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.

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The Debt to, and Divergences from, Hollywood Cinema in Jean-Luc Godard’s A Bout de Souffle and Juzo Itami’s Tampopo

Hollywood cinema is a set of generic codes and conventions. These codes and conventions act as motifs which the viewer can understand and identify with. Hollywood cinema is spit into genres such as westerns, musicals and romantic comedies. These genres all adhere to conventions such as ‘clarity… unity… goal-oriented characters… and [narrative] closure’.1 The aim of these conventions is to ensure that the viewer can understand a film, its characters their aims and ambitions and the problems put before them, without difficulty which would inhibit the ability for everyone to potentially engaging with the film [Due to the sheer financial cost of making a film the need to ensure that people understand the narrative is important and this reason marks every Hollywood product].

A Bout de Souffle (1959)

Jean-Luc Godard dedicated A Bout de Souffle to the B-movie studio Monogram Pictures, this statement is indicative of the French New Wave Philosophy. The French New Wave were a loosely connected group of directors (and critics) who asserted that low-budget (B-Movies) American Cinema, often thought negatively as a wholly commercial product, can be equal to the traditionally venerated European Art-house cinema.2 The French New Wave treated Hollywood cinema with the same respect as Art-house cinema because they believed that Hollywood directors were also capable of creating individualistic pieces of art. Godard includes the dedication to Monogram Pictures because he wants to verbalise the influence Hollywood has had on cinema.

The star system is another aspect of Hollywood that Jean-Luc Godard alludes to in A Bout de Souffle. The central character the iconic looking Michel Poiccard imitates the physical mannerism of film star Humphrey Bogart by rubbing his lips with this thumb. Humphrey Bogart was a classic figure of film noir and Poiccard’s imitation of his mannerisms indicates that he believes Bogart to be a model of masculinity. The Hollywood star system ensures that ‘audiences do not just appreciate a stars’ performance on-screen; they also consume the public image’ which fans also attempt to imitate ‘the attire and mannerism’.3 The audience does this because they believe the personality the star exudes is the idea. Poiccard appropriates the mannerism of Bogart in an effort to become that ideal of masculinity. Again Godard is foregrounding the debt to Hollywood. What this allusion does is introduce the idea that France’s youth are being influenced by the cultural output of Hollywood and this cultural influence adds weight to the French New Wave assertion that commercial cinema is as important as Art-house cinema.

 

 

(A lack of emotional connection. As Poiccard looks at Patricia she can only look at herself, and her own emotional performance)

 

Jean-Luc Godard pays homage to Hollywood in A Bout de Souffle, but he also upsets the central principles of Hollywood cinema. Godard’s film represents a significant divergence from the continuity editing system, The basic purpose of the continuity editing system is to establish a smooth continuous flow from shot to shot.4 The graphic, rhythmic, spatial and temporal relationship is edited so as to look smooth and uninterrupted. The movement from shot to shot is edited so that at all times an aspect of a shot, such as ‘shapes, colours, tones of light or dark, or the direction or speed of movement’ is graphically matched to its corresponding shot, thereby ensuring a sense of aesthetic continuity.5 In A Bout de Souffle Godard uses the jump shot to create a sense of anxiety and dislocation. In a scene where Michel is explaining the physical aspects of Patricia he loves the camera jumps from shot to shot. The viewer becomes dislocated, unable to grasp the scene’s location: Godard is using the jump shot to replicate the character’s sense of isolation. Both Patricia and Michel are isolated from the culture they belong to, Michel is a criminal and Patricia is in a foreign county, and they attempt to find friendship in each others company. This attempt is futile because Godard refuses to use the shot-reverse-shot technique which would signify their connection; the jump shot ensures that both Michel and Patricia remain isolated individuals even when in each others company. The form of the jump shot ensures the characters in A Bout de Souffle remain isolated individuals without any hope of deep meaningful connection. This sense of isolation is repeated in the scene where Patricia and Michel making love, yet they still struggle to connect and ultimately remain isolated. Although they both constantly talk to each other they barely look at each other. Patricia looks past Michel as he talks to her, the scene then jumps to Michel alone looking into his reflection. This signifies the failure in communication that typifies Michel and Patricia’s relationship.

 

The Mise-en-Scene is also an indicator of the barrier between them; Michel puts on a dressing gown which contains vertical stripes while Patricia wears a tip with horizontal stripes, essentially they are going in different directions. Godard is communicating a sense of distance and isolation between the sexes and the editing technique of the jump shot communicates this perfectly. Because Godard doesn’t use the continuity editing system he Is able to communicate the sense of fragmentation and isolation through the form of the film. The continuity system advocates seamlessness between shots, but seamlessness would not be adequate as a tool to illustrate the fragmented and isolated experience that Godard is trying to communicate in A Bout de Souffle.

 

Tampopo (1985)

 

The western is a heavily stylized and conventional genre which relies on the regular and recognisable to create a frame through which narrative is communicated smoothly. Narrative is transmitted principally by the use of motifs, such as the six-shooter, the saloon, the isolated homestead, the prostitute and the drifter. The western genre (and most narratives) positions good against evil, civilisation against individualism. The film theorist Leo Braudy explains that directors use genre films, such as the western, because of their ‘ability to express the warring traditions in society and the social importance of understanding convention’ in essence a genre is a prefabricated framework in-which the auteur can explore and challenge assumptions and conventions.6 Juzo Itami uses the western genre because of its highly stylized from; he does this to foreground the highly stylized nature of Japanese tradition and etiquette. The tradition and structure of the western genre is repeatedly alluded to in the start of Tampopo. The character of Goro, dressed in a cowboy hat and shirt resembling John Wayne, represents the individualistic force that helps society thrive by teaching lessons learnt while in the wilderness. The first scene of Goro and Gun’s story starts with an exposition shot which introduces the isolated nature of the noodle bar. Inside the noodle bar generic bad guys, all dressed in black leather, loiter around, installing a sense that the good are outnumbered. Goro, as the traditional western hero, fightings to defend Tampopo’s honour. He walks outside for a fight, an allusion to the traditional fistfight outside of a saloon that features in many westerns. Itami constructs a world filled with stereotypical characters, actions and plot sequence. Itami does this not only as homage to the genre and tradition of the western but also as a device to get the audience thinking about traditions, structure and etiquette. Itami uses the structure of the western genre to make the viewer aware of the standards that are automatically accepted in genre, tradition and the closely allied etiquette. This point is illustrated in a scene in which a large group of Japanese women are listening to a teacher explain the etiquette of eating spaghetti. She explains that while you are eating spaghetti you should not make any noise whatsoever. Her advice is contradicted by a European-looking man’s noisy slurping of spaghetti, the whole group then comically attempt to create as much slurping noise as possible in order to mimic the European-looking man’s way of eating. Here Itami is exposing that we only eat the way we do because we are to taught to, etiquette and tradition is just a collection of arbitrary rules imposed by the past on the present and future. Itami is engaging critically with the tradition and etiquette of Japanese food culture by exposing it. In Tampopo Itami seems to be criticising those who use tradition and etiquette to stand in the way of enjoyment and pleasure that can be taken from food. He illustrates this point in a scene containing several Japanese businessmen. Most of the businessman order the same meal so as not to highlight their own and their business partners’ ignorance concerning foreign food. The youngest businessman breaks the rules of etiquette by attempting to sit down before his elders and by ordering extravagant food. The camera cuts to below the table to show the youngest businessman being kicked repeatedly in the ankle. Tradition demands that the youngest businessman order the same food as his elders but he doesn’t. Itami illustrates that tradition and etiquette can stifle personal pleasure and enjoyment by requiring the individual to adhere to a set of rules opposed to experimentation and freedom. Genre is at times a constrictive entity that imposes an ideology on film-making, hindering personal expression; yet Itami uses generic conventions and expectations as a structure in-which to foreground assumptions and expectations. Itami places the cowboy next to the cook in Tampopo and illuminates how we accept, and create, tradition.

Both Breathless and Tampopo pay homage to certain aspects of Hollywood cinema. Jean-Luc Godard’s Breathless alludes to the strength of the Hollywood star system. Michel Poiccard’s attachment to and appropriation of the myth of Humphrey Bogart highlights the cultural influence America and Hollywood has upon France. Michel Poiccard appropriates Bogart’s mannerism in an attempt to create a person he believes the pinnacle of masculinity. Godard continues his homage to Hollywood as he dedicates Breathless to the B-movie studio Monogram Pictures. Godard seems to be highlighting that American cultural output is a highly influential force that is shaping the younger generations of 1950’s France. This could indicate that individuals are no longer seeing themselves as citizens of a singular nationality; instead individuals see their own personality as a fragmented performance alluding to contrasting cultural influences. In Breathless Godard seems concerned about the American influence. Both Michel and Patricia attempt to have a meaningful relationship relationship but find it impossible to communicate. This is signified by the use of the jump cut which leaves both characters isolated when speaking. Breathless seems to illustrate that the increased globalization of art and culture in fact leaves the individual more isolated and more alone than before. The nature of Hollywood’s influence on France seems to be both positive and negative. Hollywood offers the youth of France new heroes and systems of thought yet at the same time ensuring their isolation and loneliness. Juzo Itami also pays homage to Hollywood in his film Tampopo. Itami alludes to the western genre both by appropriating its narrative structure and iconography. In doing this Itami can highlight the structured and highly stylized nature of Japanese culture. Itami concentrates on illustrating how food etiquette is constructed. Because Itami is able to play with the structure of the western to create something new, the rules of etiquettes also seem open to play. Itami also criticises those who use tradition to hide their own ignorance in Tampopo, yet the films central message seems to be that the fulfilling enjoyment that good food brings is central to good hearty relationships. Both Breathless and Tampopo allude to the powerful cultural influence of Hollywood. They also use aspects of Hollywood cinema to create and illustrate aspects of their own culture. The constant allusion to Hollywood cinema seems to indicate that to make cinema is to instigate a dialogue with ones own culture and surrounding cultures, and in this way we are not totally isolated but connected by art and cultural products.

 

1Full quote ‘clarity (viewers shouldn’t not be confused about space, time or events), Unity (cause and effect connections are direct and complete), goal-oriented characters (they are active and invite identification), and closure (loose ends are tied up, often through romantic union).’ [M, Pramaggiore & T, Wallis (ed), Film a Critical Introduction, London: Laurence King Publishing, (2007) p. 312.]

2Phil Powrie & Keith Reader, French Cinema: A Student’s Guide, Oxon: Arnold Publishers, (2002), p. 21.

3M, Pramaggiore & T, Wallis. (ed), Film a Critical Introduction, p. 356.

4David Bordwell & Kristin Thompson, Film Art: An Introduction, Third Edition, London: McGraw-Hill Publishing, (1990) p. 218.

5David Bordwell & Kristin Thompson, Film Art: An Introduction, p. 210.

6Leo Braudy, ‘The World in a Frame: Genre: The conventions of Connection’ in Gerald Mast & Marshall Cohen, (ed) Film Theory and Criticism: Introductory Readings, Second Edition, Oxford: Oxford University Press, (1979), p. 448.