The Casket Maker’s Fortune

Yojimbo (1961)

illustration by Gary Mills

Near the end of Akira Kurosawa’s Yojimbo, the film’s anti-hero returns a pistol to his mortally wounded enemy, giving him one last chance to shoot our protagonist. I had to stop watching here. My flight was disembarking. I’d made it that far in the movie (I’m ashamed to say, on my phone) on my way to a pared-down, socially distanced, pandemic funeral, thinking I could distract myself. It has a samurai with a pistol in it, after all. But the problem with watching a movie in hopes of distracting yourself from what’s going on in your life is that if it’s good enough, you’ll end up seeing pieces of your life played out on the screen. I couldn’t have picked a worse time to stop watching. 

The question lingered: Does the samurai die?


A few weeks before my flight, I’d seen Robert alive, cheeks hollowed out, muscle tissue dissolved by the cancer and a series of brutal medical treatments. He and my mom had married just a few years earlier. Our small family quickly took to this gentle soul with a degree in linguistics, as if he’d been with us much longer. During the pandemic, I’d call for help with the Sunday crossword, or he’d send a cartoon or limerick he was working on. The diagnosis came a year into their marriage. He knew he would be dead soon but continued to treat those around him patiently and with kindness, up until the very end, when he began to hallucinate and got short with the hospice nurse when she denied being a spy. He’d served in the Navy in his 20s and was entitled to some kind of military burial with rifles fired, but he wanted no part of that, no guns for him. And apparently, no gun for Yojimbo’s protagonist, either.

In Yojimbo, a wayward samurai, Kuwabatake Sanjuro (Toshiro Mifune), arrives by happenstance at a village plagued by two rival gangs. He plays off them both, hiring himself out only to then switch sides or take advantage of them. It isn’t until he helps a family flee the village that the pistol-toting samurai, Unosuke (Tatsuya Nakadai), catches on to Sanjuro’s tricks and Sanjuro is trapped and beaten almost to death. Ghostlike, he emerges from the makeshift coffin in which he was smuggled to safety, not unlike Robert any time he gathered the strength to leave the couch. But Sanjuro soon recovers, nursed back to health at a temple near a cemetery outside the city. The hero’s metaphoric death and rebirth are fairly obvious: Sanjuro has “died” and gone to the cemetery and is “reborn” stronger and more fearless than ever, healthy enough to finish off the gangs. 

Of course, there’s no temple by the cemetery outside the city where Robert is buried that could miraculously nurse someone on the brink of death back to health. There are, however, a handful of Oregon Civil War vets buried in the cemetery. Yojimbo, coincidentally, takes place during the end of the Edo period, also in the 1860s. There’s nothing inherently meaningful about this coincidence, perhaps just a trick played by a world that’s become hyper-connected with itself. What does strike me though is the lengths my brain will go to try and further tie everything together, to create some kind of connective fabric between the fantastic and the horrific. This fabric feels as if it’s supposed to be protective somehow, like silk worn under armor. There’s something soothing about the illusion that I was meant to watch Yojimbo on that flight. And after all, if one man can rid an entire village of gangsters, maybe I can make it through a funeral. Maybe more importantly, the illusion matters because if I was meant to watch the movie, it implies there’s some kind of order to the universe and not just a chaotic mess where kind people die too soon. In other words, a hope that the order of our universe more closely resembles that of a movie than it might seem.

Unfortunately this is not dissimilar from the insidious, meme-ified spiritual notion that God doesn’t give you more than you can handle: we like to think of ourselves as the protagonists in our own story and, from an early age, encounter story after story where a protagonist isn’t given more than they can handle. That’s what protagonists do: They overcome, almost always. Yes, occasionally the hero dies at the end of the movie but these are few and far between, too depressing for Hollywood to greenlight. It’s almost as rare when a movie like Drive slips by that leaves it up to the audience to decide whether the hero dies. Part of me didn’t want to finish watching Yojimbo for this reason. I didn’t want to see the samurai die but it also seemed preposterous that he could return the pistol to his enemy and still make it out alive.


Back when Robert was still alive, I went with my mom to the cemetery as she picked out a plot for the two of them. It was a beautiful day, with crows cawing in the tall pines. We laughed at a headstone with a bowling ball and pin engraved on it (God bless you, Delores) and we wondered at another grave decorated with colorful whirligigs and doodads. That night, I said goodbye to Robert and flew home the next day, exhausted. The next time I saw him, a week and a half later, it was at the funeral home, ashes in an urn.

Funeral homes have a peculiar smell to them: a blend of embalming chemicals, whatever scent is put off by the incinerators, and something that’s supposed to mask those smells but isn’t quite powerful enough. When Sanjuro returns to town from the cemetery, he finds it smoldering from the chaos and destruction one gang has brought on the other. Bodies tense with rigor mortis are strewn throughout the street as smoke lingers in the air. It’s hard not to imagine this funereal smell as Sanjuro, unfazed, walks toward the gang, who are led by the pistol-toting samurai. We know Sanjuro won’t die at this particular moment—the film would have to break its own logic for that to happen—but he’s so vulnerable it doesn’t matter. He feels as good as dead, and yet he continues to walk forward, much to his enemy’s surprise.

Fearlessness is one of Sanjuro’s greatest assets. The braver he is, the more astonished his enemies are. He must be crazy, they seem to think. But cancer doesn’t operate that way. Your level of fear is immaterial and so it does you no good to be afraid, or brave, or whatever else. Robert seemed to understand this, and to the extent that he could, appeared to live his life in much the same way as he had prior to his diagnosis. One of his favorite pastimes was bird watching. Whenever I visited, I’d frequently catch him at the window, eyes on one of the birdfeeders planted in the garden. In Yojimbo, the main character’s name, Kuwabatake Sanjuro, means “30-year-old mulberry field.” It’s a name that he gives himself after looking out a window and seeing a field of mulberry.

Yojimbo means “bodyguard” in Japanese so the title isn’t without irony. Sanjuro goes back and forth between the two gangs, seeing who will pay the most for his services as a bodyguard, but they are, in effect, paying their own killer. It’s a basic, but still delicious, kind of irony: the bodyguard who kills everyone. It shouldn’t remind me of Robert, and yet, it does anyway, my brain grasping desperately to create connections. When Robert ate, his nourishment fed the tumors; his cells, the agents that were supposed to keep him alive, to protect him, turned on him and used that nourishment to kill him. 

It’s common knowledge that the amount of money required to treat cancer is exorbitant. Luckily, Robert’s insurance somehow covered over $100,000 worth of treatment, but it’s unclear if any of that lengthened his life. Some treatments, it seems, just made him weaker. Near the end of Yojimbo, Sanjuro gives away most of his earnings to a family he feels sympathy for and then turns his sword back against the two gangs who had paid him to protect them. But no amount of money could’ve saved the gangs from Sanjuro, and no amount of money could’ve saved Robert. Later, my mom was shocked to learn how expensive headstones can be, the average cost for one in America being somewhere around $1,000. 

As the tavern keeper, Gonji, says at the beginning of the movie: There he goes again. The Casket Maker. Only guy in town making any money.


Stephen Prince, in his commentary on the Criterion edition, makes the case for Yojimbo as an apocalyptic, anti-capitalist film. He argues that Kurosawa ties Japan’s opening to the West in the 19th century to Japan’s post-war economic rise, warning about the high costs of eschewing cultural values like thrift and frugality in favor of materialism and consumption. I’m always a little skeptical when a critic tries to determine an artist’s motivations, but in Yojimbo, the perils of greed and nascent capitalism run amok are laid bare so centrally. The gangs and merchants destroy (with Sanjuro’s help, of course) themselves and their communities in pursuit of profit. It’s a pretty basic critique of capitalism, no less true because of its simplicity, but viewed through the lens of the COVID-19 pandemic, the movie becomes somewhat prescient. Not in the sense that it predicted the virus, but because it shows us a world suffering terribly under an earlier form of capitalism, highlighting the disturbing truth that the rich have no qualms about destroying the world and themselves in service of attaining more wealth and that, in fact, death can be quite profitable. Our modern apocalypse looks a little different but at its core isn’t too dissimilar: billionaires are made from the ashes and rubble of forest fires, wars, flooding, and disease. The shots in Yojimbo where the town is burning are reminiscent of scenes in Syria and Palestine, or the funeral grounds in India where the COVID-19 dead have piled up at a staggering rate (in part because sharing the vaccine patents would mean lower profits). 

After Robert died, my mom was one of the beneficiaries of his life insurance plan. The problem was that the insurance company had decided they were going to pay her roughly half of what she had been promised, due to a clerical error on their part. After she threatened to sue and informed a state regulation committee, the company reversed their decision and paid out what had been promised. As it turned out though, it’s a fairly common practice to withhold the payout for as long as possible in order to maximize the amount of interest that they can earn on the money before losing it. The idea is that the recipients, in their grief, don’t have the strength to fight them on it and agree to the lesser amount. In either case, the insurance company loses less money.

Sanjuro’s relationship to money is as admirable as his skill with a sword. In Helen DeWitt’s excellent novel The Last Samurai (no relation to the Tom Cruise movie), the narrator is a single mother who uses Kurosawa’s Seven Samurai in hopes of giving her son positive male role models in the absence of his father. However, Yojimbo might have been a better pick. Yes, Sanjuro is two-faced, spiteful, and blood-thirsty, but he’s also honorable, brave, and selfless. One of the film’s best moments takes full advantage of the tension in his character when a villager comes to see him in the tavern. The villager’s wife is being held hostage by gangsters and, forlorn, he leaves the tavern to try and be close to her. After he leaves, Sanjuro says, “Guys like that make me sick” and Gonji believes Sanjuro is talking about the villager, but what happens after reveals otherwise. We see Sanjuro shift to a sort of Robin Hood-type character when he kills the gangsters holding the villager’s wife hostage and then gives the money he’s made as a “bodyguard” to the family as they flee. In the world that Kurosawa has built, the only worthwhile use for money is to give it to those in need. Sanjuro’s by no means perfect, but that’s precisely what makes him a believable hero. It’s easy to do the right thing when it’s what you would do anyway; anyone can do that. What’s much more compelling, or interesting, is when someone does the right thing even though they don’t want to.


The part where I’d stopped watching so I could get off the plane provides one of the best shots of the entire film. The left and right sides of the screen are split by a diagonal line: on the left-hand side, there is Sanjuro’s back, cast in sunlight; on the right-hand side, there’s Unosuke, bleeding out as he lays in the shade. Sanjuro’s place, it turns out, is among the living, while Unosuke makes his slow agonizing transfer to a shadow world. His last request is that he be allowed to hold his pistol. Sanjuro returns it to Unosuke and remains squatted by his side as the samurai slowly turns the pistol back on Sanjuro in what are some of the most agonizing and tense seconds you might ever come across in a movie. Sanjuro, unfazed, maybe ready to die himself, stays motionless as the gun is almost leveled on him. Unosuke fires it once, then a few more times, straight into the ground. Sanjuro is unhurt and Unosuke’s head drops into the pool of blood that surrounds him.

Prince argues that Kurosawa is constructing an elaborate fantasy here, one in which “tradition and the samurai win, creating an alternative mythology, a fantastical account of how history might have, should have, turned out if only the process of time had included a moral component.” He seems right about all that, but what makes this part so profound to me, and I suspect countless others, is not nostalgia for a pre-westernized Japan, or Sanjuro’s naïveté or fearlessness, or that his charity to the dying man won’t be returned in the form of a bullet. Rather, it’s in giving the viewer a moment where someone we are all certain will die miraculously doesn’t. Sanjuro is instead carried safely into another day of life, lifted by that same “moral component” that’s missing from our reality whenever someone we love dies too soon.