The Debt to, and Divergences From, Hollywood Cinema in Akira Kurosawa’s Yojimbo

Yojimbo (1961)

In this article I will concentrate on the traditional Japanese style that the film retains amd the stylistic influence the western genre had on Akira Kurosawa’s Yojimbo. However it should be noted like Stray Dog the Film Noir genre influenced Yojimbo and the film directly alludes to The Glass Key (1942) – particularly the capture and torture scene. A close-analysis of the links between Yojimbo, The Glass Key, and Dashiell Hammett’s novel Red Harvest would require a large study in itself.

 

The introduction to the protagonist contains a homage to the wide-open vistas of director John Ford’s westerns. Kurosawa was reputed to be an avid fan of Ford’s use of open spaces as well as his framing device of filming through windows and door frames in a town or domestic scene. Kurosawa uses the panoramic to highlight how lost the protagonist is in the wilderness, and how isolated he is from domesticity and home. As the protagonist is drinking water we see a domestic scene filmed in the style of Ford. Like Ethan in The Searchers our nameless protagonist can only peer into domesticity, symbolised by us seeing him through a door frame.

 

Another aspect of the western that Yojimbo alludes to is the shoot-out or face-off. The formal style of the western influences Kurosawa as the shoot-out is a way of communicating the crucible of emotions that come before violent action. The style of the shoot-out communicates both the spatial environment but also the intense emotional drama that is about to unfold. The shoot-out is also a romantic way of capturing combat. Recent historical evidence shows that most fighting in the American west were ambushes or ‘bushwhacks’. To be shot in the back was more common than being shot facing one’s enemy. With the medicine available at the time it is understandable, however in light of these facts it is evident that the romantic vision of the gunfight was used both as a tool in which he creates suspense and spectacle but also to imbue violent, cruel individuals with a sense of honour and respectability.

 

Yojimbo is a film that both refers to the Japanese genre of ‘Jidai-geki’ a historical genre which ‘primarily refers to films set in the latter part of the Tokugawa era, from the early 1600’s to 1867’ and to the similar western genre.1 Jidai-geki films tend to ‘centre on swordsmen of fictional, legendary, or actual historical origin’ much like the western genre centres around a gunfighter and just like the westerns’ centrepiece of the violent ‘shoot-out and saloon fight’ the Jidai-geki has a comparative centrepiece of ‘violent, realistic sword fighting scenes’.2 In Yojimbo‘s narrative Kurosawa continuously alludes to the archetype Jidai-geki characters. Yojimbo‘s protagonist is the classical masterless samurai or Ronin. A. J. Anderson explains that the Ronin having ‘lost the lords to whom they owed hereditary allegiance… wander from place to place, seeking refuge, employment, or revenge’.3 The central conflict of Yojimbo‘s protagonist is also traditionally Jidai-geki in style. Rather than the central conflict springing from the more traditional external moral conflict between good and bad forces, such as found in many westerns, Yojimbo‘s protagonist’s central conflict is internal rather than external. A conflict between what he wants and what he feels he must do; a conflict between duty or honour and personal gain or desires. When we first meet the central protagonist he wonders aimlessly and throws a stick in the air in order to gain direction. His stay in the town is dictated by satisfying personal desires like hunger and gaining personal wealth. However the longer he stays the more he feels a personal honour and duty in cleaning up the town by forcing the two ‘gambler’ gangs to destroy each other. He stays to help the towns people who aren’t involved in the two gang’s conflict. The narrative moves along first as he attempts to settle an internal battle between his desires and duty, and then to the consequences of his decision. Kurosawa’s Yojimbo follows the Jidai-geki genre narrative structure precisely. Kurosawa uses this traditional Japanese genre because he wishes to analyse contemporary Japan and its changing position concerning personal gain and social duty. This social analysis through genre is exactly like the dialogue America has with its past and present through the western. As Douglas Pye explained, the western is a ‘ confluence of romantic narrative and archetypal imagery modified and localized by recent… experience ‘.4 Essentially the western, and Jidai-geki, is a mixture of a romanticised past, generic characters and imagery which is constantly being re-evaluated with each passing generation of films and film-makers. The construction of character and central conflicts in the western and Jidai-geki are both national in character and hold significant divergences from each other, however they both serve the same function, one of social critique and historical romanticising.

 

1 J. L. Anderson, ‘Japanese Swordfighters and American Gunfighters’, Cinema Journal, Vol. 12, No. 2 (Spring, 1973), pp. 1-21 p. 1.

2 J. L. Anderson, ‘Japanese Swordfighters and American Gunfighters’, p. 2.

3 J. L. Anderson, ‘Japanese Swordfighters and American Gunfighters’, p. 3.

4 Douglas Pye, ‘The Western (Genre And Movies)’ in Barry Keith Grant (ed), Film Genre Reader II, Austin: University of Texas Press, (1999), pp. 187-202 p. 192.

Published by

A.R. Duckworth

South Yorkshire England

5 thoughts on “The Debt to, and Divergences From, Hollywood Cinema in Akira Kurosawa’s Yojimbo”

  1. “Yojimbo” by Akira Kurosawa can stylistically be considered as a “study” for his “Sanjuro” made (in) a year after “Yojimbo” (with the same main character played by (the) [a] unique [actor] in the history of cinema (actor) Toshiro Mifune). But thematically it is quite [an] independent film that concentrates on [the] specificity of economic fight between rivaling groups of entrepreneurs with taste for semi-legal or just [outright] illegal strategies of self-enrichment (the types we [are] today in [the] 21st century [so familiar with and] know only too well). Kurosawa uses a tiny (Japanese) provincial city [in Japan] of 19th century as a setting for metaphorizing of up-to-date behavior of international cast of predatory money-makers [like our own day global corporate CEOs]. Like we [are] today (after invented wars and financial collapses [and whole host of other disasters]) Kurosawa in “Yojimbo” thinks what to do in a situation when (a) pathological greed of [the] financial decision-makers endangers the life of (human) population[s]. Again, [as] (like) we [are] today, Kurosawa was disappointed [with the] (in) traditional idea of “revolutionary transformation” of a corrupt society – the experiencee of Soviet Union and Eastern Europe is enough to discourage us from this way. Instead, Kurosawa offers in his too films Sanjuro as, in essence, a role model for our hope. Instead of “revolution” as a strategy for social-psychological transformation of life Kurosawa offers “non-participation”. Sanjuro is [an] outsider by moral reasons. It is this status (under-status[ed]) “of not belonging” [that] colors his personality as [a] moral alternative to those who while being horrified by the cruelty of the system are doomed to participate in its everyday rituals because they share many of its conventions and prejudices. The intensity of “Yojimbo’s” critical energies joins the elaborateness of its analysis of today’s formal democracy’s vices and sins hidden under the beautiful [Universalist declaration of enlightenment and] make-up[s] of its proudly humane ideological pronouncements. “Yojimbo” is full of wit and humor, but also of human emotions, suffering and joy, and real problems.
    Victor Enyutin

  2. “Yojimbo” by Akira Kurosawa can stylistically be considered as a “study” for his “Sanjuro” made a year after “Yojimbo” (with the same main character played by a unique actor in the history of cinema Toshiro Mifune). But thematically it is quite an independent film that concentrates on the specificity economically determined fight between rivaling groups of entrepreneurs with taste for semi-legal or just outright illegal strategies of self-enrichment (the types we are today in the 21st century know only too well). Kurosawa uses a tiny provincial city in Japan of 19th century as a setting for metaphorizing up-to-date behavior of international cast of predatory money-makers. Like we today (after invented wars and financial collapses) Kurosawa in “Yojimbo” thinks what to do in a situation when pathological greed of the financial decision-makers endangers the life of human populations. Again, as we are today, Kurosawa was disappointed with the traditional idea of “revolutionary transformation” of a corrupt society – the experience of Soviet Union and Eastern Europe is enough to discourage us from this way. Instead, Kurosawa offers in his two films Sanjuro as, in essence, a role model for our hope. Instead of “revolution” as a strategy for social-psychological transformation of life Kurosawa offers “non-participation”. Sanjuro is an outsider by moral reasons. This status (under-status) “of not belonging” colors his personality as a moral alternative to those who while being horrified by the cruelty of the system are doomed to participate in its everyday rituals because they share many of its conventions and prejudices. The intensity of “Yojimbo’s” critical energies joins the elaborateness of its analysis of today’s formal democracy’s vices and sins hidden under the beautiful make-up of its proudly humane ideological pronouncements. “Yojimbo” is full of wit and humor, but also of human emotions, suffering and joy, and real problems everybody can relate to. Please, visit: http://www.actingoutpolitics.com to read essay about “Yojimbo” (with analysis of stills from the film), and articles about Kurosawa’s other films and the films by Godard, Resnais, Bergman, Bunuel, Bresson, Pasolini, Antonioni, Cavani, Bertolucci, Fassbinder, Alain Tanner, Herzog, Wim Wenders, Jerzy Skolimowski, Rossellini, Maurice Pialat, Moshe Mizrahi and Ronald Neame.
    Victor Enyutin

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