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Yojimbo: What does it all amount to?

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    Vili Maunula

    As I have already said a couple of times, Yojimbo seems relatively straightforward in terms of its story. In fact, you could perhaps sum up the film with “In order to combat evil, throw in someone capable of going head-to-head with it in combat, and see what the outcome is”.

    Now, what actually is the final outcome portrayed by the film?

    As the movie ends, the bad guys have certainly been defeated, but at the same time what Sanjuro leaves behind doesn’t seem like much. A mad crime boss, a cowardly law officer, a coffin maker whose livelihood is now in danger, and a sour tavern keeper is what we seem to have left in the town. Everyone else seems to be either dead or have left the place, making the village more of a graveyard than a place for the living.

    Significantly, there are no hitherto unseen townsfolk who, after the crime gangs have been defeated, would venture out to the streets realising that they have now been liberated. Instead, it is all dead quiet.

    This raises the question what service it in fact is that Sanjuro ultimately provides for the town. For, to me, by removing the corruption he seems to effectively have removed the whole town. And this, in my view, seems no solution at all.

    It is as if the conclusion reached by Yojimbo is that there is no use destroying moral corruption, because since we are all in one way or another possessed by it, we would actually only end up destroying the whole world.

    The whole situation is, of course, made slightly more complex by the metaphorical nature of evil that Sanjuro faces in the film. Prince gives us a rather interesting reading on this in his commentary track for the Criterion re-release, arguing that what Kurosawa is showing us here is an alternative take on history where the rise of commercialism against the old rice-based economy in the late 19th century was actually defeated. Prince also notes how the film is simultaneously a strong allegory of contemporary 1960s Japan where, as Kurosawa had also just pointed out in his previous film The Bad Sleep Well, the capitalists (and the capital) have too much power.

    In writing, Prince (187) in fact sees Yojimbo as something of a remake of The Bad Sleep Well. In his view, Yojimbo reworks the problem posed in The Bad Sleep Well, namely how to combat corruption, material or moral.

    Prince actually goes as far in grouping the two films as to call both The Bad Sleep Well and Yojimbo revenge dramas. While the former is a fairly obvious example of the genre, calling Yojimbo a revenge drama may not be quite as far fetched as it may first sound, either. While Sanjuro’s attacking the gangsters may especially at the beginning of the film not be a personal mission for the character, it certainly seems all that more personal to Kurosawa, who appears to really revel in kicking the villains (and Sanjuro) as hard as he possibly can without getting censured.

    Indeed, we could say that if the revenge in The Bad Sleep Well was attempted through thinking and a carefully constructed plan, in Yojimbo the villains are ultimately confronted with sheer physical strength. As far as comparisons go, if The Bad Sleep Well should be considered Hamlet (and as you know I have my own views on this), then I would say that Yojimbo must be The Spanish Tragedy. (If you are not familiar with Thomas Kyd’s play, see if you can get a hold of it, for it is very entertaining to say the least.)

    The theme of corruption is, of course, nothing new to Kurosawa, but rather something that pretty much runs through the director’s whole oeuvre. However, if the earlier movies such as Drunken Angel and Rashomon that we have just recently watched explored the underlying reasons and the nature of corruption, you could perhaps over-simplify a little and say that in the 1960s Kurosawa’s project shifted slightly more towards trying to figure out how to combat and solve this corruption.

    Both The Bad Sleep Well and Yojimbo are, I think, good examples of this investigation. Yet, they both also seem to be failures in this process. In the former, Mifune’s Nishi fails to make any real difference to the way the corrupted ones act, while as I pointed out earlier, in Yojimbo Mifune’s Sanjuro ends up destroying the corrupted ones and the whole world with it. Neither, clearly, seems like a solution.

    Consequently, I think that it is quite tempting to see Yojimbo as the latest manifestation of a series of failed attempts by Kurosawa to figure out a solution to the problem that constitutes such a big part of his cinema. This failure, of course, in no way affects the cinematic quality of the work, nor does it make it any less interesting, quite on the contrary. But, ultimately, I would say that what we have here is yet another dead end.

    As a final thought in this perhaps somewhat aimless post, let me turn to the future and note that it is interesting to consider where Kurosawa takes us next on his intellectual quest. After all, with High and Low (which we will discuss in a couple of months’ time) he first attempts to blur the line between good and evil, and then in Red Beard (scheduled for October) he takes the argument to a whole new and far more spiritual level, and perhaps even finally discovers an answer of some kind to his career-long question. What that answer may be, I will leave for our October discussion to work out.

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    Jon Hooper

    I’ll need to give it more thought, but yes, this is the question we are left with and which nags us I think more than any other after the film finishes. Exactly what is accomplished? There is a tendency to see the village as the world in microcosm, and therefore to view it not as one rotten apple that can justifiably be cleared of corruption whatever the cost, but as representing the whole of society. Sanjuro’s cleansing act is then one that ends up making the whole world barren. What about the boy Sanjuro meets at the beginning and whom he spares at the end? Does he represent some kind of hope for a new start? In terms of numbers, I suppose it doesn’t look very impressive – a couple of old men and a boy as the only survivors.

    I think it is a kind of revenge fantasy for Kurosawa, a bit like the Spanish Tragedy or The Revenger’s Tragedy, with Mifune as a kind of super samurai, a figure with no past, who emerges from nowhere and blows through the town like the winds that clear away the autumn leaves, like fate or death. There’s a tradition of this in westerns, though most of the films probably date after Yojimbo and may be influenced by it – films like High Plains Drifter and Pale Rider come to mind. Perhaps sometimes the world seems so full of corruption that we want to unleash such a figure upon it. Kurosawa indulges in the fantasy, but of course he does not offer any realistic, practical solution to the problem. He does not intend to. Yojimbo is a conscious comedy, a sort of wish-fulfillment fantasy for its director.

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    Jeremy

    A pre-Utopia cleansing. Destruction before creation, is the natural occurrence of the evolution to anything.

    The story is Sanjuro and nothing else, Sanjuro is simply the incarnation of nature, by destroying the bad, he renews himself.

    Why do we do anything, in the end it means nothing, yet, we try to give purpose to life, when there is none. I think Sanjuro knows this, and simply enjoys the walk with himself.

    Unlike everyone else in the movie, Sanjuro is not tied down to life, he is life. The rest are in cages waiting their death, and merely distract themselves in mindless matters.

    The silk fair can return, visitors will come back, new merchants take the old ones place and life starts a new. This should come to some personal satisfaction.

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    cocoskyavitch

    Yojimbo as Shiva. Creator and destroyer. Wish-fulfillment fantasy. Conscious comedy. Revenge drama. Commentary on the rise of capitalism (I think that’s actually a stretch-I think it’s more of a reaction to the rise of yakuza culture as exemplified by Nakadai’s character-young, vain, without moral compass, technologically advanced compared to the earlier generation-hey! What, is this about 2008?) Combat against political corruption. The call it a black comedy.

    Okay, all of the above.

    The silk fair can return, visitors will come back, new merchants take the old ones place and life starts a new.

    Yep, that too. The kid admonished that a long life of eating mush is best will go back to mom weaving silk and dad grumbling and life will continue. There are more peasants in the countryside who depend on having a town and market…and now, there is an opportunity to begin anew. The grumpy tavern keeper (Eijiro Tono looking crusty and ancient-in Ozu’s nearly-contemporary “Good Morning” he is actually handsome in comparison) will have business, and, the coffin maker, sadly, will, as well. There is a poetic simplicity: life will continue to live, to consume and expire.

    I have to disagree with Jeremy’s reading:

    Why do we do anything, in the end it means nothing, yet, we try to give purpose to life, when there is none. I think Sanjuro knows this, and simply enjoys the walk with himself.

    Unlike everyone else in the movie, Sanjuro is not tied down to life, he is life. The rest are in cages waiting their death, and merely distract themselves in mindless matters.

    I would say that life is the point of life for everyone from Sanjuro to the peasants. What? Life isn’t reason enough for life? It is for me.

    Political corruption, slavery, predatory gambling, violence for gain-these are the things that steal life and quality of life from others-these are the bad things done by the bad guys, so, this story does a simple thing-it gets rid of the baddies so that, theoretically, life can be lived.

    Killing is not so much my favorite thing to watch. I saw this really horrible YouTube clip of a film directed by Mishima which graphically shows ritual siuicide and prefigures Mishima’s actual Seppuku-and certainly the film Harikiri is painful to watch.

    Although there is excitement in movement, in swords-a certain romance of action and dashing male heroism-the actual killing stuff…not a fan. So, it is a persistent problem for me-the idea that killing a bunch of guys is a solution. Then again, I think Iraq is an absolute nightmare of idiot policy and death.

    That’s why they call it a black comedy. Death as a savior. Well, there is something funny in that.

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    Vili Maunula

    The silk fair can return, visitors will come back, new merchants take the old ones place and life starts a new. This should come to some personal satisfaction.

    So we would think, but Kurosawa seems careful not to show us any of that or even hint at it. On the contrary, just before leaving he has Sanjuro remark that “it’ll be quiet in this town now” (note the use of the future tense in the subtitles, I’m not sure what the original Japanese is).

    As for the future of the young farmer’s boy’s, I wouldn’t exactly say that he represents any kind of hope or a new beginning, at least if Sanjuro is correct about the boy’s future of “long life eating gruel”.

    Coco (as Yippee) noted earlier that “something about [the] last scene, the framing and the light, offer a huge opening. … As if the grid is going to be broken for good”. I don’t really see that. Instead, I am still haunted by the insane gang boss’s mad banging of the prayer drum and the images of the dead.

    Does anyone, by the way, happen to know what the prayer drum at this point might symbolise for the Japanese audience?

    There are, however, two (incidental?) points to note about the final exchange between Sanjuro, the coffin maker and the inn keeper. There are some trees on the background, and we don’t see that many trees in the movie, at least not in the town. And might there also be slightly more depth to the shot? The three figures on the foreground are still really flat but somehow the trees now seem to be quite far in the distance.

    It is also interesting (and another display of the long lenses Kurosawa uses) how, in the final composition, the coffin maker and the inn keeper have their backs turned at us on the left, while Sanjuro is facing us on the right. And yet, in terms of their positions they are actually facing each other.

    In fact, coming to think of it now, Mifune is in the final battle and the scenes following it for the most part shot facing the camera. This is quite a strong contrast to his first entrance to the town at the beginning of the movie, when he is primarily shot from behind. Again, this may just be totally incidental.

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    cocoskyavitch

    Vili, I guess I see it as a change at the end of Yojimbo fromt he overpowering grid: the composition creates a diagonal out of town and into light, (and, we’ve not been in that direction in the film. We’ve not yet traveled that road.) breaking the strong horizontal/perpendicular thrust of many of the earlier scenes. The trees indicate depth, we get our last looks at Sanjuro’s face (we will miss him, and are sorry that the adventure is over!) and the humor comes from him saying things are quiet…when HOLY COW the whole town practically is dead!

    I don’t think that negates the point Jeremy makes that life will return and go on. Come to think of it, it is a funny retelling of Seven Samurai, really. Except that Kikuychiyo (Sanjuro) all growed up is the only one of the seven involved here, and his motivation is not out of pity or concern, it’s more complicated and distanced than that…even though the decision to stay also comes attached to a bowl of rice! Hey, and although the village in 7 is cleared, the hero says “We’ve lost” and in this case it is inverted…the hero says “Everything is ok now” but almost everyone is dead! Ha. Funny.

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    Jeremy

    cocoskyavitch wrote 9 hours ago:

    I would say that life is the point of life for everyone from Sanjuro to the peasants. What? Life isn’t reason enough for life? It is for me.

    But what exactly is life, as it self, it holds no value. The mere act of living brings nothing, other then perhaps guaranteed pain. For life to be reason in itself, then would one should live quite happily in a cage.

    Purpose of life is creating and sustaining the illusion of meaning through constant conflict. Typically some goal, be it save a town, or raise a good family and ensure their success is likely after your own death. Life is the consumption of the world and those in it, one can consume positivity or negatively, but normally one’s positive is another’s negative.

    cocoskyavitch wrote 9 hours ago:

    Killing is not so much my favorite thing to watch. I saw this really horrible YouTube clip of a film directed by Mishima which graphically shows ritual siuicide and prefigures Mishima’s actual Seppuku-and certainly the film Harikiri is painful to watch.

    Although there is excitement in movement, in swords-a certain romance of action and dashing male heroism-the actual killing stuff…not a fan. So, it is a persistent problem for me-the idea that killing a bunch of guys is a solution. Then again, I think Iraq is an absolute nightmare of idiot policy and death.

    Disregarding the selfishness and weakness of it, by leaving behind a family or escaping life’s problems. Suicide can be of great honor, and pride. I’ll spare you may thoughts, as traditional notions of Hara-kiri(seppuku), I find quite honorable and you can just read about those.

    Killing can serve much the same honor and pride. Yo assume that certain people can be dealt with over tea is to me rather naive and history has gone to show it impossible.

    I will only say, the current war is stupid, and pointless, but war itself is not necessarily these things.


    I agree Vili, there is no indication to show the town’s success, but there is much less now to stop it. And sometimes nothing is better then something.

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    cocoskyavitch

    Jeremy, you wrote:

    The mere act of living brings nothing, other then perhaps guaranteed pain. For life to be reason in itself, then would one should live quite happily in a cage.

    I think we have different ideas about life, but I can see your point. I’m pretty much of the viewpoint that life is a gift. Don’t know why I think that, but somehow, I do. I think my main “job” or responsibility is to be grateful for life. I couldn’t convince you of this-so you will have to excuse me, even if this is my huge blind spot and unforgiveable idiocy-that’s really how I see my role in life.

    Suicide can be of great honor, and pride.

    No doubt, and I get that, especially in the Japanese-historical context. I understand the sense of honor in the Bushido code-and the tradition of seppuku. But, I still think suicide is an unfortunate choice in almost every case, and it is a damn shame that Yasunari Kawabata, for example, left the world. I also think Mishima’s death was sadly misconceived-it was exactly his sense of honor involved-and waht a waste-and there is the horror of seeing web sites that use his severed head as an image (do a google search for Mishima images and you’ll see!) which seems so disrespectful and awful and the horriffic pain of seppuku (what a painful way to die! I’m human-I hate to see suffering!) and my basic sensibility about life (see above) and the actual film Harikiri all convince me that suicide is not gonna be a romantic ideal that I am gonna embrace.

    For example, Kurosawa’s own “attempt”- had he died, we would not have had any of the late Kurosawa. That would not have been better-at least, not for me. I’ve learned a LOT from Kagemusha, for example, about identity. I think it is an under-appreciated film of great beauty and power and wisdom.

    Killing can serve much the same honor and pride. Yo assume that certain people can be dealt with over tea is to me rather naive and history has gone to show it impossible.

    Like a stubborn donkey, I’m just going to lay down in the road and bray. Even though your stance has a pragmatic logic, Jeremy, I’m just gonna say that I am not a big fan of suicide, killing or war. Again, I may be naive and stubborn, and my position unsupportable. Please forgive me for that.

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    cocoskyavitch

    Harakiri. Please excuse my spelling.

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    Jeremy

    I think we have different ideas about life, but I can see your point

    Like wise, I see the point in debating who’s POV on life, suicide and killings is more correct. ­čść

    Although, I do enjoy talking about it.

    Killing, for me not really a big deal. This is of course the killing of “evil”,hopefully it’s obvious I didn’t mean innocents. Evil, I know is entirely subjective subject, but I dont see the point in being caring of those that aim to do harm. Then I was wrong to call the ideals of peace with the enemy, naive. The same could be said about the one that wish to kill before talking.

    Could be having being around it, that takes away the taboo of it all for me- Then factor in I’m Texan–we love our guns,and land, but mostly our criminals dead. I understand, that’s not the most popular of thinking.

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    cocoskyavitch

    Jeremy, I would never win a debate with you! I concede!

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