erik lundegaard

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Yojimbo (1961)

And all this time I thought Clint Eastwood was following John Wayne.

Written by:
Ryuzo Kikushima
Akira Kurosawa

Directed by:
Akira Kurosawa

Starring:
Toshiro Mifune
Eijiro Tono
Kamatari Fujiwara
Takashi Shimura
Seizaburo Kawazu

Academy Award Nominations:
Best Costume Design

As most Kurosawa fans know, Sergio Leone's Fistful of Dollars — which made Eastwood a star — was based on Kurosawa's Yojimbo. Perhaps more importantly, Yojimbo is the template for Eastwood's High Plains Drifter-type films: lone, strong, 19th century man wanders into weak-willed town and destroys it. In the Eastwood versions, though, we sense a squinty-eyed malevolence about his actions. He doesn't pity the weak, women or children. There's no ambiguity about him. Toshiro Mifune in Yojimbo, on the other hand, is nothing but ambiguity.

Mifune plays Sanjuro Kuwabatake, a former royal samurai who has been dismissed during the chaos following Japan's "opening" by 19th century Western powers. Left to wander Japan (just as Eastwood's characters often wandered the west after the U.S. Civil War), he enters a corrupt gambling town and is greeted by a grotesque sight: a dog carrying off a human hand. The town is typically Old West: main street, wooden, clapboard establishments on either side and fearful citizenry inside. Two families are fighting for power, and the samurai, after demonstrating his powers, agrees to be hired by one of the families. Or does he? Immediately after the deal is struck, the family matriarch — a Lady Macbeth type — plots to kill the samurai after he's performed his services. The samurai, listening outside the door, reacts unexpectedly: He grins happily.

Mifune is wonderful here? He is impatient and peevish when acting noble, and delights in the corrupt folly of others. One is never quite sure what game he's playing. Perhaps he doesn't know himself. Matters are complicated when the second family acquires a pistol. You see the fear in the samurai's eyes when this weapon is demonstrated. It renders his skills useless. It is the great equalizer. He has to be close to his enemies to kill them while the pistol can perform the feat from a safe distance.

Perhaps this is what's wrong with some American westerns. The American west was tamed by the gun, but the gun is not a very visual weapon. You take it out and shoot it. Big deal. Actors twirl it to make it seem cooler than it really is. Of course you need nerves of steel in a gunfight, and certain men are better shots than others (and thus have their own form of artistry), but this doesn't translate onto the screen as well as a sword fight, which is done at close quarters, with much clanging of instruments. Put it another way: give an amateur a sword, and he's not going to make a nick on the greatest samurai. Give an amateur a gun, and he can shoot the greatest gunfighter in the back. The gun's appeal is totalitarian. There is that great comic scene in Raiders of the Lost Ark when Indiana Jones is confronted by a sword-wielding Arab who, from a distance, shows off his skills as prelude to attack. Indiana, bored, takes out his gun and shoots him, turning away before the Arab even crumples to the ground. We laugh — it's a funny scene — partly because the Arab was involved in an elaborate form of bragging, which Indiana cut short. But we also laugh because the Arab didn't know what century he was in. The survival skills of a lifetime could now be cut short by a small piece of lead.

Swords vs. guns, Mifune vs. Eastwood: these are just two of the reasons Yojimbo is more satisfying than Fistful of Dollars. Others: Kurosawa's direction is subtle, Leone's melodramatic. Leone makes one family — one man — the repository of the town's evil. Kurosawa spreads the evil out among both families, and so the movie resonates with a Cold Warish, "plague on both your houses" type feel. It's a more honest depiction of human behavior. In Dollars, you get rid of one man and the world is a better place. Yojimbo knows it's not so easy.

—January 18, 2000

© 2000 Erik Lundegaard