Chanbara (also spelled chambara) or sword fighting films have been around since the silent days of cinema. The one of the earliest was Orochi from 1925 about a samurai who has fallen on bad times.
The genre really took off after WWII when the films became more action orientated and less drama orientated. I have written before about some of the classics, The Samurai Trilogy and more recently Zatoichi but I have missed some of the more popular and brilliant movies.
Akira Kurosawa was a master filmmaker. Over the years he made many types of films from dramas to adapting Shakespeare to dabbling in the samurai genre. Toshirô Mifune starred in many of Kurosawa’s movies but one of their best collaborations was this 1961 samurai film Yojimbo.
Mifune stars as the main character, a masterless samurai with no name, although in the sequel Sanjuro he calls himself Sanjuro which means 30-years-old. Mifune strolls into a small village that seems a little off. Everybody is hiding and he’s advised by a restaurant owner to leave town, there’s nothing for him but death. It seems that two gangs have been fighting for control of the town but things are at a stalemate. Mifune sees an opportunity. He starts pitting both sides against each other with him in the middle.
He gets himself hired as a bodyguard by the weaker family by killing three of the hired goons from the stronger rival gang. He leaves once he hears them plotting to kill him once they win instead of paying him. In one of my favourite scenes he instigates a fight between both sides then sits on pole in the middle of the town to watch and laugh at the proceedings. The fun is interrupted by a shogun official visiting the town. Soon Mifune is hired by the stronger other gang which is run by the ruthless Ushitora with help from Unosuke, who uses a gun instead of a sword. Mifune stumbles across their plot to steal gold and proceeds to make things worse for everyone. The final fight is classic.
The film was loosely based on the Dashiell Hammett story The Glass Key although Hammett’s Red Harvest has also been considered as inspiration for the film. The movie was unofficial remade as A Fistful of Dollars by Sergio Leone and starring Clint Eastwood in 1964. There was a sequel that Kurosawa made in 1962 called Sanjuro and a 1970 Zatoichi tie-in film Zatoichi Meets Yojimbo that only Mifune was involved in and he played a very similar role. There’s was also an official remake in 1996 by director Walter Hill, the crappy Last Man Standing which starred Bruce Willis. As a side note Hammett’s Red Harvest and The Glass Key were the inspiration for the Coen Brothers brilliant movie Miller’s Crossing and The Glass Key was made into an excellent film that I featured on an older Sunday Matinee. Have to love Hammet’s influential work. Still Yojimbo is excellent and a must watch.