Kurosawa and Cowboys

A man wanders into a town divided by two warring gangs. Getting the lay of the land, he picks a fight with one faction, killing two men and mortally wounding another. Wandering back to the inn he’s staying at, the man off-handedly tells the cooper, “Two coffins…no, maybe three.”

This is basically  Yojimbo,  but without the swords and made of plastic. 

This is basically Yojimbo, but without the swords and made of plastic. 

Wait. Haven’t I seen this before?

I have – sort of. This scene is from Akira Kurosawa’s 1961 action flick Yojimbo. Italian director Sergio Leone swiped this exact scene – and indeed the whole narrative – from Kurosawa, repurposing it as A Fistful of Dollars in 1964, a spaghetti western.

Yojimbo might not have the flash of Dollars, but it’s a much stronger film. The shots are cleaner, the motion visible, the cutting and staging clear and prominent. It’s so much more cohesive, and so much more fun.

Toshiro Mifune stars as the titular yojimbo, or bodyguard. He’s a wandering swordsman named Sanjuro, selling his services at the highest price he can get. Sanjuro is also tough as nails, with gallows humour to match.

“I’m not dying yet. I have quite a few men to kill first,” he growls at one point. After the final showdown, where both gangs lie dead and bloody in the street, Sanjuro surveys the aftermath.  “Now we’ll have some peace and quiet in this town,” he deadpans. The dialogue is brilliant, to say the least.

Considering Yojimbo came out in 1961, it holds up remarkably well. It’s entertaining, and Kurosawa’s sense of space and movement really ties everything together. No matter how chaotic a fight is, you never lose that sense of space and location. There's a sense of purpose to it all. When people talk about Kurosawa’s eye, I think this is what they’re getting at.

It’s really a shame that Leone’s western overshadows this film. As great as Dollars is, it plods along, rife with false symbolism. It lacks the energy Yojimbo has, the grim and playful humour, and never improves upon its predecessor.

Kurosawa has a wicked eye for detail and story, though. I love that I can watch Yojimbo and understand everything based on body language and the blocking of the actors. It comes back to that sense of movement, and Kurosawa’s precision with it. He weaves the story into the DNA of the film.

I think that’s what’s missing from cinema these days. The focus is either on narrative content or visual showboating. No one seems to realize you can mix the two together.

Here’s hoping that changes.

Ben Filipkowski

Ben Filipkowski lives and breathes film, books, history, music, and TV, so it makes sense that he's an aspiring novelist. When he's not watching Seven Samurai for the seventeenth time (with commentary), he can be found rewriting the latest draft of his novel, or out exploring another side of Ottawa.