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Yojimbo: ‘A Fistful of Dollars’ and ‘Last Man Standing’

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    Vili Maunula

    Earlier this week I watched Sergio Leone’s A Fistful of Dollars and Walter Hill’s Last Man Standing. As you well know, these two movies are perhaps the most straightforward examples of Yojimbo remakes. What follows is an exercise in comparing and contrasting the three works.

    Please note that rather than looking at the surface features and main story elements, as has been fairly well done over at the h2g2 encyclopaedia, my main interest here lies with some general themes and the way that they are represented in the three movies. This is by no means an attempt to be conclusive regarding the topic, or really argue for anything in particular, and as it is based on a single reviewing of the two remakes, any additions or counter arguments are more than welcome (as they always are). Approach this therefore as a report, a series of notes or an extended meditation, rather than a real piece of argumentative film criticism.

    Overall impressions

    It had been years since I last saw either remake, and I was quite surprised to discover that A Fistful of Dollars is not quite the “shot-by-shot remake” that I remembered it to be. In fact, from the two remakes I felt that Last Man Standing far more closely follows the original, although it must also be said that there is fairly much in it that it has borrowed from A Fistful of Dollars, rather than Yojimbo.

    From the three movies, Last Man Standing is also the one that most strongly reminded me of The Glass Key (the 1942 adaptation, which in turn influenced Yojimbo). This is perhaps not surprising, as both movies place themselves within the film noir genre — although neither goes all the way to incorporate all of the conventions of that genre.

    Setting, town layout, use of space

    One aspect to really celebrate about Yojimbo is its use of space, modelled on your typical small town from western films. One could easily say that the layout of the nameless town in Yojimbo, together with the way space is used in general, works as a strong narrative and mood-setting device. With Yojimbo, we always seem to know where we are in relation to the rest of the town.

    Unlike Yojimbo, and to a large extend also Last Man Standing, A Fistful of Dollars doesn’t give us the same feeling of claustrophobia that the two movies instil on us, especially at the beginning of the story. This is perhaps natural, considering that Leone was shooting a western, one major characteristic of which is the broadness of landscape. In Yojimbo, however, we see very little landscape at all, in fact the only bit that we do see is at the very beginning of the film, and even that is immediately replaced by the monument that is Sanjuro. Last Man Standing, meanwhile, has some more open landscapes, but it keeps to Yojimbo‘s claustrophobic representation of the town much more closely than does Leone’s film.

    As for the number of places in which the story takes place, as far as I can count, Yojimbo has four separate locations, while A Fistful of Dollars and Last Man Standing have five. Three of these (the town, the hideout for the woman, the hero’s hideout) are present in all three movies, while the farmer’s house at the beginning of Yojimbo is in A Fistful of Dollars changed to the woman’s hideout (although rather than introducing us to the town’s situation, it introduces us to the captive woman’s situation).

    Both A Fistful of Dollars and Last Man Standing make use of an extra location where one of the two gangs commit a massacre (the Rojos kill a Mexican army patrol for gold, while the Strozzis kill for their rival gang’s liquor). By doing so, the films spend somewhat more time outside of the town, and consequently a little bit of the story’s intimacy seems lost.

    A Fistful of Dollars furthermore introduces a fifth setting, a graveyard that Eastwood’s character uses to lure out the two gangs in order to take a closer look at what’s going on at the Rojos. Last Man Standing, meanwhile, has a town in Mexico where Hickey goes to gun down Mexican soldiers for their betrayal in the liquor massacre. Again, these take place outside of the town (as maybe does the scene in Yojimbo by the river, I could never quite place it), and do away with some of the intimacy.

    It is also worth noting that Kurosawa spends extremely little time showing us travel between the town and any places external to it — when characters move from one location to another, they are most of the time simply shown arriving to their destination. The remakes, on the other, want us to see that movement. The result is that the remakes again lose a little of the intimacy, but also look less like stage plays. In Leone’s case it is perhaps also a genre thing, as a western with no horse riding would probably have felt like a strange idea.

    Turning now to the main setting itself, in terms of the architecture (or the placing of the camera), the town in A Fistful of Dollars seems to me to be something of a mirror image of the town in Yojimbo. This observation is perhaps influenced by the fact that when we first see the respective heroes entering the town, Mifune moves in terms of the camera’s position from right to left and (after a few intervening shots) enters the inn, which is positioned away from the camera. Eastwood, meanwhile, rides from left to right, and enters the inn towards the camera (or its initial position). Yet, if we take these camera positions as our point of reference, the two gangs are positioned at the same ends of the town in the two movies, with what is arguably the lesser of the two evils (Seibei’s gang / Baxters) being at the “left end” of the town, while the gang with Unosuke/Ramón (Ushitora’s gang / Rojos) is at the “right end”.

    Here is the town map as I see it in the two films (Yojimbo in red, A Fistful of Dollars in blue):

    Yojimbo's townplan

    This may well have some psychological influence on us as the audience, as Mifune’s character is introduced moving leftwards (as if returning, or progressing towards an obstacle), while Eastwood’s moves rightwards (as if continuing on a journey).

    Last Man Standing‘s presentation of the town space is arguably much poorer that that of the other two movies, and the film fails to give us (or at least me) as strong a sense of the town’s layout. This, at least in my case, also makes it more difficult to follow the twists in the story, as I cannot always identify what Willis’s character is going to do next based on the direction that he moves towards within the town.

    Finally, neither Last Man Standing or A Fistful of Dollars seem to make use of anything comparable to Kurosawa’s flattening of the screen with telephoto lenses, or the two-dimensionality that I referred to in my earlier post. With its landscapes and large rooms, A Fistful of Dollars has especially much depth to its scenes, as opposed to Yojimbo‘s flattened shots and Last Man Standing‘s cluttered spaces. Again, I would say that this somewhat lessens the intimacy that we feel towards the story in Leone’s film.

    Tension

    Something that holds Yojimbo together is the tension present in the town, which is something that Sanjuro sets as his goal to discharge. Kurosawa is quick to show us at the beginning of the film the strange atmosphere that lingers in the town, something of a false calm before the storm. Sanjuro’s initial attempt at setting off that charged atmosphere is, at the very last moment, cancelled by the news about the town inspector’s arrival. Unosuke’s introduction further hampers his mission, and the tension is ultimately only released during the bloody battle that takes place after Sanjuro’s escape from Ushitora’s men. The battle itself, of course, is never really shown to us.

    The two remakes are somewhat different in terms of the tension present in them. In both movies, the initial setting appears slightly unlike the one in Yojimbo, with the rival gangs apparently more at peace with one another. Furthermore, when the tension grows in Last Man Standing, it ultimately appears to be more between Bruce Willis’s character and the two gangs (or the situations as a whole — he is pressured also by the law enforcement), rather than actually between the two gangs themselves. A Fistful of Dollars, meanwhile, releases some of its tension quite early on in the film during the graveyard scene where the two gangs exchange bullets, and I feel that the two gangs’ confrontation at this point somewhat lessens the impact of the final bloodbath between the groups.

    In neither Last Man Standing or A Fistful of Dollars do we get scenes directly comparable to the ones in Yojimbo where the two gangs are on the street together. In Yojimbo, the gangs are laid out as mirror images for the initial confrontation (which is cancelled at the last minute), as well as in the exchange of prisoners. This mirror-imagery, which again works to increase the tension by showing us the two gangs together, is a presentational style missing from the remakes.

    Violence

    Yojimbo is famous for its violence, and interestingly enough from the three films I find it — the oldest — also the most violent. This is, however, at least partly because Sanjuro’s weapon, a sword, lends itself far better to graphic violence than do guns. Pistols don’t cut off arms or legs, and thankfully neither Leone nor Hill pretend that they do.

    Both remakes, however, seem to try their best to make us feel uneasy about the killings by making the shooting scenes quite loud and relatively long. Yet personally, I didn’t quite feel the impact there. The violence in Last Man Standing furthermore loses much of its impact due to its attempt to stylize the action, and even more so due to the director’s insistence that a man shot with a pistol flies ten meters backwards.

    All three films beat up their heroes into a pretty bad shape, although in Eastwood’s case he seems mainly hurt in his face. Mifune’s character is perhaps in the worst condition after the beating, although he is given quite a miraculous fast recovery, unlike Willis’s hero who at the end of the film confronts the opposition while still in visibly terrible condition.

    I wonder if part of the reason for Yojimbo‘s violence is the respective censure laws in the different countries. Was Kurosawa freer to show blood and gore on the screen than were either Leone or Hill?

    Comedy (satire)

    Yojimbo is often described as a comedy, although a “satire” is probably a better word to use. In any case, Kurosawa’s film repeatedly winks at us and comes across as relatively light-hearted entertainment, even despite the grim and gruesome events that unfold before us.

    Meanwhile, neither A Fistful of Dollars or Last Man Standing is very funny. They certainly have their moments of witty remarks and small incidents that make us smile or even laugh, but the overall mood in the two movies is far more serious. Unlike with Yojimbo, the remakes do not feel as much a fantasy, but rather something that could actually have taken place in reality.

    Perhaps the most important factor why the two remakes have lost much of the comedy is that neither of them present the townsfolk as overtly caricatured as does Yojimbo. Last Man Standing appears to have no real caricatures (except perhaps for — somewhat curiously — the inn keeper), and I could identify only one in A Fistuful of Dollars: the lunatic bell-ringer, whose mannerisms are a direct carbon copy of the officer in Yojimbo. And maybe the coffin maker.

    It may be that since the remakes are less violent, their need of comic counterpoints is not as great as with Yojimbo, and hence the lack of satire.

    Hero

    Yojimbo is, in many ways, a very theatrical film. Not only are most of its characters caricatures, but the action is very stylised and if you follow them closely, the actors tend to move very unnaturally on the screen as they conform to the two axes of presentation. Prince even points out a scene in his commentary in which Seibei exits the street by walking rightwards but with his face turned towards the camera, therefore requiring for his head to be turned 90-degrees from the direction in which he is walking. It is a very unnatural position to be in, but it works well, and it looks natural enough, or at least I hadn’t noticed it before Prince pointed it out.

    In the midst of this theatricality, Sanjuro comes across as something of an arranger, the person running the show. He plays with the two gangs and sets up scenes, and in the scene where he rescues the woman even does the set decoration (as noted by Prince, and repeated in A Fistful of Dollars but not in Last Man Standing). While the world of Yojimbo is not fully at his mercy, very little happens in the movie without Sanjuro’s initiative, especially in the first half of the story until Unosuke arrives and lays his own claim to the director’s chair.

    The heroes of A Fistful of Dollars and Last Man Standing seem different in this respect. The movies, as noted before, come across as less theatrical, and neither Eastwood’s or Willis’s character seems to really run the show. Instead, the heroes there react to situations that come to them by chance — a good example of this is the way in which Sanjuro plays an active part in finding out about the Seibei’s family’s plan to kill him, whereas Eastwood’s character overhears the conversation by accident, and Willis only deducts it from what he observes.

    In both remakes, there in fact appears to be a world external to the hero. While in Yojimbo we, with the exception of one or possibly two scenes, are shown only what Sanjuro sees, the two remakes give us somewhat more than that. In Last Man Standing‘s case this may be somewhat puzzling, considering that the film features a first person voice-over narration by Willis (which is at least not present in those scenes), so you would not expect the film to show anything that he is not part of. Yet, Last Man Standing is arguably the film that least rigorously follows the point of view of its hero.

    In terms of something like the “muscle vs. brain” scale, I might also suggest that of the three heroes it is Willis’s who comes out as residing most strongly at the “muscle” end of things. He does not seem all that interested in orchestrating the events, and neither is he portrayed as someone who has tricks up his sleeve other than the pistol. This is perhaps most evident in two scenes, the one where the hero escapes from his captors, and the final confrontation between him and the main villain. Whereas both Mifune’s and Eastwood’s heroes use trickery to escape (Mifune hiding in a chest, Eastwood using a well-timed barrel to knock down the enemy), Willis’s escape is a more straightforward boxing match. Similarly, while Sanjuro practices knife throwing as a means to disarm Unosuke and the Eastwood character builds himself an armor with which to stop Ramón’s shotgun shots, Willis’s hero simply stands there and waits for Hickey to make his move. This final scene in fact comes out as somewhat anticlimactic, contributing to the overall gloominess and film noire like indifference of mood that Last Man Standing employs throughout.

    Neither Last Man Standing or A Fistful of Dollars elevate their hero to the status of godhood, as does Yojimbo — see Jeremy’s excellent look at how Kurosawa carefully first makes Sanjuro a god, and then brings him down to the level of us mortals. When Sanjuro falls, he therefore falls a lot more than does either Eastwood’s or Willis’s character. And, if Kurosawa loses some of our intimacy with Mifune’s character by making him appear superhuman at the beginning of the movie, I think that the decision pays off well as the character gains at least doubly as much of our affection when he is beaten up and brought down.

    This is not to say that the beatings of Eastwood’s or Willis’s characters would have no effect on us. On the contrary, I found Willis’s beating especially affective, perhaps partly because Willis’s voice-over narration has by this point made us feel very close to him.

    The anti-heroism of the hero has also often been discussed, and we as well have touched upon the issue here, agreeing that Sanjuro is not quite the real anti-hero, and that his actions are for the most part motivated by unselfish reasons. Meanwhile, both Eastwood’s and Willis’s characters seem to be somewhat more motivated by money (something that Mifune’s character always refers to but never really seems to want). Yet, I am not entirely sure if any of these characters are anti-heroes of the kind that modern literature and cinema has given us. From the three, it is perhaps Willis’s character whose actions come across as most anti-heroic (kicking a fallen man repeatedly, sleeping with prostitutes, etc.), but his voice-over narrative counters much of this by causing him be constantly very close to us as the audience.

    As for the acting, I think that all three actors — Toshiro Mifune, Clint Eastwood and Bruce Willis — do a very good job in portraying their characters. I may be biased, but for me Mifune with his attention to the very smallest detail still is the one who pulls out a performance that is totally on its own level in excellence, while at the other end of the spectrum Willis has a few moments during which he comes across as somewhat inconsistent in his acting. Yet, all three men bring into the role an overload of charisma and masculinity, which is clearly what the character requires.

    Inn keeper

    In Yojimbo, the only sane character in the town appears to be the inn keeper, who functions as a source of information for Sanjuro. Something akin to a friendship develops between the two, and Sanjuro’s final confrontation of the corrupted ones can perhaps be seen as his reaction to the news that the inn keeper has been taken prisoner.

    The relationship between the two characters is very similar in A Fistful of Dollars, where the inn keeper at times becomes something of a sidekick to the hero, indeed up to the point where he at the end of the movie even saves the hero’s life by shooting a hidden sniper. Yet, even with his heightened role in the action, there are fewer verbal exchanges between the hero and the inn keeper in Leone’s movie, something that at least I really enjoy about Yojimbo (and, with the eating scenes, they also help us to bond with the character, as Jeremy has noted).

    The inn keeper in Last Man Standing is, meanwhile, markedly different. The actor William Sanderson actually plays a character quite similar to the one he portrays in Blade Runner, a somewhat childish but well-meaning caretaker. Although he does help Willis’s hero at the end, Sanderson’s inn keeper does not command the authority that do his counterpoints in Yojimbo and A Fistful of Dollars, who are strong enough to stand up against the hero and criticise his actions. Instead, Last Man Standing gives some of this role to the sheriff, who in the adaptation also inherits much of the function of the coffin maker, who in turn has been diminished into a very minor role in the film. Note in fact how Last Man Standing is the only one of the three movies that gives a relatively big role to the (American) law enforcement, and portrays it as underlyingly good (as opposed to the Mexicans, who are corrupted).

    In any case, Willis’s hero ultimately lacks the companion that both Mifune’s and Eastwood’s have. This may well have been a deliberate choice that aims to increase the isolation and loneliness felt by the hero, and us.

    Woman

    One major change that A Fistful of Dollars introduces is the role of the captive woman in the story. In Yojimbo she is introduced out of the blue, and while this reflects the fact that we only know as much as Sanjuro knows and furthers the point that after Unosuke’s arrival Sanjuro is no more in full charge of the action, her sudden appearance may nevertheless be seen as a somewhat weak plot device. Personally, I think that the way in which A Fistful of Dollars introduces the captive woman’s situation right at the beginning and amplifies her role throughout, amounts to a better handling of her character. Another emphasis that A Fistful of Dollars makes on its female characters is that it also makes Consuelo Baxter the clear head of the Baxter gang, unlike what is the case with the Seibeis who, although perhaps ultimately really run by the wife, are shown to make their decisions as a family.

    Last Man Standing takes Leone’s changes as the starting point and makes the role of the woman (Felina) — and women in general — even more central to the story. This is shown for instance by the fact that unlike in the other two movies where rescuing the woman ultimately means uniting a family, in the case of Last Man Standing we have no visible family (although I think that it was mentioned in passing), and Willis’s character’s sole motive seems to be to do a service for the woman. From the three heroes, Willis’s character is also the only one who is shown as sexually active — in direct contrast to Mifune’s who explicitly refuses the chance for intimacy with the women offered to him. This emphasis of women in Last Man Standing may partly be the result of its film noir influences, and we indeed have both the voice-over narration as well as one other character remark that when it will be time for Willis’s hero’s ultimate downfall, it will be brought about by a woman — he is still looking for his femme fatale.

    All in all, if I had to pick one aspect which I think the sequels did very well, it would be the emphasis that they laid on the captive woman, making her a more central part of the story from the very beginning. It is, after all, because of her that the hero gets beaten up, initialising the final third of the story, and although I can certainly see reasons behind Kurosawa’s choosing to introduce her as he did, I would say that in terms of the story and our involvement in it, I prefer the way in which she is handled in the sequels.

    Villains

    As mentioned before, the villains in Last Man Standing and A Fistful of Dollars are not as straightforward caricatures as are the ones present in Yojimbo. This makes them more human, and with the hero also being less godlike in the two films, there is a far smaller distance between them.

    By dropping out the caricatures the two films have arguably also lost some of the memorable villains. Apart from the main villain, the opposition in fact comes across as grey and faceless — there is no Inokichi to make us laugh, and no giant with a hammer either. I struggle to name or even remember anyone apart from the gang leaders and the main villains in A Fistful of Dollars or Last Man Standing.

    As for the main villains, I have made clear my feeling of discomfort with Unosuke. I am happy to report that I don’t have this with the main villains that we are given in A Fistful of Dollars and Last Man Standing. On the other hand, perhaps this loss of discomfort has also contributed to a loss of tension and urgency that I feel towards them. A Fistful of Dollars‘s Ramón in fact seems somewhat tame, and unlike with Unosuke or Hickey, he never seems all that dangerous to me. Last Man Standing‘s Hickey, meanwhile, is both pleasant and frightening to follow, but then again, you can set Christopher Walken to stand on a white background and do nothing, and I would probably still applaud his charisma.

    Another reason why the villains in the remakes are perhaps somewhat tamer is that their choice of weaponry is not quite as “unfair” as is the case with the gun slinging Unosuke. A gun against a sword is, clearly, not playing fair, while Ramón’s shotgun and Hickey’s machine gun are items that, I feel, also the respective heroes could, if they wanted, have acquired, and therefore the difference does not come across as similarly significant. Considering the setting of these films, it is of course difficult to think what weapon the writers should have given Ramón or Hickey to bring about the same effect as Kurosawa did with Unosuke.

    Another important change that the two remakes make regarding the villains is that they are their own bosses, rather unlike in Yojimbo, where the gangs are actually subordinated to the merchants. While this is a small difference in terms of the story, it also makes the source of the town’s corruption somewhat more anonymous. In Yojimbo, the town’s problems are the result of a conflict between commercial interests (which Prince interprets as Kurosawa’s commentary on capitalism, both historical and contemporary), while in the remakes the conflict appears as less fixed on anything in particular, apart from the need to survive.

    Finally, there is also the issue in A Fistful of Dollars of the Baxters being quite tame as a gang. Really, to me it seems that it is the Rojos who are the problem in the town, and without them the town would be fine.

    Final thoughts

    Yojimbo, A Fistful of Dollars and Last Man Standing are an interesting trinity of movies, with a very interesting intertextual exchange going on between them (and Yojimbo‘s sources, which I have mainly ignored here). Much more could obviously be said about the way in which these three films influence one another, and I must say that there is a lot one can learn from Yojimbo by watching both A Fistful of Dollars and Last Man Standing.

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    Ugetsu

    Great analysis Vili, really interesting, this definitely makes me want to see all three of the movies back to back.

    Just one point though about the women in Yojimbo. Rather than failing dramatically by not focusing on the kidnapped woman more, I think this is further evidence that Kurosawa above all intended the movie as a satire on the Japanese brand of capitalism. If the kidnapped woman had been made more of a plot focus, this would have been lost – likewise if the merchants wives had been anything but background schemers, the symbolism of those merchants as modern Japanese mega corporations would have been diluted. In placing more emphasis on the female characters, Leone may have raised the emotional stakes of the narrative, but he also shifted the focus of the story from the realms of allegory or satire into straightforward fairytale (of the hero rescuing the princess from the evil witch variety).

    And on a completely separate point, for those lucky souls in London, I see that new prints of Ikiru, Rashomon and Stray Dog will be shown in the South Bank over the next few weeks. 🙄

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    Jon Hooper

    Superb comparison. Unfortunately I haven’t seen Last Man Standing, but A Fistful of Dollars has long been a favourite of mine. Just a few thoughts…

    “A Fistful of Dollars doesn’t give us the same feeling of claustrophobia that the two movies instil on us, especially at the beginning of the story. This is perhaps natural, considering that Leone was shooting a western, one major characteristic of which is the broadness of landscape.”

    I think Leone was unable to hold back from filming the landscape because he was so in love with American westerns, particularly the westerns filmed in Monument Valley. Also, as you indicate, he probably wanted to use his horses. The result, as you say, is that A Fistful of Dollars is less claustrophobic in feel, but you can’t help but admire Leone’s eye for the beauties of the desert. Getting back to the point, though, this particular story is better served by the claustrophobic atmosphere Kurosawa creates in Yojimbo; it also helps to foster the idea that there is no world outside of the town.

    “This may well have some psychological influence on us as the audience, as Mifune’s character is introduced moving leftwards (as if returning, or progressing towards an obstacle), while Eastwood’s moves rightwards (as if continuing on a journey).”

    Again, this seems to be connected to the idea that there is no world beyond the town in Yojimbo. For Eastwood’s character, a drifter, the town is a stopping off point, whereas for Mifune’s there has not been or will not be anything beyond the world of the town.

    “A Fistful of Dollars, meanwhile, releases some of its tension quite early on in the film during the graveyard scene where the two gangs exchange bullets, and I feel that the two gangs’ confrontation at this point somewhat lessens the impact of the final bloodbath between the groups.”

    I think one could perhaps look at it another way. The way the two gangs face each other in Yojimbo seems a kind of farce, as if neither side really has the guts to back up the threatening gestures. The arrival of the inspector, then, avoids bloodshed and postpones the actual battle, but I think we don’t really expect a violent clash at all (I will say more on this in a later post). In A Fistful of Dollars, meanwhile, we see that real bullets are exchanged, and that gang members really do back up their threats with violence. Ramon’s merciless killing of the soldiers marks him as someone who really is deadly.

    “I wonder if part of the reason for Yojimbo’s violence is the respective censure laws in the different countries. Was Kurosawa freer to show blood and gore on the screen than were either Leone or Hill?”

    The obvious difference is that A Fistful of Dollars is in colour, so would there have been greater restraints on the depiction of bloodshed? I remember that the Dollars trilogy was noted at the time for the brutality of its violence, something that perhaps only Peckinpah could top. But indeed, Yojimbo seems to be the more violent. I’d be surprised if there were as many restrictions on Hill, though, since Last Man Standing is a recent film.

    “The heroes of A Fistful of Dollars and Last Man Standing seem different in this respect. The movies, as noted before, come across as less theatrical, and neither Eastwood’s or Willis’s character seems to really run the show.”

    This dimension really is missing from Leone’s film, and in a way it may make it more realistic, leaving the character open to the whims of chance. An exception in Yojimbo is when Sanjuro leaves himself open to chance at the very beginning by throwing the stick. Of course, it is the cinematic equivalent of a loaded dice – the director has already determined where it will fall. The thing I love about that particular scene is that Sanjuro does not just acknowledge the direction pointed to and follow it – he actually puts his feet either side of the stick and walks with it beneath him, as if putting himself astride the forces of chance.

    “As for the acting, I think that all three actors — Toshiro Mifune, Clint Eastwood and Bruce Willis — do a very good job in portraying their characters. I may be biased, but for me Mifune with his attention to the very smallest detail still is the one who pulls out a performance that is totally on its own level in excellence”

    No disagreement here. Eastwood created an icon, partly based on Mifune’s character and partly his own creation, and I love his enigmatic quality, but Mifune is in a class of his own – there are levels to the performance which are just not within the other two actors’ reach (admittedly I haven’t seen Last Man Standing, but I’m familiar enough with Willis’s work).

    “Fistful of Dollars’s Ramón in fact seems somewhat tame, and unlike with Unosuke or Hickey, he never seems all that dangerous to me.”

    This is the only point where I have any serious disagreement with your analysis. I think here and in For A Few Dollars More, Gian Maria Volonte does a brilliant job of conveying the menace of a sadistic and unhinged killer. It’s the sort of portrayal that’s become a cliché but Volonte scares the hell out of me, and for all my admiration for Nakadai I don’t think he ever appears a real threat to Sanjuro. For Ramon there is a kind of erotic thrill in killing. Those eyes, and that laugh – unforgettable, and even better in the sequel.

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    Jeremy

    The definitive Yojimbo remake analyzes. It belongs in a book.

    To analyze 3 movies, keep track of what’s what, and offer such a great read, with so many fantastic points, is remarkable accomplishment. I really like everything you wrote, a lot. I have to dazzle my stuff up with photos, to hide my crappy writing skills, like a little school girl draws a smiley face for the sun to hide the fact she draws as good as a goldfish-with a smiley face.

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    .

    1960’s America was the start of policing movie content, all spawn by the introduction to porn in theaters. Movie violence and sex, much like Elvis would surely cause the fall of civilization 🙄 To make up for the lack of showing blood, often violence was stylized in hopes to give off the missing effect. What happened is as pointed out, it tends to reduce the violence of it all. Yojimbo’s quickness and realism, is always more powerful then 30minute battles, and having people get blown back from gun fire.

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    Vili Maunula

    Thanks for the feedback, everyone!

    Ugetsu, you raise a good point about how emphasising the woman partly turns the story into something like a fairytale. I would, however, say that while this is a fair point to make concerning Last Man Standing, it is not quite as valid with A Fistful of Dollars. Furthermore, we must also remember that neither remake seems all that interested in making use of Kurosawa’s underlying theme of capitalism.

    In any case, in Leone’s film I still fully get the feeling that what the hero does is he unites a family, rather than just rescuing a woman. I therefore wouldn’t say that the woman is not overly emphasised, but simply presented to us very well. In Last Man Standing, meanwhile, the family is nowhere to be seen, and therefore the “princess motive” is far stronger. This is also further emphasised by the looks that we have between Willis’s character and Felina, and the ending of the film may even very slightly suggest that Willis’s charcter is next heading out to find Felina.

    While I agree that giving the woman’s/family’s situation more time in Yojimbo would have taken away some of the focus from the other issues at hand, I still feel that Kurosawa (and when I say Kurosawa, I really mean both Kurosawa and his writing partner Kikushima — we tend to forget Kurosawa’s co-writers) could have introduced her much earlier in the film without sacrificing too much (or indeed anything except for the surprise).

    As I wrote earlier, I can see certain reasons why the woman is so suddenly put in front of us, but as far as the overall narration goes, I think that the moment when the woman appears and we get that shot of Unosuke’s reaction, we as the audience are so puzzled that we momentarily leave the story and become conscious about us watching a movie. And personally, I think that scenes that pull you out of a movie are rarely beneficial for the film. A rare counterexample (although I don’t have much support here) is the theatre scene in One Wonderful Sunday, which pulls you completely out of the film, but in my opinion works really well, only strengthening the feeling that we have towards the two main characters.

    Jon, knowing that A Fistful of Dollars was among your favourites, I really looked forward to your responses. I am now happy to notice that you haven’t been able to point out any clear mistakes that I may have made, or arguments that don’t hold water.

    Your point about why, when entering the town, Eastwood moves rightwards and Mifune leftwards is excellent. We must indeed also remember that especially older westerns are thematically about frontiers, the stretching of society and its conflict with the wild, all really manifested in forward movement. While not every western is centrally about this topic, these themes tend to be present at least underlyingly. In contrast, samurai movies are in fact almost a polar opposite — about confinement within the correct samurai code, and about a strongly formalised society that has very little if any contact with the world outside of that society. (It must of course be said that this doesn’t quite describe Yojimbo, which goes partly against these notions.)

    I also see what you mean about the exchange of bullets relatively early on in A Fistful of Dollars showing us that the gangs really mean what they say. Yet, I cannot but feel that some of the tension is lost in that scene. Perhaps fewer and better aimed shots could have been fired — or maybe it’s just me who is not all that impressed by aimless shooting. It may also be that from the early 80s onwards, action films really started to waste bullets, and therefore the sole act of shooting no more manages to bring out the same reaction in us that it perhaps did in the 60s. Unfortunately, I cannot really say this from my own experience, for I saw Rambo before I saw any of the older movies.

    As for Ramón, I agree that his introduction with that gatling gun and then the shotgun shot with which he drops an escaping Mexican works really well, and establishes him as a dangerous, somewhat mad character. However, I don’t think that the film really fully delivers the character that is set up in that initial scene, and when Eastwood’s character gets to talk to Ramón, he actually seems like a fairly funny and nice person to me. I wonder, could it be that your view of Ramón here is influenced by the character that Volonte plays in For a Few Dollars More?

    In contrast to Ramón, we also never really hear Unosuke talk all that much, definitely not in a relaxed setting. He remains more of an enigma to us, and therefore — at least to me — comes across as more dangerous.

    Jeremy, thanks for the praise, but I wouldn’t call this series of notes book-worthy — it isn’t really even essay worthy as it is!

    But I do think that what I (and now we) have here is an interesting opening statement for something that I or someone else could one day take as a starting point for an analysis of Yojimbo‘s place as a watershed of a huge range of influences.

    Firstly, we have the story that borrows (although very slightly) from The Glass Key (the film) and potentially directly from Hammett, and then in turn going on to influence a number of works that come in its wake. Secondly, we have the way in which the film stylistically borrows from westerns, and then goes on to influence the revisionist western and the genre of action movies. Thirdly, we have the way Kurosawa brings realism into the jidageki, and as Yoshimoto notes pretty much single-handedly destroys the old jidageki traditions, changing the nature of Japanese cinema for ever. Fourthly, Yojimbo also appears to have a relatively well defined place in Kurosawa’s own body of work. These four points alone would be enough for a book if properly looked into, and I am sure that there are other major intertextual topics to cover as well.

    I may have called Yojimbo a simple movie, and when considered as a single piece of work I think that it really is. However, when you put it into the proper context in which it belongs, it really turns out to be wonderfully rich and multifaceted.

    Finally, as for you “dazzling” your write-ups with screenshots, I would rather say that you have a brilliant (and very professional) eye for screen captures, and it is always fascinating to look at the shots that you have picked to illustrate your points. I’m sure that we all really appreciate the time that you spend making those captures. Even more so, considering how lazy and incapable I personally am when it comes to making them.

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    Jon Hooper

    Your point about why, when entering the town, Eastwood moves rightwards and Mifune leftwards is excellent.

    Obviously this was something that you yourself suggested, something I would never have noticed, so thanks for the cue.

    I wonder, could it be that your view of Ramón here is influenced by the character that Volonte plays in For a Few Dollars More?

    It’s true that I am unable to keep the two characters entirely separate in my memory. But the real reason, I think, that I find Ramon so unnerving is because I first watched these films as a child. My father and older brother were big fans and I was quickly initiated into the Spaghetti genre. Of course it’s subjective, but for me the scene you mention, where Clint and Ramon almost “bond,” does not so much lessen the tension as increase it. There is something quite disturbing about a character who can be almost normal one minute and psychotic the next, if it’s done with enough subtlety. And the mutual respect that Ramon thinks he sees only serves to increase our fear that he will become all the more deadly and vengeful when he realises he has been betrayed.

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    Vili Maunula

    Jon Hooper wrote 6 hours ago:

    Your point about why, when entering the town, Eastwood moves rightwards and Mifune leftwards is excellent.

    Obviously this was something that you yourself suggested, something I would never have noticed, so thanks for the cue.

    Although some of my contributions here may come across as blatant monologues, what I really appreciate about the discussion we have had and continue having is how our ideas evolve in discussion. While you may never have noticed the directionality, I would probably never have come to think of the “drifter” and therefore the actual (potential) reason for Eastwood’s rightwards movement.

    Jon Hooper wrote 6 hours ago:

    Of course it’s subjective, but for me the scene you mention, where Clint and Ramon almost “bond,” does not so much lessen the tension as increase it. There is something quite disturbing about a character who can be almost normal one minute and psychotic the next, if it’s done with enough subtlety. And the mutual respect that Ramon thinks he sees only serves to increase our fear that he will become all the more deadly and vengeful when he realises he has been betrayed.

    Now I almost feel like watching the film again, just to watch Ramón again with these points in mind!

    Instead, however, I spent an hour and a half watching another spaghetti western, the film called Django from 1966.

    Django

    I had never seen the movie before, but had read that the main character was loosely based on Sanjuro. Having watched the film now, I would say that there is actually a little bit more to the DjangoYojimbo connection than just that.

    First of all, the setting is very familiar: a nameless, godforsaken town where two rival parties (an American and a Mexican side) are battling it out. Our hero, called Django, is introduced to this town by him witnessing the beating of a woman, whom he immediately discovers was captured by one gang from the other. Without hesitation, he ends up killing members of both gangs to rescue her. Then stuff happens, and by the end of the film everyone is dead except for him and the woman (sorry about the plot spoiler there).

    Django himself is a curious character, and if I compare him to the heroes in Yojimbo, A Fistful of Dollars and Last Man Standing, I can easily say that in terms of anti-heroism, we have the real deal here. He is selfish, totally focused on the money (until he loses the money and then decides to save the girl), and doesn’t play by the rules. While he is certainly more than adequate with his pistol (there’s a brilliant bar scene where he shoots all the bad guys in a matter of microseconds), his secret weapon is a machine gun. The film has a scene of him killing 40 gang members, and in that scene we have a shot that is almost a direct duplicate of a similar shot in A Fistful of Dollars where Ramón shoots those Mexicans with his machine gun. The expression on Django’s face is almost identical.

    As you may guess from the above, Django is violent. In fact, it is very violent indeed. Unlike A Fistful of Dollars, Django is not afraid to show us blood (or an ear that is cut off), and unlike Last Man Standing (which for some strange reason still got an R rating in the US), this one is quite real looking violence, not stylised Hollywood action.

    Just like the three other heroes so far discussed in this thread, also Django gets beaten up — his hands are in fact turned into a bloody mush in order to stop him from using his guns. This scene very strongly reminds me of Sanjuro’s beating, in fact even more so than with either Last Man Standing or A Fistful of Dollars. This for the fact that until this point in the movie, Django has been made a superhuman figure very similar to Sanjuro (again, I must refer to Jeremy’s excellent post on the topic), and therefore when he falls he does fall quite a long distance. At the end of the film, he has been lowered to the status of almost a sub-human, although that doesn’t stop him from killing the bad guys, which I was a little disappointed about — to be honest, I felt a bit cheated by the ending. An interesting point, however, is that his fall coincides with a sudden change in character, as if long lost human emotions and moral values had suddenly been awakened by that beating. I wonder what the impact had been had they killed him off in the end, just after we actually started to like him as a man.

    A further minor similarity is that while Django never himself ends up being carried in a coffin, he instead actually constantly drags one around. This is where he has hidden his machine gun, and where he hides the gold that he is trying to steal. And, finally, if there is a man in the town whom he bonds with, it is the tavern keeper, although the relationship here is still quite far from what the inn keeper and the hero in either Yojimbo or A Fistful of Dollars have.

    As a movie (as opposed to a Yojimbo reference), Django admittedly has its problems (one major one is the English dubbing — I found it much more watchable in Italian — and another is its overuse of the zoom). Yet, I think that there are moments of brilliance there as well, so it is by no means a wasted hour and a half.

    There are also some relatively interesting themes present lurking on the background. For instance, rather than being a conflict between two strains of capitalism (as in Yojimbo), the battle in Django is actually fought between two racist factions. This is especially true of the American side, some members of which even wear Ku Klux Klan like hoods over their heads (although red ones). I wonder if the director Sergio Corbucci’s intention here was to refer to Italy’s own recent fascist past? If yes, what should we make of the arguably racist Mexicans, who see themselves as liberators as they work towards the goal of revolution and liberation in Mexico? I do not have the energy or the time to explore this further, but in case anyone happens to know of an article or a book dealing with this particular theme in the movie, I would be very interested indeed.

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    Vili Maunula

    One more thing, before I go to sleep. While reading a little bit about Django I discovered that it has been remade numerous times. Wikipedia counts 31 remakes, four (!) of which were made in 1966 — the very same year Django came out! And most of these aren’t official remakes. (Funnily enough, by the way, we have Takashi Miike’s 2007 remake Sukiyaki Western: Django which, I guess, then is a Japanese western remake of an Italian western influenced by a Japanese samurai film which was influenced by American westerns.)

    In any case, Wikipedia’s article on the movie notes that “Italian copyright law seems to have been very loose in the 1960s and 70s and filmmakers frequently borrowed the names of the protagonists of other successful films”. With this in mind we can perhaps understand why Leone felt like he could take Kurosawa’s story and shoot it as his own film with some modifications.

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    Jon Hooper

    Your appraisal makes me wish I could see Django again; it’s one of the countless Spaghetti westerns I saw as a kid, and I still have vague memories of him carting the coffin round, and of the priest eating the ear. According to the Rough Guide to Westerns, it has inspired over 50 remakes, sequels and spin-offs. The most recent work to show its influence I can think of, other than the one you mention, are the films of Tarantino and Rodriguez. It’s interesting to note, by the way, that Django, the Dollars films, and countless others, were all filmed in the so-called Mini Hollywood of Spain’s Almeria, which is now a Wild West theme park.

    Just to digress back to the comparison between A Fistful of Dollars for a moment:

    A couple of minor points of comparison occurred to me. One is the arrival of Eastwood at the town. If I remember correctly, he drinks water from the well while he watches the child cry for his mother. In Yojimbo, Sanjuro asks for and is given water from the farmer. This points perhaps to the difference in social standing. Eastwood’s character, just a drifter, would not expect to be served if he does not have the dollars to pay for it, so he just drinks from the communal well. Sanjuro, a samurai, would I take it expect to be treated with the hospitality befitting one of his class. Of course, in the modern world, represented by the town, all this is shown to be changing. It might be a completely unrelated point, but browsing through a book on Japanese folklore I picked up the point about the role of water in Shinto ritual – its role in the purification of the body, how it is used to cleanse before battle, such as is still seen in the rituals of Sumo wrestlers, who clean their mouths before bouts. Just after we see Sanjuro drinking, he is swept straight into the town and into the place of battle. I’m not saying that this significance was present in Kurosawa’s mind, however…

    Another thing I recall is that Eastwood’s character is effectively picked on by the thugs, who scare his mule. This prompts a response from him, but as deft as he is with his pistol he still comes across as less of a manipulator, and less of a foreward planner, than Sanjuro.

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    Vili Maunula

    I never thought about the water drinking scene, but you are right about both the possible social implications and the idea of it serving as a cleansing act for the hero. The idea of a Shinto ritual may not be quite as far fetched as you might think.

    The mule, by the way, is turned into a car in Last Man Standing, and is given a somewhat bigger part in the movie.

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    Vili Maunula

    Actually, watching the opening scene of Yojimbo again, I realised that both Jon and I misremembered the water giving scene. Sanjuro is not given water there by the farmer, but asks for a permission to use the well, which he is granted.

    In any case, the idea of some kind of a spiritual cleansing before the story really begins keeps fascinating me.

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    Jon Hooper

    Well, certainly it’s my memory which is at fault. I remembered him asking for water, but of course he asks for permission. I’m not sure whether this affects what I said about a samurai’s position making him entitled to water from a farmer though.

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    Ugetsu

    A week ago I managed to watch Fistful of Dollars and Yojimbo back to back (I got the new blu-ray Yojimbo – its stunning!). I still haven’t tracked down Last Man Standing to watch.

    I think Vili’s comparison is outstanding, and there is little more I can add to it. The one thing that did occur to me watching both, is that Martinez’s analysis is particularly good. In watching both, I think her theory that the character of Sanjuro is less a human, more a ‘marebito’ (a sort of avenging spirit), makes a lot of sense. I don’t know if this was deliberate by Kurosawa, or whether he was channeling stories and myths he was very familiar with, but I think the film is suffused with the notion of Sanjuro as being not quite human and that his motivation (as is typical for a marebito) is a desire to punish those who do not follow traditional notions of hospitality to strangers, more than any greater notion of nobility. I think part of the power of Fistful of Dollars is that Leone (maybe accidentally) introduced this notion of a man with no real identity, no real past, and this had a strong resonance with the audience. Having said that, I think his hints about a backstory (such as the scene where he tells the women he rescues ‘I knew a woman like you – there was nobody around to help her’), weakens the film a little.

    The one thing that surprised me, and it shows how memory can play tricks, is just how much Fistful follows Yojimbo. I was really surprised how many scenes are almost identical, and how many motifs are used in different contexts (such as the raised barrels of sake/wine). Leone must have studied Yojimbo in very great detail, it wasn’t just a case of being inspired by a single viewing. Of course, some of the ways he changes it are inspired, especially in the final duel. I also love Leones contrast of long shots and close ups – I do wish Kurosawa was less in love with his long lens sometimes, and had given us similar close-ups of his characters.

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    Vili Maunula

    I just read my original post, and while I’m amazed at the amount of details that have at some point had had the patience to gather, damn how many language mistakes there are! Oh well, I think that most of what I write there is still more or less understandable.

    But that’s a good point that Leone must have studied the film quite closely. This is all the more impressive considering that he (I assume) didn’t have rewind and pause buttons like we do. I sometimes wonder if people back then approached films differently than we do, knowing that they wouldn’t be able to see the film once it no longer played at cinemas.

    Martinez’s analysis has stayed with me as well. Interestingly, Jeremy’s analysis is fairly similar. It is a pity that all those screenshots that Jeremy took disappeared at one point (as they were not hosted here).

    I would have thought that Last Man Standing is available pretty much everywhere, so shouldn’t be difficult to rent. If that’s not the case, it’s apparently not terribly expensive to buy either.

    Same goes for Django, which is also well worth watching, and sort of belongs to the family.

    And then there is of course Kaze no Yojimbo (the link is to a trailer with horrible English dubbing). And half a million other permutations of Yojimbo, its characters and themes. As I mentioned earlier in this thread, one could easily write a book about all this. And it would be a good book.

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    cocoskyavitch

    .

    ..considering that he (I assume) didn’t have rewind and pause buttons like we do. I sometimes wonder if people back then approached films differently than we do,

    Right on, Vili.

    It’s astonishing to think how much recall some of those folks had, and I am thinking, too of critics! Wow. Impressive!

    Here’s the BBC’s take on the three films: http://www.bbc.co.uk/dna/h2g2/A1161271

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    Greasy Rat

    I do agree that A Fistful of Dollars is not as amusing as Yojimbo, and not even as funny as the other two Dollars Trilogy movies.

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