Akira Kurosawa always admired Westerns, and his jidaigeki samurai pieces usually reflect a clear influence from Western directors such as John Ford. With Yojombo, however, Kurosawa decided to go all-out and make a Western of his own. Oh sure, people are still sporting swords, and only one gun ever shows up, but this is a Western through and through. It's also one of the most darkly funny movies I've ever seen.
Toshiro Mifune crafts one of the most influential characters in cinema history with his unnamed ronin. Eventually someone presses him for a name, and he looks outside at a field and gives his name as Kuwabatake Sanjuro, meaning "thirty-year-old mulberry field." "But I'm almost 40," he growls sarcastically. At the start of the film he roams the countryside with no sense of direction; finally, he tosses a stick in the air and walks in the direction it points, and soon he stumbles into a town gripped by civil war. The town sheriff sizes up the ronin and tells him there's a fortune to be made for a man like him in this town, and he'll only have to pay the sheriff a small fee, of course.
The samurai stops in a restaurant where the owner tells him of the two families competing for supremacy in the town. On one side of the town is Seibei, a silk merchant, and on the other Ushitora, who makes sake. Everyone in between is already dead, and both have hired numerous mercenaries, and the only business in town making any money is the local cooper, who never stops making coffins. The samurai absorbs this information and hatches a plan: "This town is full of men who deserve to die," he intones, and he's just the man to follow through on it.
After slicing and dicing a few brash fools, both sides tremble with fear and excitement in his presence, and they race to add the ronin to their cause. He goes to Seibei to demand an exorbitant sum, but we soon learn it's his wife Orin who runs the show. Kurosawa always places Orin in front of her husband in the frame, and she makes the deals with the samurai even as she plots to kill him afterwards. Then he goes to Ushitora, who takes no offense to the samurais murder of his men. After all, that's less money he has to pay for a group of men who couldn't even nick one true warrior. In these scenes Sanjuro usually sits surrounded by others, always in the middle, as if listening to and contemplating both sides. Really, though, he's just worming his way between them so he can manipulate the two parties.
Sanjuro tricks each side into fighting one another, and spends his time at the top of the bell tower in his own personal box seat to watch the action with glee. Ushitora captures Seibei's son, Seibei responds by stealing the mistress of one of Ushitora's top men, and Sanjuro notes that the mistress has been stolen from her husband and child. Up until this point, he sat in the tower or the restaurant smirking at his machinations, but a glimmer of humanity appears in the warrior. He finds the house where Nui is being kept and, in a fantastically short sequence of event, slaughters the guards inside and reunites the family. But that humanity disappears when the family spend too much time bowing to him to run. "Stop crying...I hate pathetic people. I'll have to kill you."
Ushitora's son, the gun-toting Unosuke, eventually figures out Sanjuro's ruse, and the film takes a shift into film noir when the samurai is captured and tortured. Suddenly shadows play a major role in the frame, particularly when he makes his escape under the floorboards of the castle. Eventually he makes his back to Gonji, the tavern owner, who smuggles him out of town in a casket. Sanjuro proves he's unlike any other samurai as he nurses his wounds and feels no shame in his defeat. In the sequel, Sanjuro, a group of young samurai are flabbergasted when our protagonist practically begs for food and water, but we see his indifference to much of the code of honor of samurai because he's seen how disgusting the life of a warrior really is.
Gonji gets captured to coax the samurai out of hiding, and Sanjuro marches back into town and absolutely lays waste to the few still standing, and even outsmarts Unosuke. Unosuke, played by Tatsuya Nakadai in his first role for Kurosawa, provides a nice foil for Sanjuro: both have largely abandoned the Bushido code, but where Sanjuro did so because his basically good nature could not take the "honor" of violence Unosuke violates codes of honor because he is cowardly and sinister. That pistol he carries, apart from representing the modernization of Japan and giving the film a more obvious Western hue, allows him to keep his distance from any warrior who might best him. He tries to assign the same meaning to the gun as most samurai do to their swords, saying "Without my pistol, I feel sort of naked," but it's just a ruse to try to appeal to Sanjuro's sense of personal honor in order to get in one last shot.
The final battle and its aftermath play out without music; only howling wind can be heard over dialogue and the screams of the dying. It hammers home the brutality of violence and how it's not really this exciting, visceral experience but quite literally deadly. Then Kurosawa ends it with an ironic perversion of the prayer drum meant to bless fallen warriors as the mayor plays it before at last breaking free of his life of fear and subservience by killing Seibei and ending it all at last.
Kurosawa always had a touch of the cynic about him, but usually tempered it with a message of hope, if not for the main characters then for someone they changed through their actions. Not so with Yojimbo; it's one of the most nihilistic movies I've seen. No one is changed by this experience, only killed. The cooper, the mayor, and Gonji still stand at the end of it, but their town is now barren and destroyed, but the samurai just leaves in an ironic take on riding off into the sunset; he leaves not with the knowledge that he helped those in need, or that he got his revenge on some terrible enemy, but with the renewed certainty that nothing ever changes and the only way to improve this world is to kill the violent. The irony isn't lost on him, I assure you. Toshiro Mifune's character and performance would inspire generations of homages and knock-offs, the best of which of course being Clint Eastwood's "Man With No Name" (A Fistful of Dollars itself is a remake of this film), but for my money Sanjuro remains the ultimate anti-hero because Kurosawa does not temper the film with an upbeat ending.