Lightweight Akira Kurosawa to be sure, still Yojimbo (1961) remains one of the director’s most entertaining and best-liked films (and his most successful work in Japan). The movie is a singularly odd creation: It more or less uses the framework of Dashiell Hammett’s novel Red Harvest—in which a detective from outside cleans up a corrupt town by pitting rival factions against each other—but I’m not sure I’d call it an adaptation exactly. Using that setup and changing the detective to a wandering samurai (Toshirô Mifune), Kurosawa turns the whole thing into a Japanese Western, even to creating a town with one central street that’s just built for showdowns. (The film is so like a Western that Sergio Leone appropriated it for A Fistful of Dollars in 1964.)
This is then approached in a darkly comic manner that almost verges on the slapstick subgenre (well in advance of such a subgenre existing). Kurosawa then tops it off by applying an offbeat score by Masaru Satô that can best be described as a fusion of Japanese music and 1950s jazz. This is one of those movies where it sounds like none of it should work and yet all of it somehow does. Mifune gives an exceptional—and quietly humorous—performance as a man who cares nothing for the amoral town (the first thing he sees on his arrival is a dog with a human hand in its mouth) and manages to get paid for doing nothing.