Prologue – A Man With No Name
This is the story of a story. Not the whole story of course just the highlights. The greatest stories are timeless. They crop up again and again. Christopher Booker, in his 2004 book, described seven basic plots. Leo Tolstoy thought that there were only two: a man goes on a journey or a man comes to town. There are those who are true scholars in the work of Akira Kurosawa, his films and his place in film history. It is not the intention of this post to compete with them. This follows one story’s story arc from one book and through seven films. It just so happens that the high point is found in Akira Kurosawa’s movie Yojimbo (1961) – a man comes to town. He is a loner, driven by money but guided by his own strict code. He rarely works within the law but in his own way he plays both sides against the middle to bring justice where none existed. Over the time that this character has existed he has had many names but his name is always unimportant because it is the story that is key.
1929 – Poisonville
An unnamed private detective finds himself in the middle of a gang war in a lawless city in 1920s America. He takes one side and then the other in an attempt to restore justice by forcing the factions to destroy each other in various bloody shootouts and against the wishes of a corrupt police force.
Dashiell Hammett damn near invented the hard bitten detective story. Having previously worked as an operative for the Pinkerton Agency he wrote stories which he claimed were grounded in his experiences but were actually much closer to fantasy. They are about as close to the life of a real detective as James Bond is to a secret agent. His novels include The Maltese Falcon (1930), The Glass Key (1931) and The Thin Man (1934) and his works have been very influential. Writers such as Raymond Chandler, Elmore Leonard and James Elroy have all drawn from his work. The book Red Harvest (1929) involves an operative of the Continental Detective Agency bringing order (if not actual Law) to the town of Personville (known as ‘Poisonville’ to the locals) while investigating the murder of a prominent publisher. He achieves this, not by standard legal means but by encouraging the two gangs of the town to destroy each other. Red Harvest is a dark, violent and cynical novel with morally ambiguous characters. It has been cited as an influence by several prominent filmmakers including, for example, the Coen brothers and Rian Johnson when he made the movie Brick in 2005.
1946 – A Man Comes to Town
Against the beautiful backdrop of Monument Valley four brothers are driving a herd of cattle towards California to make their fortune. Near to the town of Tombstone they encounter part of a gang of cattle rustlers and thieves. To seek justice they must bring law to the warring factions of Tombstone.
Based loosely on the fictionalized biography Wyatt Earp: Frontier Marshal (1931) by Stuart Lake, the movie My Darling Clementine (1946) is recognised to be one of John Ford’s greatest westerns. Considering that Ford’s filmography includes classics such as Stagecoach (1939), Fort Apache (1948), The Searchers (1956) and The Man Who Shot Liberty Valance (1962) that is saying something impressive. My Darling Clementine tells elements of the now familiar story of the Earp brothers and Doc Holliday during their time in Tombstone and culminating in the gunfight at the OK Corral. Although Ford claimed that Wyatt Earp told him the story of the gunfight in person, My Darling Clementine differs in many ways from what we now know to be historical fact. The titular Clementine never existed and the Earps never worked as cattle drovers. In Ford’s version, Wyatt and his brothers are forced to seek justice for their murdered brother by intervening in a feud between the Clanton family and Doc Holliday.
My Darling Clementine has many of the hallmarks of John Ford: a Monument Valley setting, a measured pace and stylistic camera work. However, it also has elements of the film noir crime stories which Hollywood was producing around the same time. Things like shadowy lighting, morally ambiguous characters, femme fatales and a murder to solve. In a sense it is a combination of familiar Western tropes and the Dashiell Hammett-style crime thriller. True, by modern standards it may seem tame but consider that Wyatt takes the job as Marshal not to bring justice but so he can legally revenge himself on his brother’s killers. Doc comes to the side of law and order only after a woman, whom he has repeatedly mistreated, is shot in the back and dies. Ultimately, however, the story has familiar elements: the lone hero, the warring gangs and the town in trouble. My Darling Clementine and other similar westerns would influence how many directors approached this same story, including Sam Peckinpah, Sergio Leone and of course Akira Kurosawa.
1961– The Bodyguard
On a dusty backroad, somewhere in Japan, a lone figure makes his way. He is dressed in the garb of a samurai, he carries two swords but his clothes are ragged and his shoulders are hunched against the wind. Stopping at a crossroads he casts a stick high into the air. With a shrug he walks off in the direction indicated.
It is difficult to speak highly enough of Akira Kurosawa’s Yojimbo (1961). A simple story with complex characters, beautifully shot with believable action and an interesting plot. Many film scholars have considered Kurosawa’s reinvention of the cinematic samurai for the generation which followed World War II. Following the atrocities committed by and upon the Japanese people during the war, it no longer seemed possible to view the Japanese warrior aristocracy as a morally incorruptible elite. Where the Seven Samurai (1954) can be viewed as a more obvious allegory for the devastating effect of warring elites on the common people, there remains a redeeming sense of honour among the central characters. The main character in Yojimbo, who gives himself the false name Kuwabatake Sanjuro, is something even more complex. He is much closer to the film noir anti-heroes of classic Bogart movies. His sense of honour, although there, is twisted, self-serving and motivated mainly by money. When he does commit selfless acts it is to his detriment.
Akira Kurosawa’s influences, in the creation of Yojimbo, are many and varied. In creating a new approach for cinema in Japan he was clearly influenced by popular culture in America. No doubt an effect of the ubiquity of American cinema at that time along with Japan’s growing political relationship with the United States. Film scholars dispute the exact relationship but the plot of Yojimbo is similar in many ways to the story in Red Harvest. Kurosawa himself cited the movie The Glass Key (1942) as a major influence which was based on the 1931 Dashiell Hammett book. In addition, Kurosawa was inspired by Hollywood Westerns notably the work of John Ford. The main character, played to awesome effect by Toshiro Mifune, is clearly influenced by John Wayne’s Western heroes. There are particular similarities to Wayne’s character in movies like Tall in the Saddle (1944). The cinematic relationship between Japan’s Edo Period and the American Frontier is not surprising. Both eras are more often considered for their mythical status in their respective cultures than for the harsh historical realities they represent.
The plot of Yojimbo is the quintessential version of the story framework which is common to all of the media discussed here. Toshiro Mifune’s lone warrior happens upon a small town run by two rival criminal gangs. He enters the story during a stalemate and quickly sees an opportunity to make money by stirring up trouble and selling his skills to both sides. There are many things which set Yojimbo apart. The main character is a clever man who uses intelligence at least as much as he relies on his skill with a blade. The supporting cast are all quirky and memorable. The setting, although simple, is beautifully and inventively shot. And that is perhaps the greatest asset which this film has – the effortless talent of its director. Kurosawa’s fingerprints are on every part of the film’s production, from the framing of shots to the use of weather, from the mix of characters to Mifune’s trademark shrug, and from movement of the camera to the film’s measured pace. Although this is a small retelling of a simple story it remains one of the greatest movies ever made.
1962 – A Mulberry Field
A group of young samurai meet in secret to discuss the corruption in their district. Having asked for and been refused help by the local officials they begin to believe that those same officials are in fact behind the crimes. Finding themselves trapped they gain help from an unexpected quarter.
Sanjuro (1962) is a sequel to Yojimbo. It wasn’t meant to be. The first movie was so successful that the script for Sanjuro, originally based on the novel Shūgorō Yamamoto by Hibi Heian, was altered to include the main character. Toshiro Mifune returns as the ronin from Yojimbo and Akira Kurosawa directs. The plot of the movie isn’t quite another version of the story from Yojimbo but there are similarities. For some small financial compensation, but also based on his own code of honour, the wandering ronin involves himself in a conflict between two rival gangs. However, in this case the gangs are a group of noble young samurai and a corrupt gang of criminals. There is an element of changing loyalties to further the plot but for the most part it is clear who the good guys and the bad guys are. The film ends in one of the all-time classic samurai standoffs. It is a tribute to the versatility and depth of the character created by Toshiro Mifune and Akira Kurosawa that he can be lifted so completely from one story to another. What’s more, Sanjuro would not be the last time that ‘The Bodyguard’ was seen on the big screen!
1964 – ‘Get four coffins ready’
A long stranger rides a mule towards a broken town somewhere just beyond the border into Mexico. When he stops to take water from a well he witnesses a family being torn apart by the brutality of the two gangs which have taken over the town. The stranger resolves that there is money to be made.
A Fistful of Dollars (1964) is such a faithful adaption of Akira Kurosawa’s Yojimbo that legal action was taken against Sergio Leone for failing to credit his source. The dispute was settled out of court for a portion of the worldwide receipts and a chunk of money. Strangely enough this does not detract from the quality of A Fistful of Dollars in any way. It remains one of the greatest Westerns ever – fantastically entertaining movie and a faithful adaption of a good story. Clearly the relationship between the samurai movie and the Western continued to be beneficial to both. After all, only four years earlier John Sturges had adapted Seven Samurai into The Magnificent Seven (1960). It is also worth remembering that this relationship exists to this day. In 2013 Lee Sang-il remade Clint Eastwood’s film Unforgiven (1992) as a samurai film starring Ken Watanabe, set during the Meiji period when the samurai warrior had almost vanished. Like these other films A Fistful of Dollars is much more than a remake. It brought to prominence the Spaghetti Western, its star Clint Eastwood, its director Sergio Leone and its composer Ennio Morricone.
It would be possible to write for days and days about the quality and influence of the Spaghetti Westerns which became popular in the wake of A Fistful of Dollars but that is not the purpose of this post. A Fistful of Dollars is essentially a Western version of Yojimbo and so a description of the plot would be a little repetitive. What it does have, however, is the visual style for which Leone would become famous for such as the clever use of setting, extreme closeups and tension which builds to an action finale. It also has an iconic score by Ennio Morricone which, along with the scores for For a Few Dollars More (1965) and The Good, the Bad and the Ugly (1966), would become instantly recognisable worldwide. Eastwood’s ‘Man With No Name’ is not exactly a samurai but a ronin. Sure, he is a master-less warrior wandering America’s frontier in search of money, but he is also in search of a worthy cause. He is motivated by money but like Mifune’s character in Yojimbo, it is the plight of a single family which first draws him into the fight.
1970 – The Blind Swordsman
As the rain lashes down a blind man fights desperately among the long grass against several bandits who are trying to kill him. Using incredible swordsmanship he overcomes the bandits but is left injured. Seeking some peace he decides to return to his home town to recover.
Zatoichi Meets Yojimbo (1970) is the 20th film in the original Zatoichi film series starring Shintaro Katsu in the title role. Pretty much anything which bears the name Zatoichi is worth checking out particularly if you like Jidaigeki. Zatoichi is a blind masseur and swordsman who wanders through Japan’s Edo Period and was created by novelist Kan Shimozawa. Although the Yojimbo character is not the same as the one from Yojimbo and Sanjuro, there is a clear intention to link the characters in the minds of audiences. Both characters are played by Toshiro Mifune. Both characters appear to be wandering ronin. Both characters are skilled swordsmen who are making money in a town with two rival gangs. This is not the only time there was an attempt to link back to the popularity of the original character. In Incident at Blood Pass (1970) Mifune again plays a wandering ronin who is continually referred to as Yojimbo.
The plot of Zatoichi Meets Yojimbo is that Zatoichi returns to his home town to find it under the control of two gangs. The first are a gang of ruthless criminals and the other are the remnants of the town’s corrupt officials run by a silk merchant. Zatoichi has connections to both sides but it is the Yojimbo character who appears initially to be his antagonist. Quickly the two find common ground and it is only through their cooperation that they have a chance to bring peace to the town. Zatoichi Meets Yojimbo is very aware of the movies which have come before it. Just as it knowingly references Yojimbo’s previous appearances it also references Eastwood’s three coffins/four coffins line in A Fistful of Dollars. Zatoichi Meets Yojimbo is also smart enough to play for something just a little different as the character of Zatoichi adds his own tragic comedy to the role of the wandering warrior.
1990 – ‘What’s the rumpus?’
As the ice rattles in the glass two men talk across an ornate wooden desk. An Italian mobster begs for permission from the older Irish mobster to kill a grifter. To the surprise of his friend the older mobster denies the Italian permission for the murder. It is a dangerous decision with violent consequences.
Miller’s Crossing (1990) is something special. A film written, directed and crafted by Joel and Ethan Coen at the height of their film making prowess. The story takes place in an unnamed American city during the Prohibition Era. The dialogue sparkles. The twists and turns of the story are beautifully crafted. The cinematography is immersive, realistic and somehow arty all at the same time. The characters are quirky and believable and Tom Reagan, played by Gabriel Byrne, is the perfect Film Noir anti-hero. He is smart, quick-witted and just a little too confident in his design. There is so much, in fact, to praise about Miller’s Crossing it is difficult to fit it into a single paragraph. From the ‘Danny Boy Gunfight’ to the menagerie of supporting characters it is both creative and familiar. Tom’s character is similar to the nameless wanderer of previous movies in that he manipulates two sides in a war based on his own code of justice.
Miller’s Crossing is not a remake of Yojimbo or any Kurosawa movie. It is, however, clearly inspired by the works of writers like Dashiell Hammett and Raymond Chandler. There are strong similarities between Tom Reagan and other fedora-wearing anti-heroes like Sam Spade or Philip Marlowe. However, Tom is not a detective brought into a case. He is a criminal of high standing. A man valued for his intelligence and gift for strategy but not for his skill in killing. Like the hero in Yojimbo, he plays gangs off each other for financial gain. He provokes violent conflicts like the hero in Red Harvest. He faces social isolation as a result of his action but he is driven by his own moral obligations to see out the scheme even to his own detriment. Using the familiar story as a framework Miller’s Crossing builds in depth, character twists and details which set it above other similar gangster thrillers.
1996 – Jericho
A Model A Ford rattles along a dusty Texas road and a lone figure is hunched behind the wheel. It is hot and the haze shimmers all around him obscuring the horizon. At a fork in the road there is a car. The man crouches in the centre of the crossroads and spins an empty bottle on the ground.
The opening credits for Last Man Standing (1996) acknowledge the film to be a remake of Yojimbo. Not surprising as the film follows the plot of Kurosawa’s movie almost scene for scene while at the same time returning the story to the Prohibition Era roots suggested by Red Harvest. It is a strange hybrid of a film at times a gangster film, often a Western, occasionally a samurai movie but with gunfights straight from Hong Kong. Despite the gritty realism of the sets the whole story seems to take place in some violently fantastic gangster’s hell. Nothing about the plot, the action or the camerawork is realistic. Nor is it supposed to be. Director Walter Hill described the intended look of the film as mythic and poetic. If it is a poem then it is a harsh, brutally violent one with very little joy to be had. Bruce Willis, as the lead character John Smith, is so emotionless his face barely twitches and he delivers each line in a whispered monotone. The rest of the cast are caricatures with only Christopher Walken’s ‘Hickey’ standing out against the background.
The film bombed at the box office partly due to its cheerless mood, partly due to the unlikable characters and partly due to the fact that the whole story had been seen and done much better many times before. In truth Last Man Standing isn’t exactly a bad film. It just removed the humour and character depth which could be seen in Yojimbo and A Fistful of Dollars, and replaced it with Bruce Willis in a hat. The story is still a strong one and the action is impressively staged with each gunshot seeming to rip through the scenery. Walter Hill frequently made tough films about tough men (Hard Times (1975), The Driver (1978) and Southern Comfort (1981)) but what each of these films had that Last Man Standing lacks is heart. The myth of the lone warrior who lives by his own code. When returning to one story which has built itself around this whole idea, Walter Hill should have been able to create something great. Instead the film misfires because Willis’ ‘code’ feels more like an inconvenient sentimentality regarding women.
Epilogue – The Last Film Standing
Sir Christopher Frayling identifies an original source for this story in the 18th century play Servant of Two Masters by Carlo Goldoni. Whatever the origin of the idea, it is clear that there is a beautiful cross-pollination of ideas between samurai and western movies, between books and cinema, between gangster films and Westerns and between the cultures of east and west. It is interesting to see the way a story evolves over time, they way is gains simplicity or complexity, characters, themes and styles depending on the author/director and depending on the social context in which it is made. All of the above movies (and book) have their different qualities and approaches. A few are among the greats and some have their failings. All are worth experiencing. A story this strong is worth revisiting again and again. Did anyone do it better than Kurosawa?