Akira Kurosawa's samurai masterpiece Yojimbo revisited at 50

One of Akira Kurosawa's most famous films, Yojimbo, has just turned 50, and Oliver Good examines the influence it has had and the influences that went into its making

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How do you know when you have stumbled into a dangerous part of town? A few broken windows? Stares from unfriendly locals, perhaps? How about seeing a dog carrying a severed human hand? That was the way the Japanese auteur, Akira Kurosawa, chose to warn us that his protagonist was entering a lawless and violent place in the opening minutes of Yojimbo (Bodyguard).

The black-and-white classic, which turned 50 last week, sees a ronin (masterless samurai, played to perfection by the Kurosawa regular Toshiro Mifune) offering his services to two rival crime bosses in the feudal village. Rather than fulfilling his role as faithful servant, however, he becomes "the bodyguard who kills the bodies he's hired to guard," as the renowned film critic Pauline Kael once put it.

Constantly twitching and chewing on a toothpick, the roving sword-for-hire clearly enjoys dispatching his foes and accomplishes his aim with overwhelming zeal. Before long, he brings the whole rotten edifice crashing to the ground with his wily double-crossings.

While pets snacking on their masters' appendages and samurai sword fights aplenty might suggest the film would be best reserved for fans of gore, most of Yojimbo's violence actually happens off-screen and the movie is intended as a black comedy.

Although not as revolutionary as Kurosawa's breakout movie, 1950's Rashomon, and not as widely loved as the sweeping 1954 film, Seven Samurai, Yojimbo saw the director at his genre-bending finest and provided a story that would continue to resonate in international cinema for decades.

If you've ever watched Clint Eastwood's Man With No Name sauntering into an unfriendly town on the US-Mexico border in A Fistful of Dollars (and quickly set about playing its inhabitants off against one another), you were in fact watching a retelling of Yojimbo. But you'd be forgiven for not knowing it.

After failing to secure the remake rights for the film, the Italian director Sergio Leone went ahead and remade it anyway. Eastwood adopted Mifune's roving warrior archetype with ease, replacing his toothpick with an equally heavily chewed cigar. Legal problems tied-up Fistful's release in North America for three years, but that didn't stop it from reinventing the entire Western genre when it finally arrived, with its grimy aesthetic and nihilistic outlook.

If it seems as though Kurosawa's story of a 19th-century lone wolf, using a lethal combination of deception and cold steel, was a sure-fire candidate for a gunslinging remake, that's because the director was setting out to pay homage to American cinema (not just early Westerns, but also the gangster genre) in the first place. With their wide landscape shots framing inhospitable surroundings, the films of John Ford, such as The Fugitive and Stagecoach, provided Kurosawa's visual starting point.

"In a classic Western setting, with dust and leaves blowing across the wide, empty street that runs the length of a village, a lone stranger passes as frightened faces peer from behind shutters. Advised to leave because civil war is imminent, he prefers to stay, of course," wrote Alexander Sesonske, for the Criterion Collection.

But while Kurosawa took inspiration from Ford and other Western greats when crafting the look of Yojimbo, the movie's narrative has a very different origin. The filmmaker claimed that much of the plot was taken from the US author Dashiel Hammett's 1931 detective story The Glass Key, although others have suggested that it shares yet more similarities with another of his books, Red Harvest. The association led George Lucas - a lifelong Kurosawa fan - to use the name Blue Harvest as the production title for Star Wars.

Yojimbo's story was again resurrected in 1984 for another uncredited remake, the Conan knock-off The Warrior and also The Sorceress, set (somewhat bizarrely) on a desert planet with two suns. More than a decade later and Kurosawa's movie received its first officially credited remake: the 1996 film Last Man Standing. Starring Bruce Willis as a gunslinger caught in a turf war between Italian and Irish mobsters in a Prohibition-era Texas town, it was a critical and commercial flop.

With the exception of Leone's brilliant Western remake, Yojimbo's most direct progeny have been a disappointing bunch. However the film's central idea, that loners with the right combination of brains and bravery can take down evil organisations from the inside, has flourished, even permeating beyond the bounds of cinema and into the public consciousness.