Yojimbo is a 1961 Japanese sword-fight film by Akira Kurosawa, featuring Toshiro Mifune as the nameless protagonist.
The plot revolves around a ronin (wandering or master less samurai) who gets into a small town. He finds out that the place is being ruled by two gambling warlords, Seibei and Usitora, and he sees this as an opportunity to make some money. First, he hires himself as a yojimbo or bodyguard to both crime lords, and then proceeds to making the two crime gangs face off in a series of bloody skirmishes. He employed manipulative tricks in order to let the two gangs kill each other to annihilation. In the end, he engages in a very bloody battle between the two crimes syndicates, leaving the town in peace as the two gangs are finally depleted. He, in turn, acquires a good deal of money from his conspiracies.This paper will analyze how the film Yojimbo is heavily influenced by Western standards, and how the film portrays a rather distorted view of the Japanese culture and history, with a leaning towards the Western bias and audience.
The film’s formal aspectsSet/CostumeKurosawa made a good job in making his set rather realistic and dramatic. The samurai costumes employed are believable and credible and the cast are not overly costumed. Kurosawa depicted a small, dusty Japanese village, and by historical standards, it is accurate and not romanticized.LightingKurosawa employed many Western lighting techniques, such as the occasional emphasis on movement and details.
Generally speaking, the film is lighted by natural, bright light that gives it a rather cool ambience. Night scenes, on the other hand, are not given too much lighting in order to accurately depict the Japanese era during that time.SpaceOne rather obvious aspect that makes the film Western-influenced is its use of the wide-lens shots, emphasizing the diminutive, solitary, but purposely heroic nature of the protagonist. This is a direct salutation to the Western man-with-no-name concept, in which a sole wandering character is depicted as the ‘only heroic soul’ in a desolated or corrupted place that he/she will ‘clean up’ by him/herself (Of course, the main character is often depicted as a man, as in Dashielle Hammett’s Red Harvest and Kurosawa’s Sanjuro).Another noticeable camera effect that was employed was the utilization of slow motion and fast-forward effects. For instance, there was a scene where the protagonist is looking at a tree while being asked for his name. The shot was slow-motioned in order to emphasize the calmness of the mulberry tree.
From then on, some of his graceful killing moves are also slow-motioned in order to achieve this same effect and to highlight the point that he is, in fact, the calm and solitary mulberry tree that was shot in earlier sequences. Creative sequences were also employed, as in the scene wherein the character throws a knife to pin a fluttering leaf to the ground. This seemingly nonsense shot (as it has no direct relation to the plot) abounds throughout the film and its only purpose is to highlight the character of the protagonist in symbolic terms.
Another salutation was made to the cowboy-themed (Wild Wild West) films, which gives us a hint how the said concept was transplanted in the Japanese context. The sequence wherein the protagonist faces a group of crime goons in a face-off shot (there is a blank space between the protagonist and his enemies) is very reminiscent of the “Marlboro films” in the West. The spinning dusts and the sound of the wind complete the scene, making a dramatic effect. Moreover, the group of bandits was also depicted as bloodthirsty, dirty and badly-dressed hoodlums, while the protagonist was depicted as the tough-faced, cool Marlboro guy with the heartless look. This archetypal fight scene is very Western-inspired.Although it was not that prominent all throughout the film, Yojimbo exhibits certain special elements of American film noir. The taverns were the crime lords dwell are depicted as dark and decadent in ambience. Nonetheless, the setting stills appear to be more Japanese than American underground.
ActingMifune has done a great job in depicting his cool character, his complex characterization ranging from a melancholic solitary man to a raging but intuitive killing machine. However, Kurosawa appears to have taken his characters into boxed Western roles. For instance, the crime lords and goons in the film appear to be direct rip-offs from the gambling lords in Hammett’s The Glass Key, leaving no room for Japanese characterization. There is also a scene wherein the protagonist was tortured. The dramatic scene is almost taken similarly—shot-by-shot—also in the said Hammet film. The acting of the cast in the film is, therefore, patterned. In this case, Kurosawa had certain shortcoming in credibility and cultural accuracy.The fight scenes in the film are numerous and oftentimes gory.
In this case, Kurosawa again employed Western techniques in portraying the gory deaths of the protagonist’s enemies. Moreover, the concept of a protagonist facing an unbelievably large number of enemies without acquiring even a scratch is also a Wild Wild Wild West thing. The goons are also very weak and vulnerable, and most of the time their acting is apparently second-rate, almost as if they are pushing themselves to the blade of the protagonist’s sword. Of course, this is again to highlight the strength and epic heroism of the main character, but in this aspect, the fight scene appears mechanical and very unbelievable.Kurosawa and his Western influenceI have been mentioning for quite some time how the film is apparently inspired by many Western concepts, elements and filmmaking techniques. The possibility of Kurozawa copying certain scenes and influence from Western films such as Hammett’s The Glass Key and Red Harvest was also mentioned.
I believe that there is nothing wrong with the incorporation of these Western techniques into a Japanese setting, as doing so is like denying the progress of technology. However, one consequence that Kurosawa committed in doing so is that he neglected other factors of Japanese culture (and even his own creative identity) in favor of the Western techniques. In order to gain a Western audience or, more likely, to gain Western acceptance, he transplanted certain Western archetypes and elements into a Japanese context, thereby creating a ‘Western film in a Japanese setting’ ,made by a Japanese (Richie 2005 p.132). This claim is, of course, not to condemn Kurosawa’s creativity and contribution to the international film industry but rather to highlight how Western standards are becoming ‘The Standard’. This kind of point of view (viewing Western standards as the prime and superior standard) is detrimental to other films, as it forces the films from other countries to conform to the American standards and put their own cultural and creative identity in an inferior position.Hence, although the film Yojimbo claims to depict the dark side of life in Japan during the claimed era, it fails in terms of credibility, primarily because the characters and even the situations it claimed to portray as ripped-off from the Western context, and the Japanese setting is the one that was distorted and situated.
(This is of course not to say the crime lords and goons are not present in the said Japanese era. The presence of these kinds of people is historically true, and so is to other films from other countries that feature these kinds of social situations). However, the point is not the idea of crime but the depiction of characters and even the archetypal Japanese people themselves.Yojimbo as a portrait of cultural and social deteriorationIt is obvious that Kurosawa wished to depict a picture of the Japan during that time, especially as he included many scenes that tell us how the Japanese society during that time is on the verge of a moral collapse and how the consciousness and culture of the people are being molded and transformed by the rise of capitalism.For instance, there is a scene wherein a farmer’s son decided to go to the city to look for fortune. The son said that “a short exciting life rather than a long life eating rice-gruel”, justifying his act. The scene gives us a picture of how the young Japanese during that time are longing for ‘excitement’ and ‘fun’, two things that are not present in the strict Japanese culture where one eats rice-gruel everyday. This kind of thinking is an influence of the individualistic (and often ‘decadent’) point of view, as traditionalists put it.
The need for cheap and fast thrills, in contrast to the traditional and strict Japanese was also put side by side in the same scene wherein the farmer replies to his son: “everyone is after easy money these days”. The film highlighted this contradiction, as even the main theme of the film revolves around this contradiction. The presence of bandits and crime lords in the Japanese culture is not a product of an innate human desire to kill or steal, but a product of the human desire to enlarge his/her property.
This fact was highlighted by the film, as it portrayed the crime lords as greedy individuals who are in constant strife and chaos in order to stabilize their power in the society. The film resolves this contradiction in the end, as the protagonist faces the son and tells him that “a long life eating rice-gruel is the best” (da Silva 2004). This implies that the better life is the peaceful, the stable and, to put it further, the traditional. This tells us how the film rejects the adventurist and chaotic lifestyle that capitalism endows for those who have the financial power. It also tells how the money gives us the illusion that ‘the grass is greener on the other side of the fence’, as it means the rejection of one’s cultural identity and even one’s own identity in the process.
The symbol of ‘rice-gruel’ brings in the symbol of the traditional agricultural lifestyle of the Japanese, of how they are directly connected to land and rejecting it will be like rejecting one’s inherent culture and identity (Richie 2006 p.75). In the film, people such as the farmer’s son chose to live this lifestyle in exchange of the illusionist promise of wealth and adventure in the city.The critique may appear plausible until we see how the film commits the same crimes that it preaches as bad. It is because the film itself is a foreign cultural product. Although the film may be enlightening and true, the archetype and elements that it employed is not necessarily reflective. It is leaned towards a foreign bias, and in this sense, it would be a complete destruction of its credibility.The film utilized these elements in order to gain acceptance in the Western film-making circle.
One may question why a film needs to be accepted by Western standards. Directly speaking, the primary reason is to gain profit, which is of course in turn the primary reason of mainstream filmmaking. Hence, the film is also geared towards profit, and it rejected the use of authentic Japanese elements in order to gain these profits (not necessarily in the form of money). The film, therefore, is like the farmer’s son who rejected rice-gruel in exchange of money and adventure that he can gain in the city.ConclusionIn formal terms, the film is good and is acceptable.
The different filmmaking elements are given creative attention, and the film was generally executed finely. However, one apparent characteristic of the film is that it utilized (and even ripped-off) certain elements, characters and concepts from Western films. Hence, it highlights how the film is heavily influenced by Western filmmaking canons and techniques.The content of the film is also commendable, as it served as a critique of the Japanese cultural deterioration during the said era, and this deterioration is indeed a universal phenomenon that transcends the eras and even to other countries. However, the film also committed this error as the film in itself is a product of Western influence, and it is apparently geared towards Western acceptance and profit. Hence, although the concept is commendable, the film in itself cannot be considerable credible picture of the Japanese society.Referencesda Silva, Joaquín.
Yojimbo: Study of a Disintegrating Society. http://redsiglo21.com/eiga9/articulos/yojimbo.html January 24 2004. Web. Accessed 12 May 2010.Richie, Donald, The Films of Akira Kurosawa, University of California Press, 1996.
Print.Richie, Donald. A Hundred Years of Japanese Film: A Concise History. Kodansha International, 2005. Print.