Yojimbo, directed by Akira Kurosawa, is one of the best-know films by Americans. This Japanese film displays much more than a standard samurai sword-fighting movie. Sanjuro Kawabatake, a peaceful, jobless samurai, stumbles upon a small village that is torn between to lawless and vicious factions. As stated in The Films of Akira Kurosawa (1970), Kurosawa purposefully set to make the film about choosing a side when “both sides are equally bad” (Ritchie). Akira Kurosawa uses many different camera angles and movements to display the separation and how Sanjuro tries to avoid the situation all together. Kurosawa keeps the characters separate through his innovated camera shots. He defines Sanjuro Kawabatake’s character by displaying the samurai alone in frames, shot mainly in medium close-ups and close-ups, and shot from low camera angles. Kurosawa depicts the villagers in full frames and in large groupings. As the film later continues, the more important and rising characters are soon shot with close ups and centered in the shots. Kurosawa uses interesting selections, combinations, and sequences to keep each character in place with his or her importance.
Kurosawa keeps Sanjuro Kawabatake’s identity a mystery from start to finish. The film opens with a close-up of the back of a man’s head. This man’s face is not shown and cannot be detected. Throughout the whole opening sequence, the man is shot in a close-up from the back with quick glances of the side of his face. Because the whole opening of the film is solely focused on this one man, it is immediately known he will be the main attention of the film, but it is not clear whom or what this man really is. His style can possibly be acknowledged as a Japanese warrior, but there is no indication of certainty. Sanjuro is shown alone in a few other scenes, which hold a valued importance within the film. When Sanjuro enters the village, in each shot he is framed alone. This sequence of shots depicts Sanjuro’s importance to the village. As he walks through the middle of the village, there are a few reverse shots of villagers looking through windows. It is inferred that Sanjuro is the center of attention. Take a look at the clip below to see how Kurosawa defines Sanjuro’s importance.
When Sanjuro is shown alone, he is always framed in a medium-close up or close-up. There are just a few exceptions to when he is in a full frame: a shot in the beginning, middle, and end. In the segment below, this scene gives a sufficient look at how Kurosawa frames Sanjuro by himself and with others. As Sanjuro sits and talks to the old man, Sanjuro is shown from the side. As soon as the old man walks out of the main picture, Sanjuro is shown in a close up from a front angle of his face. When the old man re-enters the picture, the camera pans back to a side view of Sanjuro. The exceptions to the close-up framing within in the film are shown below. Sanjuro is shown in a full frame shot in the opening, when he walks through the village, and when he returns to the village for Gonji. These are establishing shots to show where Sanjuro is located. Kurosawa does an excellent job keeping the film concise and clear when it comes to location. Kurosawa also uses this shots to show detail. Not only does he show detail of the locations but also details about Sanjuro. In the first full frame shot in the opening scene, it is the first moment the audience gets the chance to notice Sanjuro. The audience can denote his clothing and features to help further distinguish him later. Sanjuro can be described and placed within a character: a samurai.
When Sanjuro Kawabatake is pictured with other characters, the camera tends to be farther away, not directly facing him, or shot from behind. This is one way that Akira Kurosawa divides up the attention and gives each character or characters the full attention. Kurosawa always keeps Sanjuro in the scene. He is still given attention do to his importance, but the main focus lingers elsewhere. For instance, when Sanjuro is watching the two brothers fight, he is located far away from the camera. The main focus in this scene is the villagers. The two sides are shown in two masses on each side of the screen. Take a look at the still to further your understanding of Kurosawa’s actions here. This is a brilliant way to keep the characters involved but have the attention split up at 80% villagers and 20% Sanjuro (Prince). As pictured below as well, we see Sanjuro in the back of the frame drinking water. Although he is still noticeable, the primary focus is on the conversation occurring. In the stills below, the previous clip of the opening scene, and the clip of the old man and Sanjuro in the restaurant, Kurosawa includes Sanjuro in the scene but only from a non-forward angle or from behind. In the last clip, Kurosawa took a different approach in keeping Sanjuro a mystery. When the samurai arrives to the village and offered a job, Kurosawa only shows the other man and Sanjuro’s body. Sanjuro’s head is completely out of the shot keeping his reaction a mystery.
As we stray away from the depiction of Sanjuro, it is important that the villagers and Gonji are acknowledged. When the villagers are shown, they are always shot as a group. Kurosawa uses these group shots to show the villagers as a collective. The villagers are shown as two angry sides. Their individuality is not important, but the anger of the collective group is the main focus. As was shown in the previous fight scene, the villagers are shown in their separate groups but all shown together. Gonji is a rising character through out the film. Kurosawa shows Gonji with Sanjuro in multiple medium-close up scenes, like the restaurant scene shown earlier, but later in the film Gonji becomes his own individual character. In the still below, we see Gonji in a close up and Sanjuro far in the back. The close up represents Gonji’s importance and his relationship to Sanjuro.
Akira Kurosawa has one of the simplistic filming techniques, but he does it so well beyond perfection that makes every angle and movement have a purpose. With close-ups, full frame shots, individual shots, and collective, Kurosawa makes Yojimbo an easy film to follow. I thank you for coming and hope you have enjoyed the exhibits today.