What Akira Kurosawa actually “lets us see” and how he shows it to us is one of the most interesting things about his homage to the American Western. Yojimbo opens following a wandering samurai who comes across a small town by chance. Not only in the opening, but also throughout, his back is often towards the camera, creating a mysterious dramatic effect. Kurosawa does this to leave his expressions to our imagination. Oftentimes we have to infer what he is expressing through other character’s faces that are facing him. Also, much of the action throughout the film is in the background. We become spectators through the Samurai’s eyes as he either watches or has his back to the things going on. This creates a separation between him and the townspeople. He is not a part of their feuds. One of the more obvious ways Kurosawa depicts this is through the depth of field and locations of the points of interest. Sanjuro’s view through the windows and slits of the innkeeper’s house or his perch up on the ladder, is a visual separation. We become focused on both the action and his expressions, while at the same time we realize his lack of involvement. Furthermore, his concealed view through the innkeeper’s house (which ironically is combined with a “coffin shop”) offers incomplete perceptions of the action, which adds to the chaos of the events happening. His view on the perch offers another, more comedic effect. The Samurai is smiling down on the “battle” ensuing. It is almost as if he knows he has complete control over the fate of the immoral people.
Kurosawa also has important props that create multiple different effects in the scene. Props such as the swords (which are quite plenty), severed hands, and a club depict how violent the town is. At one point, Chekhov’s gun becomes front and center as Unosuke reveals his prized possession. Food even becomes an important prop as it helps develop Sanjuro’s character. He eats in some of the tensest moments, showing how cool and confident he is.
Lastly, Kurosawa’s makeup is another subtle, yet effective technique. On most of the faces in the film (including the Samurai towards the end), he adds darkness under their eyes, which makes them look desperate and afraid. Both gangs feature this similar look. No one is free from the despair.
Overall, even without any redeeming characters or a real moral protagonist, Kurosawa commands the screen in such a way that inspires many Westerns to come, including Sergio Leone’s “Man With No Name” trilogy.