Akira Kurosawa is considered by most to be the master of the Samurai movie. He is also considered to be one of the greatest directors of all time. Kurosawa was born in 1910 and passed away in 1998. His film career spanned 57 years and in that time he directed 30 films. Many of his films have become popular in their own right in America and have been remade several times. Indeed for those who think remakes are a recent fad, the films of Akira Kurosawa show that the remake has been around for decades. One film that proves this point is Yojimbo.
Yojimbo is a 1961 samurai starring frequent Kurosawa collaborator Toshiro Mifune, as the title character, which roughly translates as bodyguard. Mifune is a wandering samurai with no master, a ronin. During his travels he comes upon a town controlled by two rival gangs. He hires himself out first to one side, then the other, betraying both sides in turn. He deftly coerces both sides into a climatic showdown that leave both gangs decimated and the town free.
Mifune and Kurosawa together created the iconic “man with no name” archetype. The “man with no name” concept would go on to be popularized by Clint Eastwood in a series of films directed by Sergio Leone. This was just one of many of Kurosawa’s contributions to cinema. Rashoman is his most influential and critically applauded films , but no film has had as lingering an effect on film as Yojimbo, thanks to its many remakes.
True most of Kurosawa’s well known films have been remade and even those not remade have influenced both western and Japanese film. The Seven Samurai was remade for western audiences as The Magnificent Seven. The Magnificent Seven is itself scheduled for the remake treatment. Besides being remade as The Outrage, the plot of Rashoman has been copied in episodes of numerous television series including Magnum PI and All in the Family. The Last Fortress was remade in 2008 as The Last Princess and even more importantly was a heavy influence on Star Wars: A New Hope. None of his films have the remake pedigree of Yojimbo though. It has been a long strange tale for the film that has in many ways come full circle.
The first remake of Yojimbo was in 1964 by Sergio Leone in his Italian or Spaghetti Western A Fistful of Dollars. The film starred Clint Eastwood as the drifter with no name and transposed the samurai story to the American west, making Eastwood’s character a gunslinger. The plot is similar to that of Yojimbo, so similar in fact that Kurosawa sued and eventually won. The film had not obtained rights to remake Yojimbo and director Leone had claimed it was an original story based on concepts that had been done even before Kurosawa’s film. Watching both films it is hard to not side with Kurosawa and most critics agree it is a virtual plot for plot remake.
The next version took Yojimbo not only took it out of Japan once more but to another planet as well. The film is The Warrior and the Sorceress from 1984. Only the plot line of a lone warrior pitting rival warlords against each other is taken from Yojimbo. The man with no name is even given a name in this film as David Carradine plays Kain. The name is used most likely to try and cash in on Carradine’s role as Caine on the popular television series Kung Fu. The main reason it is included in this article is due to its novelty. It is part of the “sword and sandal” genre of fantasy films. Warning this movie contains quite a bit of female nudity which is not a staple of the Yojimbo remakes or of Kurosawa’s work in general.
In 1996 Walter Hill directed a fully authorized remake of Yojimbo titled Last Man Standing. Set in prohibition era America it starred Bruce Willis in the role of the Yojimbo. The film is similar to both Yojimbo and A Fistful of Dollars, which is only to be expected. The film is much bleaker than Kurosawa’s or Leone’s version however. The film did poorly at the box office and for the most part was negatively reviewed by critics. One of the major elements to affect its critical reception was the darkness of the film. Kurosawa’s film had touches of humor and Leone’s ended somewhat upbeat yet Last Man Standing ends depressingly.
Bruce Willis again jumped into the role of Yojimbo in Lucky Number Slevin. The film is not really a remake and the main resemblance is the stranger pitting two rivals against one another. Still it was obviously influenced by the Kurosawa epic. Once again a novelty, this time of Willis reprising the Yojimbo character to some extent, are the basis of its inclusion here.
The last film to look at is the film that in may ways brings Yojimbo full circle and back to his homeland. It not only returns the nameless ronin back to Japan but mixes the genres, settings and cultures of its predecessors. That film is Sukiyaki Western Django by director Takashi Miike. SWD is Miike’s tribute to spaghetti westerns, Quentin Tarantino, Kurosawa. The film is set in “Nevada” and thrusts the unnamed gunman into the midst of the feud between the Heike and the Genji. Once more he plays both sides against the other until both are destroyed.
It is a very beautiful film but also very confusing. The film references everything from Shakespeare to the Japanese manga Akira. SWD pays homage not only to Yojimbo and A Fistful of Dollars but also to Kill Bill, Django and others. It mixes two of the most iconic film eras, the samurai and the wild west into one wild film. A film that is definitely not for everyone, but for fans of Yojimbo it is worth watching.
So we see how the trail of Yojimbo twists through time and space to finally come back home to its native Japan. But is Japan really the origin of Yojimbo? Kurosawa was almost certainly influenced by Dashiel Hammet and possibly by the European play A Master of Two Servants, which uses a similar plot. In truth no matter how original a concept, most films are influenced in some way by what ahs come before them. If not a film then a book or a play.
Still Kurosawa took what was probably nothing but a concept of warring clans or a vague concept of a nameless protagonist and wove them together. He created a film that will stand the test of time. No matter how many times repeated, his tale of a lone, nameless warrior who uses skill and trickery to free the innocent from warring factions. Sadly both Kurosawa and Mifune have passed on from this life, but the character they created in Yojimbo will live on.