YOJIMBO, a 1961 jidai geki by Akira Kurosawa, in many ways defines the itinerant swordsman for me. Sanjuro, the titular yojimbo, or bodyguard, as played by Toshiro Mifune, is a scruffy, dirty ronin on his way to nowhere in particular. He is so adrift in the world, that he lets which way a stick falls determine which path he takes.
His arbitrary decision leads him to a town under siege from two separate gangs. He decides to make it his mission to clean the town up, playing one side against the other to defeat both. Why? The motivation of the ronin, who gives his name was Sanjuro, is never made explicit, though he implies that he views it as an easy way to make some money. That said, greed is not Sanjuro’s sole motivator. Otherwise, why would he go out of his way to help a young couple, the wife being held captive by one of the gangs as payment for her husband’s gambling debts? In fact, his rescuing the wife is the single act of mercy that drives much of the plot, and causes the greatest amount of consternation to the protagonist.
The character of Sanjuro is one that can be found often in fantasy and science-fiction literature, and there is a definite appeal to the lone wanderer coming into a seedy location and clearing up the corruption. The danger of course, is that doing so can clearly lead to the hero getting in over his head, as is seen when Sanjuro is captured and beaten to within an inch of his life. Even more telling is when Sanjuro leaves the town at the end of the film, both gangs having been slaughtered and very little left of the town intact.
YOJIMBO would also have a sequel in 1962’s SANJURO which would reunite Mifune and Kurosawa, but in a much more light-hearted movie, and Sanjuro would face off against the blind swordsman ZATOICHI in the aptly named ZATOICHI MEETS YOJIMBO.
The lasting appeal of YOJIMBO can be clearly seen in the number of other movies that have used it as a template. The most famous is probably A FISTFUL OF DOLLARS, the first of the Man With No Name trilogy by Sergio Leone and starring Clint Eastwood. It was again remade in 1996 with Bruce Willis as LAST MAN STANDING. YOJIMBO takes its inspiration from Dashiell Hammet’s novel RED HARVEST. All the variations show how easy it is to take a basic plot, and reskin it for different audiences, as has been numerous times both for dramatic and comedic effect.