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Tuesday, August 23, 2016

Akira Kurosawa | 用心棒 Yōjinbō (Yojimbo)


silk and sake
by Douglas Messerli

Ryuzo Kikushima and Akira Kurosawa (screenplay, based on a story by Kurosawa), Akira Kurosawa (director) 用心棒 Yōjinbō (Yojimbo) / 1961
 

Most critics describe Akira Kurosawa’s Yojimbo as mixing the Hollywood Western with a Samurai movie, and, in large, part that seems to be the most appropriate way to describe it. But like its sequel of 1962 Sanjuro, I would also see this film as a kind of dark comedy, even if the earlier film, as Roger Ebert argues, is more “subversive.” Kuwabatake Sanjuro—the name itself is a kind of joke, meaning “30 year-old mulberry field—may be someone tragic, having lost his social position and reason for existing with the fall of Tokugawa Dynasty, but (played by the highly esteemed Toshiro Mifune), despite his desperation in trying to make a living, he seems in no quick hurry to accept the 50 Ryō from either of the two gangs at war in the small village into which he stumbles.

       Indeed, despite his expertise at killing, he almost immediately takes on a new identity: that of a moral arbiter, determined, after hearing the town’s history and observing its citizens’ behavior, that hardly anyone in this nasty little community is worth being alive. 
     Taking the high road, quite literally, as he moves up to a bell tower to observe one of the warring gangs’ daily stand-offs, he further pits the Seibei against the Ushitora group as he negotiates with both to become their bodyguard; to prove his worth, moreover, he quickly dispatches three thugs to their deaths. In short, this ronin’s disparagement of their worth along with the comic gestures assigned them by Kurosawa, turns them into cartoon figures, as they gradually push forward and just as quickly retreat in cowardice. Certainly, the audience can have little feeling for these figures as real human beings.
      Similarly, the director mocks everyone else in this town, using the hilarious Japanese version of High Noon’s peeking-out citizens, too frightened to save their own community, through a series sliding doors and windows, opening and closing of shutters. As film critic Michael Richie has astutely noted, all the citizens of this community move in straight lines along rectangular borders, while the would-be bodyguard alone travels at angles and moves into territories in which he is least expected, in this manner overhearing the plot against his own life only minutes after he has made an agreement with the Seibei to work for them. 
     Kurosawa further mocks the Western genre by delaying the inevitable show-down by unexpected the arrival of a government official who, being as corrupt as everyone else, is willing to write up a good report if he and his men are awarded by the town’s Seibei-supporting mayor enough in bribes of money and prostitution. Indeed the visiting official is so pleased with his treats, he has to be made to leave town by the purposeful killing of a man in a nearby village by the Ushitora gang.
     Even when the director introduces a far more serious problem in the form of the return of the Seibei son, Unosuke (Tatsuya Nakadai)—this time toting a gun, a weapon which now makes him the equal of swordsman Sanjuro—he is so inept with it that he is even more comical than the others. And what immediately follows is not another show-down but a mad series of kidnapping and swaps which involve both sides, particularly when a local farmer’s wife (a couple Sanjuro encountered before entering the town, and who has since been sold into prostitution for her husband’s gambling debt) is kidnapped and traded for Seibei’s son. 
     His discovery that the beautiful farm woman has been used by the mayor and others as a prostitute, finally engages the previously aloof Sanjuro, and leads him to visit the farm house, where he kills the guards and frees the women, reuniting her with her husband and son. Yet even here there is a fierce sense of humor as the appreciative family keep returning to express their appreciation to Sanjuro when they should already be on the run.
      War between the feuding factions is now declared, as both silk and sake—the products which help fuel the warring sides—are destroyed, and the hero, again in a parody one might never find in any Hollywood Western, is forced to hide out in large sake vat before he is discovered, imprisoned, and beaten—nearly to death. When he finally escapes he hides out, again in a dark comedic trope, in the local cemetery in order to recuperate.

      It is only after the destruction of the Seibei clan by the Ushitora that finally forces the bodyguard to take full action, as he kills the remaining Ushitora members and faces the final man standing, the Seibei son, gun in hand. Roger Ebert describes Sanjuro’s passivity in this scene as representing “the act of a samurai aware that his time has passed and accepting with perfect equanimity whatever the new age has to offer.” But it is also the action of a man who sees the comic insanity of the world around him; besides the wild young would-be cowboy can’t shoot straight. 
      The still penniless Sanjuro leaves town, somewhat like one might quit a computer game, with only one bewildered young survivor left alive. The comedy is over.

Los Angeles, August 23, 2016

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