Monday, August 13, 2012

FOREIGN CORNER: Yojimbo (1961)

It is no surprise the direct parallel between Clint Eastwood and Toshiro Mifune, the hero of most of Akira Kurosawa's legendary samurai pictures.  Both are men who say so much more when they speak less.  Both are hard-nosed heroes who made their name playing men without names.  That being said, then, it is no surprise both men fit into a story about a drifter who plays both sides of a gang war.  A Fistful of Dollars is a Western classic, but it would never exist had it not been for Kurosawa's Yojimbo.  Remade beyond Eastwood and Sergio Leone's picture into a drab Bruce Willis film, Last Man Standing, Yojimbo influences so many films beyond these direct remakes.  It is the father of gangland wars in film, a samurai picture shaped as a western, adapted as a western, and rife with themes and materials familiar to any number of gangster flicks across the cinematic globe.

Mifune, again the hero of Kurosawa's vision, plays his own version of The Man With No Name.  In Yojimbo, he claims his name is "30 year-old mulberry field" in Japanese, another way of saying his name is not important.  He is a drifter, a jobless samurai looking for enough work to survive.  He only winds up in the town in question after throwing a stick into the air and walking in the direction of which it lands.  He discovers a town cloaked in fear and hamstrung by warring gangs on either side, both full of outlaws and low-rent hoods.  The first thing he sees in town is a dog carrying a human hand down the street.  Things are deteriorating.

One of the first townsfolk the samurai crosses is a squirrely little man who says he should get a job as a "Yojimbo," a bodyguard, for one of the factions.  The samurai, seeing the forest through the trees, decides to play these sides against each other until they are wiped out.  Many essays have been written about Yojimbo, about the thin moral regard of the hero.  Most say he is amoral and lacking any true compass, but I disagree.  To me I see a solid moral direction with the samurai's plan; he speaks on the idea early on in the film, where he says if he can destroy these warring gangs he can give this town a new start.  There are a few people worth saving here.

What drew me into Yojimbo more than anything was the energy behind the music.  It is vibrant, loud, and heavy.  It emphasizes the events.  When the samurai decides to show one gang what he is worth, he travels across the dusty city streets and promptly kills two men and severs the arm of another.  "Coffin maker" he says, "make two coffins."  He pauses... "Make it three."  At the end of his line, the music chimes in with stunning impact. 

There is a moment later in the picture where another man produces a pistol.  The introduction of a handgun in the film further shows the universal attitude behind the set design and themes.  The town looks like a western ghost town, and the gun serves to draw this narrative into a more modern times than the one occupied by samurai.  Kurosawa is one of the most measured and carefully brilliant directors in the history of celluloid.  By this, I mean he knows what each and every shot in his films is supposed to say, what the angle means, what the lighting tells us.  It all enriches the product.  Yojimbo may have been remade by the brilliance of Sergio Leone, and the sagging career of mid-nineties Bruce Willis.  Clearly it has never been surpassed.