I’ve heard Yojimbo described as Japanese nihilism and that’s true up to a point. Morally speaking, there are no uplifting lessons here; it’s dog-eat-dog in Akira Kurosawa’s pioneering noir Western. The story revolves around an impoverished samurai, Sanjuro, who stumbles into a village terrorized by warring criminal gangs. Once admired for their warrior skills and aristocratic code of honor, the samurai had become swords-for-hire following the Western penetration of Japan in the mid-nineteenth century.
Sanjuro sells himself to the highest bidder, and has no qualms about double-crossing his employers. He appears unscrupulous, a casual killer who sponges off his hosts, lies and cheats, loyal to nobody. And yet he grows on us. Well before Sanjuro reveals his compassionate side, I found myself rooting for him.
For one thing, the bad guys were so much worse than he was, and let’s face it, the village was a mess. Who could blame him for wanting to get the heck out of there? Gary Cooper, Alan Ladd, John Wayne, Jimmy Stewart, Henry Fonda: I don’t care who you pick, nobody could have cleaned up that town.
Kurosawa was a fan of Russian literature. Ten years before he made Yojimbo, he adapted a Dostoevsky novel for the screen. The Idiot was his least successful project, but it was important to him, and very personal, a bleak commentary on postwar Japanese society.
Yojimbo covers the same territory, but it turns out to be less bleak in the end. The hero of The Idiot is too pure, too fragile, for the corrupt world in which he finds himself. Sanjuro, on the other hand, is well-suited for the modern era. In the Darwinian struggle for survival that characterized the evolution of the Western genre, his type would be selected for.