Yojimbo (1961)

*. In his commentary for the Criterion release of Yojimbo, Stephen Price presents a particular reading of the film that didn’t immediately suggest itself to me. Basically Price sees Yojimbo as an allegory for the emergence of modern corporate capitalism. The samurai “Sanjuro” (he gives himself the made-up name) represents an older, vaguely feudal code of values. He wants to destroy the new world order, represented by the competition between the silk and sake merchants and their yakuza. This he does in an apocalyptic final battle that leaves the town a smoking ruin littered with corpses. “It’ll be quiet in this town now,” is the laconic epitaph he bestows upon it.
*. Such a reading helps Price explain the character of Sanjuro. In particular, the question of his motivation. As the film makes clear, Sanjuro’s not in the game for money or women. Indeed, he seems to despise both. And despite often being invoked by critics, I don’t really see where he has much of a code, whether that of the samurai or one involving any other moral compass. As Roger Ebert observes, “His amorality is so complete that we are a little startled when he performs a good deed.”
*. For Price this allows us to read him as a vehicle for Kurosawa’s message, his role being to punish the corrupt and greedy politicians and gangsters. Which is a fair reading on one level, but leaves the more basic question of his character unresolved.

*. I can get on board with some of this, as Sanjuro is otherwise an enigmatic figure. On the most literal level what he seems to be driven by is a desire to be entertained. He delights in stage-managing the big showdown between the gangs, and is clearly enjoying things immensely as he looks down from the tower. Then when he’s being carried to safety in the coffin he puts himself at huge risk when he perversely insists on being dropped in the middle of the street so he can see the destruction of Seibei’s clan. If there’s violence happening, he wants to watch.

*. Is there some commentary in this on our own fascination with violence, given that we are watching a violent movie? I think there has to be some of that going on. Though the presentation of violence, while at times quite explicit and even shocking for the time (the severed hands, the arterial spurts), is complicated by a couple of factors.
*. In the first place, it’s quick. Kurosawa here is the anti-Peckinpah, giving us a climactic battle that lasts all of ten seconds. The swift movements of Toshiro Mifune combined with the effect of the telephoto lens and what may have been an undercranked camera in some scenes, make it so that if you blink you’re likely to miss a lot of the action.
*. “An intense scene feels very long,” Kurosawa says in the documentary included in the Criterion package. The final battle “is very short but it feels longer.” Yes, but I think only when we recollect it in tranquility. At the time it has quite an effect, startling in its suddenness and realism. But it doesn’t feel long, at least in the way a short suspenseful scene will.

*. The second factor complicating our appreciation of the film’s violence is its sense of humour. That dog with the hand in its mouth is a funny bit, but it’s shocking as well. What I think grounds that humour in something real is the expression on Sanjuro’s face, which is hard to see now without also thinking of the solid impregnability of Eastwood’s Man With No Name.
*. Does this diminish the violence in some way though? I think it does. As with The Man With No Name, Sanjuro is the only one who experiences real violence. We are made to feel his suffering, especially in his long crawl to freedom. Everybody else is just a mook to be shredded into sashimi.
*. It’s a Western movie. That’s not to pinpoint any particular influence, though you can certainly feel the presence of the Western tradition with its dusty main-street showdown. But there are also references to various gangster films, starting with The Glass Key. All I really mean by calling it a Western is that it’s a movie in the Western film vernacular. This is why its progeny are as well known as its sources. But for all this embeddedness, it also deserves a lot of credit for the way it bent various genre arcs. It not only reinvented the samurai picture but created the spaghetti Western, with its dirty, morally ambiguous antihero.

*. That anti-hero, Sanjuro, is, in my opinion, one of film’s great original creations, a fictional character that can stand alongside Falstaff on stage and Quixote in the novel in terms of his popularity and individual standing in the global canon. These comparisons also underline his mass appeal. Naturally audiences wanted more of him (like they wanted more Falstaff, or a second part of Don Quixote), and would be obliged in a sequel, Sanjuro.
*. The curious thing I find about Yojimbo is that it’s an entertaining movie — deliberately so, and not surprisingly a box office smash — that I wasn’t impressed all that much by the first time I saw it but which grows on me with every re-viewing. The technical expertise and attention to detail really stand out. I’m still not sure it’s a personal favourite — for one thing, I can never get the town politics straight in my head — but I do find I appreciate it now more than ever.

2 thoughts on “Yojimbo (1961)

  1. Tom Moody

    Besides The Glass Key, another Hammett influence may be Red Harvest (the plot is similar but some internet dweebs say Kurosawa never read it). Politics-wise, Hammett’s samurai was the Continental Op, who was a lone wolf in the loyal employ of the Pinkertons. Instead of the gangs being capitalist themselves, the Op’s job was clean out the gangs and make the town safe for regular old predatory capitalism. If the town had to be destroyed in the process, so be it.

    Reply

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