Kurosawa’s Combination of Tradition and Innovation as Tools in the Satire of Yojimbo
The films of Akira Kurosawa demonstrate a willingness to reaffirm the validity of the themes and aesthetic style of traditional Japanese art and cinema. His films show off his ability to create flat compositions, natural landscapes of mountains and sky, and minimalist black-and-white brushwork that remains suggestive without being lush and excessive, all of which are tenets of Japanese aesthetics. Yet Kurosawa also makes sure to challenge the traditions of his country – to reach out to the West and toward the future. His complex movies combine the best of both worlds in order to create a distinct style of filmmaking. Yojimbo (1961) is no exception to this rule.
The basic narrative of Yojimbo is itself fairly simple. In the year 1860, toward the end of the Tokugawa regime, an out-of-work samurai wanders the earth after the rise of the middle class prompts the dethronement of his lord. He stumbles upon a troubled village in which two gangs – one that profits from the silk industry and the other from the production of sake – run everything, and most of the innocent people in the middle must pick a side or starve. The samurai thinks up a bloody plan that will serve the dual purposes of ending the war in the city and earning himself money. He takes one side, then double-crosses, then triple-crosses, and, in the process of his alliances and betrayals, he riles up the two gangs enough to take up arms against each other once and for all.
The conclusion of Yojimbo forces its audience to ask the following question: Does Sanjuro’s mass slaughter of gambling crooks make him a justified hero looking out for the common good of the man in need, or a treacherous villain only concerned with his own welfare? The movie’s style and thematic content provides enough evidence for both opinions that one could make arguments for either opinion – or refrain from forming a definite opinion at all. As Donald Riche writes, “Kurosawa refuses to be portentous about an important matter – social action. For this reason he refuses first tragedy, then melodrama. He insists upon making comedy” (147). The bodyguard’s swordfights are quick, brutal, and gritty, yet Kurosawa depicts them in such a way that filmgoers do not feel quite as depressed or moved to social action as they are thrilled and entertained by the good clean fun of fictional murder.
The initial moment of comedy of Yojimbo comes in the very beginning, wherein Sanjuro throws a stick up in the air to determine the direction of his travel. His actions make him out to be a lost soul – a desperate man without means merely going where the winds toss him, hoping to find work. He has nowhere specific to go; he just walks and hopes to find something. Kurosawa’s story has a chance here to become a tragedy. He could have chosen to make us pity the poor samurai who lost his work by showing him coughing or holding his stomach in agony of starvation. Yet we see no tears in Sanjuro’s eyes as he tosses the stick up and awaits the judgment of mother nature that will forever change life in a little city in the middle of nowhere.
Instead, the opening scene shows Sanjuro walking in confidence toward some notion of destiny. He strolls indifferently, moving toward the mountainous landscape with no fear. This very irony of walking with a sense of surety toward an unsure future is comedic in its exaggeration. Kurosawa himself would not have us dwell on the believability of his hero/anti-hero that reminds American audiences of Westerns. He said once that “Good westerns are liked by everyone. Since humans are weak they want to see good people and great heroes. Westerns have been done over and over again and in the process a kind of grammar has evolved. I have learned from this grammar of the Western” (Richie 147). Sanjuro’s fearlessness reminds us not of ourselves but who we would like to be: a lone ranger exploring the wild frontier who takes orders from no one, shows no mercy, and always wins in the end. Kurosawa transports the Wild West to Japan, creating what David Desser calls a “satire on Japan’s rush toward Western-style capitalism” set in an “economic frontier” (98). The bodyguard is not just a cowboy, but also is a kind of profiteering businessman who makes his earning from the demise of other despicable people following petty capitalistic ventures. Sanjuro simultaneously represents the dying traditional way of life of the samurai and the cold, calculating capitalist deciding the best way to secure his own profits by ruining the business of his competitors. Thus, characterizing Yojimbo as a battle of honor and tradition versus the new Western way of dirty business and quick profits oversimplifies the truth. While Sanjuro tends to laugh at the despicable habits of the money-grubbing gamblers, his behavior is laughable, too, because he stoops to their level by plotting the death of dozens of men in the name of money.
Kurosawa presents his satire through the lens of traditional Japanese art. The aforementioned opening scene shows Kurosawa’s admiration for the aesthetics of flatness. At 0:31, the film switches from a black opening credits screen to a shot of a mountain in the distance. The camera stays still as Sanjuro steps into the screen space at 0:38 to scratch his head and look at the mountains. Kurosawa uses a long lens to flatten the screen space; there is no depth in the mise-en-scene, as the distant mountain and sky appear to be located right in front of Sanjuro’s face. Also noteworthy is Kurosawa’s refusal to show the protagonist’s face right at the beginning. We see only his back of his head as the wind whips the loose hairs not tied in his top knot. This illustrates the Japanese minimalist style reminiscent of traditional scroll paintings, which opposes the more colorful and detailed style of the art of neighboring China. When the low angle shot points up at Sanjuro’s back, and all we see is the back of his plain, sparsely decorated, black robe, his black hair, the white sky, and a slice of the gray mountains.
The simplicity in this shot leaves us wanting to see and know more, because withholding detail is a source of suspense. What does our hero look like? What is his facial expression as he stares off in the distance? Indeed, throughout the course of the film, we see very few close-ups of Toshiro Mefune’s character. The fact that he speaks infrequently compounds the mystery surrounding him. His stoic personality of saying as little as he must to be understood exemplifies Japanese aesthetics. Like many rough and rugged cowboys in westerns, he is the idealized “strong silent type,” whose actions speak for him, surrounded by a village of jeering and chattering buffoons.
At 0:54, Sanjuro turns and walks left, and the camera still will not show us his face. The low angle continues, and the camera follows right behind him, maintaining the same distance between Sanjuro’s back and the equipment, as he walks and adjusts his robe. The opening theme plays and he continues to walk with the camera at more or less the same angle until 2:12, when the camera shows his feet and the dirt road on which he walks. At 2:37, the camera lifts up again and finally stays in one place while Sanjuro walks further away. 2:56 shows Sanjuro stopping his forward motion and turning 360 degrees, facing the camera for a brief moment before continuing to walk away from the camera at 3:02. At 3:12, he picks up a stick at a crossroads, and the first shot of the film finally cuts to a closer shot of Sanjuro’s face as he throws the stick in the air at 3:16. Yojimbo begins in classic Kurosawa fashion with a long take – 2 minutes and 45 seconds long, to be exact – and the Japanese cinema tradition of not showing many close-ups is upheld. Likewise, High and Low used few close-ups, but in that case, it was because the camera almost always balanced multiple characters within the frame, whereas in Yojimbo, we see more moments of solitude and one-on-one conversations.
Another typical Kurosawa technique employed in the film is the horizontal wipe. He used this in High and Low as a transitional effect during the search and investigation for the kidnapper, and uses it in Yojimbo to signal the passing of time when Sanjuro drinks sake and describes his plan to take down both gangs to an old man. This also operates for humorous effect, because the wipe signals a change of mood. Before the wipe, the old man thought of Sanjuro as a possible savior, but after, he follows Sanjuro out of his hut calling him a madman for having such high goals. The humor is that Sanjuro must have hatched such an absurd plan that he made a welcoming host become irate. Yet at the same time as humor we have suspense, because now the audience wonders what the crazy plan could be.
The comedy consummates at the end. After defeating several gangsters in a showdown, a building wall suddenly breaks down, and out stomps a blind man banging a prayer drum as if to consecrate the holy murder of the gangs. If his playing had been solemn or mournful, it could be taken seriously as a type of war requiem to celebrate the end of conflict while respecting the plight of the dead. Instead, his drumming is one of the loudest diegetic sounds in the entire film, and the blind man’s fierce unblinking eyes and his stiff, serious gait appear extreme, and therefore humorous, especially due to how sudden and random his appearance is. Just when audiences think maybe for once Yojimbo will have a serious moment of sadness, the blind man enters the scene and reminds us that fictional death can be more comic than tragic, even after an absolute slaughter. The blind man’s drumming is reminiscent of kabuki theater, in which the performing musicians were visible to the audience and an acknowledged part of the show. Despite the fact that his nod to kabuki could be read as a tribute, Kurosawa’s use of the blind drummer for comedic and satirical effect mocks the tradition at the same time.
As always, Kurosawa plants himself firmly in the middle ground. He straddles Japanese and Western culture by asserting the strengths and weaknesses of both, thereby joking about and praising the absurdity and imperfection of humanity. Yojimbo demonstrates that there are no true answers. It seems like a good thing that all the bad guys are dead, but at the same time, the city is improved at the expense of the majority of its residents’ lives. What good is a safe city if no one is alive to enjoy it? Kurosawa thrives on this paradox.
Desser, David. The Samurai Films of Akira Kurosawa. Ann Arbor, Michigan: UMI Research Press, 1981.
Kurosawa, Akira, dir. Yojimbo. Perf. Toshiro Mifune. 1961. DVD. Criterion, 1999.
Richie, Donald. The Films of Akira Kurosawa. Berkeley, CA: University of California Press, 1965.
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