Yojimbo (1961) & Sanjuro (1962): Double Feature

Loyalty is a driving force behind many of our actions. The bonds of friendship, family entanglements, workplace duties, and an overall sense of respect and love for fellow humans motivate a conglomerate of purposeful activities. While our choices are often rooted with positive intentions, they may also be fuelled by fear, dishonesty, and betrayal. Unyielding overarching power may dictate decisions and planning within allegiances, and any moral compass may be tossed aside to feed egos. Themes of this nature are pervasive in the 1961 film “Yojimbo” and the 1962 film “Sanjuro”, directed by one of the masters of cinema, Akira Kurosawa.

Both of these films follow two distinct journeys of a nameless yet impeccably skilled ronin, played by frequent Kurosawa collaborator Toshiro Mifune. When asked his name, he reports that his given name is “Sanjuro” (translated means thirty years old, although he claims to be “close to forty”) and his surname references species of nearby plants or vegetation. The stories in each film have different content. In “Yojimbo”, Sanjuro opts to continue his stay in an economically challenged town now overrun with opposing gangs. In the eponymous film, he aids a group of young samurai in challenging a seemingly powerful superintendent who has captured the leader’s morally sound uncle. Our fearless, shrewd, and wearied swordsman consistently champions against corruption. He also “can’t fight on an empty stomach”. Resounding commonalities weaving these stories together include betrayal, loyalty, facades, corruption, and friendship among other themes. Kurosawa’s impeccable cinematography draws us into the samurai world of mid-19th century, permitting us to form strong connections with the endearing and spiteful.

The word “yojimbo”translates into the word “bodyguard” in English. Indeed, that was Sanjuro’s initial goal within the battered Japanese community he encountered in the first film. While being a bodyguard or samurai for another perceivably more powerful individual could bring prestige and nobility, freedom and individuality is lost. Sanjuro uses his intellect to forge fragile alliances, and is completely aware that he must rely on them for survival and for the preservation of social justice. Uncertainty and dread is always palpable, but his autonomy remains of central importance. I feel as if this concept is central to Sanjuro’s character development, as he appears to be more grounded in his knowledge and sense of self in the latter film. I believe that he reminds audiences of the importance of discovering and maintaining an authentic identity in their life course. It is essential to protect this commodity, as individuals themselves can duplicate only their uniqueness. Overall, the process of self-discovery and self-love attunes us towards our passions and talents, which can then be used to protect and advocate for those most vulnerable.

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