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Playing at the film club: Sanjuro (Akira Kurosawa)

Sturgill Simpson and Yojimbo

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    Ugetsu

    Ever wonder what happens if a cutting edge underground country star recorded an album while Kurosawa movies played silently in a loop in the studio? Apparently this is what Sturgill Simpson just did.

    He has even had an anime made to go with the album loosely based on Yojimbo. The first part is here.

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    Vili Maunula

    Wow, thanks for bringing this up, Ugetsu! Sturgill Simpson’s second album Metamodern Sounds in Country Music is one of my favourite releases from the past decade and I have also played the hell out of his previous one, A Sailor’s Guide to Earth. I knew a new album was on the horizon, but I had no idea about the radically new sonic direction, the Kurosawa connection, or the Netflix film. Needless to say, I’m pretty excited about it now and look forward to diving into both the album and the film this weekend!

    I also must say that I really like the first release and its late 80s video game music aesthetic.

    This also reminds me about an article that I wrote few years back about songs and bands that reference Kurosawa. Anyone interested can find it here. You can’t say you have listened to music until you have heard the Chintu Ji song “Akira Kurosawa”!

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    Ugetsu

    The article implies the video is part of a longer anime following the theme of the album – if so, I can’t wait to see it, I wonder how it will be released, if at all.

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    Vili Maunula

    It’s a Netflix film, Ugetsu. It became available on the service this morning with the title “Sturgill Simpson Presents Sound & Fury”, at least where I am. The album was also released this morning and I’ve given it a spin, and must say my first impression is really positive.

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    Ugetsu

    I’ve just watched it through – I can’t quite see much of a Yojimbo influence, but its pretty impressive…

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    Vili Maunula

    I watched Sound & Fury last night and I must say I enjoyed the trip and would love to see more of this type of album tie-ins. Although in terms of content and style it’s a very different beast, it made me think of an earlier music related film that Netflix released last year, Daryl Hannah’s Paradox. That one is built around music by her husband Neil Young, who also stars in the film with the band Promise of the Real. It’s quite similarly bonkers and open for interpretation as Sound & Fury.

    While the surface story (or stories) in Sound & Fury, as much as I can decipher it, doesn’t really follow Yojimbo, I think I can see the influence. The song lyrics are pretty horribly subtitled in the Netflix release, often totally changing the meaning from what I think is actually sung, but having listened through the album a dozen or so times in the past couple of days, I would say that the album (and the film) basically bring forward a series of problems on global, social and personal levels, and then repeatedly offer visions of violence as a solution to them. And while the images in the film don’t directly reflect those of the lyrics, the film certainly seems to emphasise this idea of violence as the ultimate solution for making things right.

    This seems very much like Yojimbo to me, a film where Kurosawa finally appears to go “fuck it” and gives up trying to find the kind of humanist solutions to society’s problems that he had been investigating for the previous two decades, and creates this superman character for Mifune who simply goes in to a corrupt world and violently takes care of all the bad guys. Problem solved. Or is it? Not really. There is no celebration at the end of Yojimbo, only death.

    Unlike most of Kurosawa’s works, Yojimbo is not a didactic film. It doesn’t instruct us to do as it does. In fact, on the contrary, it very much rejects the kind of violence that it depicts.

    But outside of that fictional world that Kurosawa depicts, on our side of the silver screen, as the audience, that violence is valuable as it gives us something; a catharsis. By going through that bloody journey with Mifune’s character, a sacrificial offering of sorts, we just like Kurosawa are able to lessen the burden of some of our baggage, perhaps able to cope with our own problems better. All in the safety of our cinemas, or homes.

    Stugill’s Sound & Fury (both the film and the album) does something very similar. At the very end of the film, after both the end credits and the post-end-credits chapter have finished, we have two screens of text:

    “Get beyond love and grief: exist for the good of Man.” (Musashi Miyamoto)

    “Dedicated to the lost souls and the victims of senseless violence around the world.”

    Just like in Yojimbo, the violence in Sound & Fury isn’t meant as something to celebrate or emulate. It is there to bring catharsis, while also exploring the problems that it depicts.

    This is underlined by the theme of art, music and creativity that runs through the lyrics alongside the violence, but is less emphasised in the film’s visuals. Songs like “A Good Look”, “Make Art Not Friends”, “Best Clockmaker on Mars”, “Last Man Standing” and “Mercury in Retrograde” reflect in different ways on the challenges of staying true to what makes your art meaningful. Elsewhere, the hurt caused by a lover’s departure results in the (perhaps not entirely earnest) offering of a song (“Sing Along”), while the creative process itself is further considered in songs like “Remember to Breathe”, “All Said And Done” and “Fastest Horse in Town”.

    What is on the surface a very violent album and film, is actually a pretty introspective piece when you concentrate on this parallel, and perhaps less pronounced, current that runs through the work. This juxtaposition exists also in Yojimbo, and it is how I would say the two works are so closely connected.

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