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Yojimbo: history and fantasy

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    Jon Hooper

    I thought I’d put a few thoughts up here about the setting of Yojimbo, not because I can offer anything myself, but because someone here probably can. Prince notes in The Warrior’s Camera that the setting is the late Tokugawa period, and he seems to be pretty sure on this point. Richie, I think, says little beyond the fact that the setting of Yojimbo is the modern world. I know very little about Japanese history, and I wonder what the specific pointers are that makes Prince date the picture as being late Edo (did Kurosawa himself perhaps reveal this?).

    There certainly seems to be much made of the rise of capitalism, of the upheaval caused to the traditional social order. This is what one site has this to say on the subject about what would then appear to be Yojimbo‘s setting:

    [In the Late Edo period] “commerce spread and a money economy developed. Although government heavily restricted the merchants and viewed them as unproductive and usurious members of society, the samurai, who gradually became separated from their rural ties, depended greatly on the merchants and artisans for consumer goods, artistic interests, and loans. In this way, a subtle subversion of the warrior class by the chonin took place.”


    This would seem to go some way to explaining why Kurosawa appears so bitter towards the merchants, of course – because the samurai became dependent on them.

    Our old faithful, Wikipedia, offers the following:

    Chonin (“townsman”) was a social class that emerged in Japan during the early years of the Tokugawa period. The majority of chonin were merchants, but it also included craftsmen. Nomin (farmers) were not included. (Wikipedia)


    By the late 17th century the prosperity and growth of Edo were producing unforeseen changes in the Tokugawa social order. The chonin who were theoretically at the bottom of the Edo hierarchy (shinokosho, samurai-farmers-craftsmen-merchants, chonin refers to the latter two), flourished socially and economically at the expense of the daimyo and samurai, who were eager to trade rice (the principal source of domainal income) for cash and consumer goods. Mass-market innovations further challenged social hierarchies. For example, vast Edo department stores had cash-only policies, which favored the chonin with their ready cash supply. (Wikipedia)

    This would explain the significance of Gon, the restaurant owner’s response after giving cold rice to Sanjuro – he doesn’t expect him to be able to pay, and would rather he just left rather than resort to killing as a means of income. Gon, then, would appear to belong to the traditional side of things, to the old order.

    One can’t fail to pick up on some of the symbolism behind Kurosawa’s use of space and the sets in particular. I think he means to show what has happened to society as a result of the rise of merchants. In the town there is no common space, or what common space there is has become an arena. Instead we see private, box-like spaces, surrogates for the smallest boxes of all, the coffins that will be the ultimate fate of the merchants and their thugs. The social landscape has therefore been divided into individual little units; walls and bars are everywhere. It is ironic, I think, that the Hollywood Review called Yojimbo “One of the greatest outdoor action motion pictures ever made” (quoted on the back of the BFI release) because that is exactly what this film is not.

    Whatever the verity of the setting, Kurosawa seems to use fantasy and even perhaps folklore as a way of interpreting the times. He is not content, of course, to depict the chonin or the yakuza simply as they would have been. Instead, he turns his people inside out, he presents them as grotesques, whose internal evil is now worn on the outside. What he is presenting, then, is the truth behind the image, a fantastical and exaggerated sketch of what the merchant class and their servants really were like in character and deed. One could say it is another way of being historically accurate, of depicting the temper of the times. My favourite of the thugs happens to be the giant sporting a mallet. It might be a coincidence that in Japanese mythology we find the story of Issun Boshi, who faced two giant oni, one of which sported a mallet. There may be more than a whiff of folklore behind the figure of Sanjuro too – at times he seems a kind of Yamato-takeru figure (a legendary figure from the Kojiki, and a character Mifune did in fact play in The Three Treasures), in other words a larger than life hero who was so strong that he was seen to embody the forces of nature, a harvester of men whose ability to be utterly destructive was never open to moral criticism. In one story Yamato-takeru was sent to the west to kill two brothers who were engaged in a civic war; he did this by means of guile at first, dressing as a girl before resorting to the sword. The symbolism of the sword is interesting too – it is associated with lightning and thunder, and is therefore linked to the harvest. The more thunder there is, the more rain. And the more rain, the more rice grows. Kurosawa’s Sanjuro, like Yamato-takeru, is therefore an elemental figure vital to the survival of the agrarian society; his sword brings about cleansing and allows the harvest to grow. In the myth, Yamato-takeru was at his death transformed into a giant white bird which then flew away to the sea. One of the images in Yojimbo is such a bird flying above the waves – it can be glimpsed on the shutter when the thugs first emerge from hiding.

    (The notes on Japanese myths come from an encyclopedia on World Mythology edited by Bellingham, Whittaker & Grant).

    Well, this is all purely speculative and I’m probably departing too far from what Kurosawa intended. Can anyone offer anything more constructive on the setting, to get back to the original point?



    The time period is rather hard to nail down.

    Being a bit of gun guru, I based entirely on the gun, that the time period is late 1800’s. There is not a scene in where the gun is reloaded, depending on how it is done, it would help point if its a Colt or something else. I’m quite certain however, it is American rather then British, simply due to exterior styling. In which case the American colony in Yokohama in the late 1800’s would be the first introduction to the modern revolver for sell to the Japanese military. Giving the use of the other weapons in Yojimbo, the wondering samurai class, merchant upstart and the appearance of the gun being known about, but still a rare item.

    I would guess near the end of Edo period, roughly 1850 at the earliest.

    Personally, with no evidence, I think we are talking closer to the Meiji era when the movie takes place, rather then the Edo.



    Vili, those fascinating bits and pieces fill in some little missing chinks in the Yojimbo mythology for me! Thanks so much! I needed to get some little look into how such a “non-Greek” and yet iconic a character came to be. (In a Jungian way, this makes so much sense, now.)

    This is gorgeous writing and good thinking:

    One can’t fail to pick up on some of the symbolism behind Kurosawa’s use of space and the sets in particular. I think he means to show what has happened to society as a result of the rise of merchants. In the town there is no common space, or what common space there is has become an arena. Instead we see private, box-like spaces, surrogates for the smallest boxes of all, the coffins that will be the ultimate fate of the merchants and their thugs. The social landscape has therefore been divided into individual little units; walls and bars are everywhere.



    Oh, and this is just a little aside: I never really thought too much about a world where there were no restaurants until I heard the name “Escoffier”and then began an inquiry, and it was astonishing to learn that, at one point there were no such things as restaurants.

    And, it occurred to me, right smack on first viewing Yojimbo that Eijiro Tono’s tavern/restaurant may not have existed in this time…who are the patrons? Seriously, who eats there? Did restaurant/taverns exist in reality in the historical moment of the film? Does anyone know?



    A good call on the pistol, Jeremy! There are a few closer shots of the gun in the “It’s Wonderful to Create” documentary on the new Criterion disc, just in case those might help you in identifying it better. What I personally know about pistols could be written on the back of a stamp, and there would still be space left.

    I don’t know why, but I have in any case personally always placed the movie around the beginning of the Meiji period, the 1870s or so. Maybe because the film has so often been discussed as a western that I have simply without really thinking about it assumed that also Yojimbo takes place in that time frame.

    There is also that notion of Sanjuro being a discarded samurai, which fits so well with the Meiji period. And although there certainly were ronin before the Meiji period (and they had increasingly more trouble finding work in the Edo period), Sanjuro (as Jon has noted elsewhere) really doesn’t quite seem to belong to his surroundings. Perhaps the world has moved on, and all he has left is purposeless wandering.

    What you write about Sanjuro’s connection to Yamatotakeru is quite fascinating, Jon. Perhaps that bird design indeed wasn’t an accident. In any case, it goes on to show that there were superhuman-like heroes also in Japanese folk stories.

    Coco, I think your praise was probably misdirected, and should go to Jon. In any case restaurants have, I think, existed in Asia at least since the 11th century, while tea houses and taverns are a much older feature. So yes, there were places like Gonji’s tavern in 19th century Japan.


    Jon Hooper

    I suspected that Jeremy or Vili would come up with the goods regarding the time period. There’s me thinking that clues would be in the background but of course the pistol is the obvious means by which the film can be dated. Not that I can offer anything much on that score – I think I might manage to fill all the space on that postage stamp but it would still be a postage stamp.



    A couple of further points came to my mind regarding the historical setting.

    In the “It’s Wonderful to Create” documentary it is explicitly mentioned that the town was based on an actual Edo period town. The reason why the street is so wide in the movie is actually that the original town actually had a ditch in the middle (plus it looked good on widescreen).

    Secondly, I just remember that the original English print actually had a superimposed introductory text. It read:

    The time is 1860… the emergence of a middle class has brought about the end to power of the Tokugawa Dynasty… A samurai, once a dedicated warrior in the employ of Royalty, now finds himself with no master to serve other than his own will to survive…

    You can see some screenshots here.

    Now, I don’t know who wrote that text, probably not Kurosawa. In any case, the 1860s seems like a plausible decade.



    Thanks Vili, again, for answering the restaurant question…

    And, Jon, it’s true, that wonderful passage using the grid/box/crate as a symbol for the claustrophobic social landscape of the film, is your invention. Poetic, and so visually articulate!

    I truly appreciate knowing some of the mythology that may have contributed. Thanks for doing the research.


    Jon Hooper

    Vili: that would explain why Prince seems so sure in The Warrior’s Camera. He’d obviously done his research.

    Coco: I’m not sure whether I’d call browsing through Wikipedia and a coffee table book on Japanese myth research, but thanks all the same.



    Here’s what Kurosawa says about the setting of Yojimbo:

    “The samurai in Yojimbo is not the samurai in Seven Samurai. During the peaceful era of Tokugawa those who had secured their jobs long ago had ceased to be warriors. They had become administrators or white-collar workers, what we would call “salaried men”. Those who were out of jobs were to remain permanently unemployed. Their hope had completely vanished, So they had to take a job, any job available, and some became the bodyguards of gamblers.”

    p.64, Akira Kurosawa Interviews edited by Bert Cartdullo. Excerpt from the 1975 Joan Mellon interview.

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