Welcome to my third Nippon Day post. Continuing on with the tradition of writing based on recent experiences, I thought I would write about a Japanese movie I watched last night. Akira Kurosawa is well know among film-buffs world wide, but if you're unfamiliar with the name you've probably heard of his movie Seven Samurai. That may be the most well known of his movies in the west, but in Japan the most popular of his films is Yojimbo.
I have watched quite a few Japanese movies in the past, but I have to confess that most of them were anime. As far as live action movies, I have come away with the impression that the Japanese, while admirable in many areas, do not make the best movies. Everything seems to be over the top and dramatized to a point that disbelief cannot be suspended. I always imagined this comes from a long tradition of kabuki theater and I'm not saying that it isn't alright for some people, it's just not really my cup of tea.
However, I recently was listening to a Great Courses series on Japan and the teacher did a whole lecture on classic Japanese films. I had a sudden realization that all the movies that I had watched might actually have just been overly dramatic movies. Imagine if you judged every American movie on one viewing of Rocky Horror Picture Show (a movie I actually enjoyed, but is in no way a representative film). I looked back on the list in my head and realized that this could very well be the case as most of them were fantasy films, and that's a genre that is perfect for over the top acting.
Yojimbo was the movie that the professor of the lecture recommended most highly. Since I really like other forms of entertainment that involve samurai, I figured it would be a good start. I went onto Netflix and started my reeducation.
In the lecture I learned that Akira Kurosawa was influenced by the films of John Ford, which was evident as soon as the movie started. I happen to love old westerns, and the feeling was unmistakable. If you took out the samurai and replaced him with a cowboy, it would't look weird at all. The movie was also inspired by the works of Dashiell Hammett, specifically The Glass Key and Red Harvest. I haven't read those two books, but I have read The Thin Man and The Maltese Falcon. It's a little harder to see, but there is a certain gumshoe-ness about the film. Maybe it's the aloof, tough, rugged personality of the hero.
It begins with the main character, a masterless samurai (ronin), wondering across a rather dusty countryside. It's during the downfall of the Edo Period, in the 1860s, and his kind are loosing their high place in the world. He comes to a village that is in the middle of a gang war between two bosses. Every townsperson is terrified for their life and their wellbeing. The ronin decides to do something about it, by making each side bid for his services as a bodyguard (yojimbo), and agitating them into war.
It's a serious subject, with plenty of violence and roughness, but it still has a subtle vein of humor throughout. For example, when the ronin first arrives in the town, every house is shut up tight, and a dog comes walking towards him with something in its mouth. Once the dog gets close enough you realize that it's a human hand. Gruesome? Sure. Oddly humorous? Totally.
Another moment of humor comes when, while negotiating with one of the gangsters, they ask him his name. He looks over the man's shoulder into a mulberry field and replies, Kuwabatake (mulberry field) Sanjuro. The second name is a little harder to see the humor of if you don't speak Japanese, but apparently it is an actual name, but when spoken aloud it sounds like thirty-years-old, something made a little clearer by his second comment "Though I'm closer to forty, actually".
While the bidding is going on, Sanjuro stays in an inn run by a man named Gonji, who is a bitter old pessimist. The inn is next door to the coffin maker and Gonji complains about the hammering all day, since the death toll is so high that business is booming. At one point in the movie, there is a tentative truce while a government official is in town. The coffin maker is depressed, hanging out at the inn, drinking sake. Sanjuro hears that the official is leaving and tells the coffin maker so, saying "Cheer up". The coffin maker leaps up with a smile and runs out the door, to be quickly followed by the sound of hammering. Gonji comes back into the room and says, "is it starting again?".
I won't tell you how the movie ends, since I really hope you'll watch it yourself, but it was very satisfying. The image of the samurai may be somewhat fictional, but it was masterfully represented in this movie. Sanjuro is a rough ronin, his clothes are old, his hair is messy and he is often scratching it, showing that he has fallen from greatness. However, his sword is still sharp and his skills are unmatched. He is also gentle when no one is looking, shows mercy to the weak and honors his enemy when victorious. It is the perfect image of a warrior who has lost his place in the world. Toshiro Mifune plays the role with mastery.
If the movie feels familiar it may be that you've seen the spaghetti western "A Fist Full of Dollars" starring a young Clint Eastwood. It is essentially the exact same movie only set in the American West. In fact it is so similar that Akira Kurosawa sued the director, Sergio Leone, over it. They settled out of court, but that was only the beginning, since the same theme has been used many times since, often resulting in legal disputes from either Akira Kurosawa's heirs, Sergio Leone's or even Dashiell Hammett's.
After the success of Yojimbo, Akira Kurosawa decided to change his next movie to place the ronin in the lead. It is called Sanjuro and is supposed to be very good. I have put it in my queue, along with a few other Akira Kurosawa films, like Stray Dog, which is a detective movie taking place in 1940s Tokyo. All in all, I'm really glad that I decided to try some classic Japanese films and I hope that you will too.
Until next time, keep trying new and exciting things.