The first 3 minutes of Akira Kurosawa’s Yojimbo (1961) ranks as one of my favourite opening sequences of all time, alongside the first 5 minutes of Lord of the Rings and the first few minutes of Star Wars. It certainly features the coolest introduction of a movie hero that I can recall. The score by Masaru Sato plays a big part in creating this impactful scene. There’s lots of percussion and then a horn section (which all sound like traditional Japanese instruments) punctuated by what sounds like a trumpet. Later on, I think he uses a cello and perhaps even an electric guitar. I have tried to read up about how the score was composed, or about the instruments used, but have not been able to find any material on this so far. Sato has composed scores for other famous Kurosawa films but none as inventive as his work on Yojimbo. He has also composed scores for some of the Godzilla movies and apparently worked on over 300 films before his death in 1999.
Kurosawa made Yojimbo as a Western, with Toshiro Mifune playing the equivalent of a ‘lone wolf’ gunman. Three years later, Italian director Sergio Leone remade Yojimbo as A Fistfull of Dollars and the ‘spaghetti western’ was born. Leone’s ‘Man with no Name’ trilogy has been lauded as a revisionist take on American Westerns, creating a much more realistic and gritty world peopled by morally ambiguous characters in stark contrast to the clear-cut ‘white hat, black hat’ world of Hollywood.
The Good, the Bad and the Ugly (1966) is the 3rd film in this trilogy and Ennio Morricone’s score for the film is my other big favourite. Morricone composed the scores for all the 3 films, eschewing a traditional orchestra (they probably didn’t have the budget for it) and instead using vocals, gunshots, cracking whips and whistles. I think scores became more sophisticated and innovative from the first film to the third and certainly, the title theme for The Good, the Bad and the Ugly is the best known of perhaps any Western ever. The soundtrack also contains the famous and beautiful piece Ecstasy of Gold, which has been covered by Metallica in their live performances as well as on their S&M album, playing with the San Francisco Symphony. Mr. Morricone has produced a vast body of work, resulting in 5 Oscar nominations (including The Untouchables and Bugsy) and incredibly, is composing scores for films even today, more than 50 years after he first started.