him that perhaps the gruel-eating life is better than this. The boy, elated at this mercy, runs off.
  • Playing Both Sides: This film is probably the codifying example, at least in cinema. It's the most identifiable element in the remakes A Fistful of Dollars and Last Man Standing, and the film is often cited as a primary influence on later works that revolve around this premise.
  • Police Are Useless: The local constable openly recruits for the gangs instead of trying to stop them, because he gets a rake-off for every man he brings them. The Inspector from Edo doesn't even notice that there's a gang war going on, because he's too busy trolling for bribes and being fawned over by everyone in town until Ushitora figures out how to make him leave.
  • Prematurely Marked Grave: The local gravedigger sizes up Sanjūrō for the coffin he will need to build.
  • Psychopathic Manchild: Inokichi is somewhere between being the big Dumb Muscle, and appearing endearing and harmless.
  • Rock Beats Laser: Unosuke and his overconfidence in his gun are no match for a superbly trained samurai like Sanjūrō, who defeats him easily with his throwing knife and a single deadly katana blow.
  • Rōnin: Sanjūrō, a wanderer armed with little more than his sword and his wits throughout the film. Toshiro Mifune in this role is probably what a lot of people will think of when they hear the word Rōnin.
  • Saloon Owner: Gonji, who becomes Sanjuro's ally, albeit reluctantly.
  • Samurai Ponytail: Sanjūrō is a poor ronin with a short, scruffy ponytail that sticks straight out of the back of his head.
  • Sanity Slippage: Tazaemon, the silk merchant, falls victim to this. His grip on reality is tenuous even at the start of the film, and by the end he appears to have gone completely insane.
  • Sean Connery Is About to Shoot You: Based on the poster, Sanjūrō is either going to cut your throat or take your head off with his katana.
  • See You in Hell: Unosuke's final words to Sanjūrō.
  • Shoo the Dog: When the family Sanjuro's helping is too shellshocked to do anything but thank him:
    Take the gold and run. Start a new life. [the family can hardly move for emotion, but all bow in respect] Just go! Stop groveling, I hate beggars. Run now or I swear I'll kill you myself!
  • Shopkeeper: Gonji, the much put-upon restaurant owner, and the cooper/coffin-maker next door.
  • Showdown at High Noon: Sanjuro prepares for a Jidaigeki version of the showdown — problem is, his opponent has the only revolver in town.
  • Slasher Smile:
    • Unosuke's default facial expression.
    • After Sanjūrō escapes, having taken a severe beating, Gonji tells him he doesn't look alive... and it's even worse when he smiles.
  • Succession Crisis: What started the mob war in the first place. Seibei wanted to make his son the next leader of the sole gang in town, and his right hand man Ushitora objected and decided to take over, taking half of Seibei's men with him.
  • Tap on the Head: Hachi smashes a porcelain bottle over Kuma's head when the two are bickering.
  • Terror Hero: It's part of Sanjūrō's Guile Hero shtick. By establishing himself as Alpha Badass early on, he gets to play both gang leaders and intimidate every Mook to allow him free rein in the town.
  • Those Two Guys: Hachi and Kuma, two former thugs of Ushitora's whom Sanjūrō holds hostage.
  • Trailers Always Lie: The theatrical trailer shows Sanjuro and Unosuke facing off one-to-one in a deserted street, while in the actual film, Unosuke has more than half a dozen men behind him in that scene.
  • Understatement: Sanjuro warns the thugs in the English dub just before killing (and, in one case, dismembering) three of them, "It might hurt a little."
  • Undertaker: The cooper/coffin-maker. He is verbally disappointed the end of the gang war causes his business to dry up.
  • Walking the Earth: At the beginning, Sanjūrō wanders in whatever direction a casually thrown branch suggests.
  • War for Fun and Profit:
    • The casket-maker has this attitude, at least until things escalate to the point where nobody cares about burying the dead any more, at which point he has no more customers.
    • Sanjūrō himself, at first. While he tells Gonji he's going to get rid of the gangs, his reasoning is basically summed up by the fact that he gets to kill men who deserve to die and get paid for it.
  • Weapon of Choice: Unosuke wears a sword, but shows the constable the pistol he got in his travels and proceeds to never be seen without it in any given scene.
  • Wimp Fight: Sanjūrō manipulates the two gangs into fighting each other by making one think they've just managed to hire him onto their side, so they announce an attack, only for Sanjūrō to just refuse. The two gangs are rather evenly matched and correspondingly clearly fearful about fighting each other in force with the outcome in doubt, but are unwilling to admit to a lack of mettle, and continuously inch forward and back to and from each other before a messenger announces an official is arriving into town so the gangs go off to conceal their conflict.
  • Wouldn't Hit a Girl: Ushitora's men allow Seibei's women to flee when his gang attacks Seibei's house but not Seibei's wife.
  • Yakuza: Much like the actual yakuza, the word is never spoken aloud (the cast prefer the term "gambler," since the local racket started with the gambling business), but Yojimbo is basically a mob movie. It's not a particularly flattering depiction; the vice they trade in looks as cheap, sleazy, and tawdry as it is, and for most of the picture both gangs are too cowardly to even bother having a proper battle in the street, preferring to rough up innocent people, or at least those they don't yet know can fight back.
  • You Are Number 6: Sanjuro gives himself a number-name due to the fact that "I'm about 36 (san-3, ju-10 ro[ku]-6) years old." His other name is due to the grove of mulberry trees he happens to be looking at. Yay, sericulture.


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