Iconic Acting and Innovative Filmmaking in Akira Kurosawa’s Yojimbo

To Mifune Rikiya

11 June 2021, 6.30 p.m. – the opening of a small retrospective of ten films dedicated to the great Japanese actor Toshiro Mifune at the Japanese Cultural Institute in Cologne, Germany. It may not look like a big event, but for me it is the culmination of a long and highly emotional journey. Back in September 2018, I offered to pay homage to Mifune to mark the 100th anniversary of the actor’s birth on 1 April 2020 with screenings of several of his films and a talk on his work. COVID-19 thwarted the project; and the event originally planned for November 2020 had to be shelved. Now that, eight months later, cinemas and cultural institutions in Germany are gradually opening again (but with strict coronavirus requirements), the 35mm film copies from Japan that are still in Cologne can at last be shown from 14 June to 29 July, with my introductory talk taking place on 11 June.

Regular readers of The Big Picture Magazine will probably be aware of my passion for Japanese film in general and for Mifune in particular. I am under the spell of his energy and his creative acting, which is sometimes extravagant, sometimes subtle, but even in his most stereotypical roles always captivating, not least due to his perfect timing.

Mifune played in over 150 feature films in a long career that spanned almost 50 years, and he was also cast in numerous television series. The sixteen films he made with Akira Kurosawa are among his most memorable works, and it was in Yojimbo (Yojinbo, 1961), one of these films, that I saw him for the first time, at an art house cinema in Düsseldorf, Germany. I simply cannot remember how often I have watched this and other films made by Kurosawa since that day, but I discover something new and surprising every time.

Yojimbo is one of the films chosen for the retrospective in Cologne, and 2021 marks the 60th anniversary of its release (in Japan on 25 April 1961). The film is not only a very influential one in the history of cinema but is also a telling example of the highly symbiotic  relationship between Kurosawa and Mifune – the actor Yu Fujiki once said: “Mr. Kurosawa’s heart is in Mr. Mifune’s body.” I am always attracted by Kurosawa’s cinema, which is pure movement and to which Mifune’s speed and energy contribute, an aspect illustrated marvellously by his iconic lead performance in Yojimbo.

A man – his hair unkempt, the collar of his kimono worn and greasy – appears in the bottom-right-hand corner of a medium close-up shot against the background of a desolate landscape. While walking, he scratches his head, then pulls his hands under his thin kimono and hunches his shoulders as protection against the cold wind that swirls the dust on the road. The swaggering walk of this nameless ronin – a masterless samurai – that Mifune plays in the film, is his own creation, enhanced by the mise-en-scène and the haunting music of Masaru Sato’s score. The actor’s movements, the music, and the editing are perfectly synchronized.

According to Mifune, the shrugging and scratching were also his ideas as expressions of the harsh life of the wandering, penniless ronin. Munching on a toothpick expresses a casual attitude, underlining the social status of a masterless samurai who has abandoned the codes of behaviour of the warrior class. It is part of Mifune’s detached attitude, as is his amused expression – a smile playing on his lips while he looks at the violence around him for which he is partially responsible, having inflamed the rivalries dividing the small town that is the film’s main setting.

Many of the ronin’s reactions in the film are brilliant. When he arrives in the town and a dog carrying a human hand crosses his path, he suddenly stops walking. The graphic expression on his face in close-up is like an open book and reveals that an idea has sprung to his mind, namely that he will stay in the town to take profit from the ongoing and bloody conflict. When in another sequence he is confronted by a mallet-brandishing giant, the ronin looks at the man with surprise before scrutinizing him from head to toe to emphasize his enormous size.

Mifune demonstrates his speed and agility in the breathtaking sword-fighting scenes, and he also shows a most impressive ability to change in a flash the mood of the character he is playing. Although he explores a great variety of facial and bodily expressions, his performance is nevertheless always remarkable for its economy. The richness and also the strong laconic element of his acting style contribute to the film’s ironical undertones, matching perfectly Kurosawa’s cinema, which is characterized by a daring and inventive spirit, by movement, and by a tremendous sense of economy.

Yojimbo is a visually complex film in which frequent deep focus shots allow for a great number of details. Just as Mifune’s acting is comprehensible without words, so Kurosawa’s mise-en-scène conveys meaning right from the film’s beginning. After his very first appearance on screen, the ronin – framed from behind in a medium close-up shot – is followed by the camera (in a single shot) while the credits continue rolling. The low angle and the framing which shows only the man’s back and the open sky do not allow us to see where he is heading. However, by clinging to him, the camera creates a sense of identification with the character and the situation – that of a wanderer who is not at all sure where he is going. This impression is confirmed when he arrives at a fork in the road and throws the branch of a tree into the air, leaving it to chance which of the two roads he takes.

Kurosawa’s film about the ronin who sells his services as yojimbo (bodyguard) to two masters is a critical response to the conventions of the mass-produced period film by the Toiei studios and the yakuza films, both fashionable in the late 1950s and early 1960s. The protagonist is endowed with almost supernatural powers – a cynical hero who purges the town of people more evil than himself. The story is set in the nineteenth century, but the town is a microcosm of post-war Japan, the pre-capitalist setting becoming synonymous with a modern world of technology, capitalism and consumption that is undermined by corruption and crime, the last-named aspect being a topic that Kurosawa had addressed more directly in his previous film The Bad Sleep Well (Warui yatsu hodo yoku nemuru, 1960).

The figure of the ronin is highly appropriate to challenge social injustice and authoritarian structures. Throughout his long career, Mifune often played characters who have problems with authority – starting with his roles as a rebellious youth in his debut film Snow Trail (Ginrei no hate, 1947, Senkichi Taniguchi, with the screenplay co-written by Kurosawa) and Drunken Angel (Yoidore tenshi, 1948), his first collaboration with Kurosawa. In this film too, the director and his star actor clearly share similar views.

The yojimbo is the representative of the past in a changing society – the samurai versus the yakuza Unosuke (Tatsuya Nakadai), the ronin’s katana (the long sword of the samurai) versus Unosuke’s revolver, the older versus the younger actor. However the ronin and the yakuza are presented as two faces of the same coin, evoking the concept of the doppelganger, a topic much cherished by Kurosawa. Unlike the psychopath Unosuke, the yojimbo has kept some dignity and is not completely devoid of humanity. He is the perfect update of the nihilist ronin of Japanese cinema in the late 1920s and 1930s, a hero whose influence can still be felt in present-day cinema – in Japan and also world wide.

In Masahiro Kobayashi’s Lear on the Shore (Umibe no Ria, 2017), the character played by Tatsuya Nakadai is called Kuwabatake (mulberry field), which is the name the yojimbo invents for himself in Kurosawa’s film. The reference is made very clear when Kobayashi’s protagonist adds: “It was with me long before Mr. Mifune acted in Yojimbo as a character with my last name.” This anecdotal moment in Lear on the Shore creates a strong intertextual link; the allusion was also a kind of homage to Nakadai’s late colleague. Nakadai himself had been the first recipient of the Toshiro Mifune Award at the Kyoto International Film and Art Festival in Kyoto in 2015.

Mifune is an icon of film history. I hope that my modest efforts in my research and publications can help to keep alive our memories of this great actor. It was therefore for me a great honour to participate in this event in Cologne, which gives German viewers the opportunity to watch Yojimbo and other films with Mifune on the big screen again.

About the author

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, Andrea Grunert is an independent scholar (Ph.D University Paris X, with a dissertation on the films of Clint Eastwood and the American frontier) and freelance writer and lecturer in film and cultural studies. She has published widely in France and Germany. She is the editor of three books published by Charles Corlet (France): Le corps filmé (2006), L’écran des frontières (2010) and De la pauvreté (2013). Her Dictionnaire Clint Eastwood is out in French bookshops, published by Vendémiaire.

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