The 2001 anime Kaze no Yojimbo (“Bodyguard of the Wind”), roughly based on the 1961 Akira Kurosawa film Yojimbo, brings a modern spin to the traditional Samurai tale. Although remakes usually aren’t as good as the original, this unique series takes the source material and turns it into a new work of art that actually has more depth than Kurosawa’s classic.
Kaze no Yojimbo is a serious mystery drama that will be enjoyed by attentive audiences, albeit with one caveat. This anime should be viewed only by older teens and adults ages 17+ due to some edgy content and mature themes involving violence, language, drinking, gambling, and a brief scene of a female taking a bath. If you’re still interested, keep reading…
It’s apparent from the beginning that Kaze no Yojimbo is a low-budget production, and many people shrug it off for that reason. But if you give this anime a chance, the style will grow on you. In fact, it’s very effective in its simplicity by using more creative techniques. It often zooms in on a character while making the background fuzzy or “static-y,” and the action sequences are done with choppy animation or still shots – but it works, and here’s why…
The framing of scenes in this anime, with multiple layers or shown from different angles in a split screen, resembles traditional comic book art. In that way, Kaze No Yojimbo is like an animated graphic novel, or an old pulp fiction magazine for the screen. In fact, some film scholars believe Kurosawa’s Yojimbo was inspired by Dashiell Hammett’s 1929 hard-boiled detective tale Red Harvest, so Kaze no Yojimbo brings the story back to its roots.
Kaze no Yojimbo doesn’t have much in the way of catchy music, and the opening song is sung in an annoyingly whiny off-key voice, but other than that the quality sound effects do a great job of building tension and setting the mood. The overall somber circumstance of the setting is reflected in the artwork with its bleak landscape, muted colors, and oppressive weather.
Even though the animation in Kaze no Yojimbo may not be as gorgeously detailed and smooth as some other animes, this one drawback can be overlooked because it has such an intriguing plot and interesting cast of characters that are so well-developed over the course of 25 episodes. The screenwriters use devices such as flashbacks and internal monologues to delve into the characters’ backgrounds, histories, and motivations.
“A wise man never seeks danger.” ~George Kodama (Episode 17)
George Kodama, a lone drifter in his early 20’s, arrives in the small town of Kimujuku on a personal quest. Troubled by memories from the past, he’s in search of a train conductor named Genzo Araki, in hopes of finding out what happened to his brother fifteen years ago. Where is Genzo Araki and what does he know about the mysterious train that is shown in repeated flashbacks? Much more than the typical MacGuffin (a plot device that motivates the characters and advances the story), it’s the whole foundation of the story.
Upon his arrival in Kimujuku (which means “no demons here”), George quickly comes to realize that the town doesn’t welcome strangers, and he is warned to leave as soon as possible. Kimujuku may look peaceful on the surface, but it’s actually home to two rival criminal syndicates, each based on opposite sides of the tracks. On one side is the older “Red Town” and on the other side is the newly constructed “White Town.”
Despite the warnings, George decides to stay at the hotel which is considered neutral territory, in an attempt to discover the truth surrounding the town – as he has a hunch that the town is hiding a secret that may be related to his missing brother, and he suspects the townspeople know more than they are saying. This anime series is masterfully written, and in almost every episode something happens to trigger the viewer’s curiosity and speculation, as the mystery continues to build and clues are revealed bit by bit.
George’s character resembles a mashup of the philosophical traveler in Kino’s Journey and bounty hunter Spike Spiegel in Cowboy Bebop. The tall, broad-shouldered, bushy-haired cigarette-smoking protagonist in Kaze no Yojimbo marches to the beat of his own drum. He is aloof and quiet but strong and confident, able to stand up for himself without being hot-headed. (He went to college in Tokyo on a scholarship, and didn’t say what he studied; but he sure is good at self-defense, and playing poker.) While George is intelligent, quick-thinking, and able to keep his wits about him, even the bad guys are smart and cunning – so he’s got his work cut out for him.
After witnessing George’s fighting skills, a prominent mine owner offers to hire George as a bodyguard for his teenage daughter Miyuki (who develops a crush on him). George also cleverly manages to walk a fine line between the Tanokura and Ginzame gang families (and gains the trust of both of them). George operates from his own sense of justice, alternating between keeping the peace and pitting the two factions against each other, as his presence upsets the balance of power. But eventually, George finds himself way over his head.
George himself is an enigma, much like “the man with no name” in Clint Eastwood’s spaghetti westerns. In fact, this anime resembles A Fistful of Dollars since that movie was also an unofficial remake of Kurosawa’s Yojimbo film. In Kaze no Yojimbo every one of the townspeople seem suspicious in one way or another – harboring hidden secrets, ulterior motives, and conflicting agendas – all except for Miyuki, who’s been kept in the dark and has questions of her own. Miyuki is a major character at the beginning, but after a while she just kind of drops out of view, until she is brought to the forefront later on.
The fight scenes in this anime are rather sporadic so it’s more of a laid-back mystery than an action adventure, but it’s far from boring. Kaze no Yojimbo is actually an enthralling story in a style reminiscent of film noir, with its shady characters and black-and-white flashbacks. At first nothing makes much sense and the episodes seem rather random, but by the time Episode 5 is over there is enough of a mystery that you will want to keep watching, and by the end of the series you will find out how everything is connected.
Episode 7 is interesting because an archeology professor from Tokyo comes to visit. He tells George about the history of the Kimujuku region. There are references to the Meiji and Edo periods, and the Anti-Buddhism movement. Although the Japanese people back then were suspicious of Westerners, there was evidence of an ancient Christian sect that had a secret temple in the area. The professor believes those Westerners were the ancestors of the first townspeople.
“Nothing ventured, nothing gained.” ~Rin Shirogane (Episode 17)
Episode 13 takes a shockingly dark turn with the introduction of Rin Shirogane, the youngest and most violent of the Shirogane brothers who run the Ginzame gang. After that, the slow-paced series quickens its stride and starts hitting you with one thing after another. Especially from the 17th episode onward, the buildup to the last few episodes will keep you on the edge of your seat, and the dramatic finale ramps it up to a whole new level.
The resolution of the mystery, which will keep you guessing till the very end, makes for a relatively satisfying conclusion. But still you can’t help but wish it had ended a bit differently, and the audience will be left wondering about a few things. Nevertheless, this impressive anime is under-rated and deserves more recognition. The creators of Kaze no Yojimbo have skillfully woven together elements of mystery, action, and film noir to create a powerful story that transcends all those genres.