Tuesday, September 14, 2010
Day Seventy-Four: Yojimbo
Ranking on IMDb Top 250: #139
Director: Akira Kurosawa
Starring: Toshiro Mifune and Tatsuya Nakadai
It should come as no surprise to anyone who has followed this blog or has spoken to me for more than a couple of hours that I love Westerns. Set a movie in the American Southwest, give me an antihero with facial hair and tobacco for a protagonist, and watch me spend my money. More than any other Western director, I revere Sergio Leone, whose five films released between 1964 and 1971 are all among my all-time favorites. The first of those is A Fistful of Dollars, a movie in which Clint Eastwood's Man With No Name rides into a town torn by gang warfare where the only booming business is that of the coffin maker. Clint throws his lot in with both gangs for the money, gets found out, gets thrown in jail, watches total mayhem ensue as the gangs clash, then rides out of town at the end. It's totally awesome. And it's also Yojimbo. Almost line for line and shot for shot, Sergio Leone's first Western is a remake of one of Akira Kurosawa's best-known films. Of course, I didn't know that at first. I found out soon enough, but never actually watched Yojimbo to see how similar the two films were. Immediately after I started watching it, I felt kind of guilty about liking A Fistful of Dollars as much as I do. It's not a tribute or an adaptation; it's plagiarism.
Or, it would be had Leone not acknowledged what he was doing. In reality, the Italian production company in charge of releasing Fistful tried to secure the rights to do a direct remake of Yojimbo, failed, and were sued by Kurosawa's producers. The suit was settled in the end, and now both films stand alone as great representations of their respective directors and genres. At any rate, it's very easy to see why Leone wanted to remake Yojimbo – despite being set in Japan and the weapon of choice being samurai swords instead of shotguns, Kurosawa's 1961 film is basically a Western. It lacks the landscapes that define that genre, but the plotline could have easily been ripped from a John Ford picture – and it just might have been. Kurosawa openly admitted that the primary inspiration for Yojimbo was the American Western genre during the 1950s. There's influences flowing in all directions both to and from this movie, and the result is two endlessly entertaining hours of film. Take the three (translated) quotes below, for example, to see how different the tone of Yojimbo is from the very serious Rashomon:
"When the fight gets this big, they don't use coffins anymore."
"I'm not dying yet, I have quite a few men to kill first."
"I'll make sashimi out of them!"
It's clear that the badass one-liners that would become a hallmark of characters in Sergio Leone's Westerns had their roots in this movie. Unlike Rashomon, which used one rape and one death as a mirror for all of mankind's evils, Yojimbo shows death almost constantly for its two-hour duration and never once takes it seriously. Although Kurosawa is considered one of the founding fathers of foreign art film, it's highly unlikely that this movie helps that distinction. This movie exists primarily to pay tribute to the "taciturn loner" trope of American Westerns, and to make the audience smile early and often with great dialogue and exciting fight scenes. And, of course, lots of on-screen deaths. And so while I won't go so far as to Yojimbo call remotely revolutionary or, God forbid, "arty," I will say that I had a hell of a lot of fun watching it, and that it ultimately gave me a stronger appreciation for the still-excellent A Fistful of Dollars by showing me where it came from.
The Good: Dude, did you even read those quotes? It's a totally badass movie!
The Bad: It's an ignorant and unfair criticism, but I'll always harbor a slight prejudice against it just because I saw A Fistful of Dollars first and am such a huge Western fan. My better judgment says to call Yojimbo the better film, but my human nature keeps it in second place.
The Skinny: I've used this section to clamor for A Fistful of Dollars' addition to the list before, and I'll do it again – but not without saying that Yojimbo certainly deserves its place.