In 1961, a few years after his occidental breakthrough  with Rashomon and Seven Samurai, Japanese director Akira Kurosawa would make another fine addition to his impressive resume. Yojimbo, starring Toshiro Mifune, was Born. A furious tongue in cheek Ronin-samurai action epic, Yojimbo needed a fresh and modern soundtrack reflecting both the modernity of its approach as well as its 19th century Japanese settings. Enters Masaru Satoh, composer, and the influence of both the film and the soundtrack would last as it spanned at least two official remakes from the West : Sergio Leone’s celebrated A Fistful of Dollars (1964), starring Clint Eastwood, and Walter Hill’S The Last Man Standing (1996), with Bruce Willis in the lead, both equally in need for a great composer to underscore the action.

1- Yojimbo (1961) Soundtrack by Masaru Satoh

A cross between samurai and western genres (Kurosawa loved Ford’s westerns), Yojimbo is the tale of a Ronin offering in rental his killing skills to the highest bidder. It is the film that influenced Sergio Leone in doing A Fistful of Dollars.

Composer Masaru Satoh, the very apt pupil of Fumio Hayasaka (who scored both Kurosawa’s Rashomon and Seven Samurai),  would take over, after Hayasaka’s death, and he finished (uncredited) the score of Ikimono no Kiroku (I live in Fear, 1955). It was the beginning of a ten years working relationship with Kurosawa that led him to score Yojimbo. With highly modern style and techniques, for its time, especially for a samurai movie, his score offers a radical change in pace and tone, incorporating new elements and jazz structures, with brass and harpsichord, to the traditional dramatic elements of such film soundtracks. This fine balance of action, humor and drama is reflected by his music right from the first notes of the opening credits. And it goes on, as we are introduced to this Yojimbo character entering the seemingly ghost town, where he will soon raise hell. This is a soundtrack well-balanced between the action-drama it underscores and its self coolness. It is partly constructed around some bracing bass line and percussion with various instruments punctuating the moves and mood of Mifune’s character as it is also the case with Morricone’s music around Clint Eastwood persona in Leone’s later film…

2- A Fistful of Dollars (1964) Music by Ennio Morricone

Much has been written through the years about Leone’s film & Morricone’s soundtrack. Having borrowed from the American Western, in turn Kurosawa inspired Italians to create the landmarks of the spaghetti Western when Leone himself took heavily from Kurosawa and Ryûzô Kikushima’s screenplay without even crediting them. When it came to music, it was clear in Leone’s mind he also needed something special, never heard in the field of its genre and at the time the views of the director and the composer were quite unorthodox. Topped by the distinguishable Whistling of Maestro Alessandro Alessandroni, Morricone’s classic work is basically on the same creative pattern as Masaru Satoh’s score to Yojimbo. They also choose to punctuate here and there the moves of their Man with no name (Eastwood) as he enters town. The rest is history… The score first became popular in America with a rendition by newyorker Hugo Montenegro’s orchestra.

I’ve put a short audio excerpt from a live performance of the theme by Alessandroni (the actual guy who plays it on film)

3- Django (1966) Music by Luis Bacalov

Italian director Sergio Corbucci’s nihilistic take on (again) the same subject shared even more light with Tarantino’s own Django Unchained who also used Bacalov’s themes and song  from Corbucci’s film. Django (the original) is an amazing cartoon-like-larger than life violent non-sense low budget extravaganza that makes great use of Argentinian born Bacalov musical talent. Renowned for his Oscar winning score to Il Postino, Bacalov offered some great work in the Italian film genre during the 60’s and 70’s notably for Fernando Di Leo’s Milano Calibro 9 (together with progressive group Osana). Django is a great score who alternates from some dramatic string music (the pieces are also on Tarantino’s soundtrack) to your usual Spaghetti Tex-Mex music and of course this now iconic crooner singing…

On the same subject of the dangerous stranger in town (but in the Italian crime genre known as poliziotteschi ) You might also want to discover The Last Round (Il Conto è Chiuso, 1976) by director Stelvio Massi and scored by Bacalov (the score is officially unavailable on disk)  Here, the swordplay and gunfights are  being replaced by… fistfights!

I’ve linked to the opening (with the famous song) of the original Django here:

4- Last Man Standing (1996) Music by Ry Cooder

Credited this time (as: based on an earlier screenplay by Akira and Ryûzô Kikushima) the same outline (but set during American prohibition) of a killer for hire riding in town and turning it upside down, is the basis of US director Walter Hill’s Last Man Standing.

Once again, the music seemed such a major component that the first commissioned score, by legendary Elmer Bernstein, was rejected. Bernstein tracks were replaced by Hill’s longtime collaborator (also a legendary musician) Ry Cooder. Film buffs will recognize cooder consecrated output in the field of film music with its celebrated ambient guitar driven score to Wim Wenders’ Paris,Texas.

There is again some interesting analogy with Masaru Satoh’s score in the way he uses this time around the saxophone, Vibes, bamboo flute (and more) mixed with his landmark slide guitar playing in order to create musical landscape filled with crescendo undertaking the action on screen with a great overall sound. This is probably the Most interesting Ry cooder soundtrack. Pretty cool.

The opening credits (with Cooder’s theme) follow: