Yojimbo

So, I watched Akira Kurosawa’s Yojimbo recently. Decades have passed since the last time I’d seen it. And really, I’ve only seen it one time through. It’s not like I spent a long-ago summer watching and re-watching it. Though I might correct that mistake this summer. Thanks to Amazon, I now own a digital Criterion Collection version.

Two things stayed with me, from that single viewing years ago. One–the theme. It’s this fascinating mix of sounds. Opens with amazing percussion, then horns, and strings. And the second thing is the way Toshiro Mifune fights. It’s cemented in my memory as this mind-boggling run-run-stab-stab dance. No, not so much a dance, as an obstacle course. Like American Ninja Warrior, but with a lone Samurai killing machine.

Actually, it was modern-day killing machine John Wick that inspired me to revisit Yojimbo. The first John Wick was playing on TV, and something about the scene in the night club, where John Wick is going after the bad guy who murdered his puppy, made me think of Toshiro Mifune. Except with Keanu Reeves, it was more of a run-run-shoot-shoot kind of movement.

There’s so much I could write about Yojimbo. There are so many more masterly details I picked up on. But I’ll try to be succinct, and I’ll start with the two items that have stayed with me through the years. They’re both pretty elemental, and they didn’t disappoint.

  • The theme: in the beginning, Sanjuro (Toshiro Mifune) is wandering, and encounters a couple at a home on the outskirts of the town. The woman is inside at a silk loom, and the sound of it is very pronounced: two beats, a lull in between, two beats, all in an even rhythm. The theme mimics the sound of the loom–those same two beats, done via horns, thread through the music of the film. Subtle yet phenomenal.
  • Toshiro Mifune: it’s not just the way he fights, it’s the way he inhabits the character of Sanjuro. He’s shot from behind quite a bit, so the viewer sees right over his shoulder. You see the way he adjusts his shoulders in his kimono right before he fights. And sometimes after. He’s pretty badass.
  • Yojimbo as inspiration: I think its pretty widely known that Sergio Leone’s A Fistful of Dollars and Walter Hill’s Last Man Standing are retellings of Yojimbo’s story. But maybe less well-known is that my favorite comic book of all time, Stan Sakai’s Usagi Yojimbo, was inspired by it. Usagi is this awesome bunny, a masterless samurai who wanders through feudal Japan, helping the helpless along the way. If memory serves, his long-gone lord whom he could no longer serve (because he was dead) was named Mifune. Usagi was the reason I first checked out the movie Yojimbo so long ago.
  • And one last bit of trivia: Yojimbo is distributed by Toho Co., Ltd., one of the big film studios in Japan. The main reason I know Toho? One word; one big, green, word: Godzilla. So I was pretty thrilled when I received the production schedule for the cover art and layout for my next novel, The Trouble on Highway One. The designer had abbreviated the title on the schedule. Wait for it, it ties together, I promise. My new novel’s abbreviated title? TOHO. (Yes!!)

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