Friday, September 11, 2009


If there's one foreign director pretty much everyone has heard of, it's Akira Kurosawa. There's nothing wrong with that, he's a very good director. What I like about him is that he's clearly got the eye of a painter, since his images are meticulously framed and constructed. A still from a Kurosawa film can often get the essence of the scene down, and he uses the frame efficiently and creatively. However, I suspect that he's popular not because he can frame a shot, but because he's the most western of Japanese filmmakers. So, let's look at a western he made, Yojimbo.

Ignore all the samurai and swords, this is a western. The story also follows a grand western tradition, with a man (Toshiro Mifune) coming into a shockingly dusty crime ridden town, walking around calmly and in a vaguely threatening yet cool manner, and then manipulating everyone for fun and profit. Somewhere Clint Eastwood was taking notes - especially since this was later remade as Fistful of Dollars (consider that, the most American of genres being tackled by an Italian (Sergio Leone) remaking a film from Japan.)

It's actually quite odd to see samurai in the movie, since visually it owes a massive debt to John Ford. The sets, in spite of some local flavor, would not look out of place if John Wayne was walking around them. The huge dusty main street and the various actions that take place on it seem made for a gun duel. Yes, the main rivalry in town involves silk, but there's still liquor and prostitutes, as tends to show up in these kinds of things. The overall look and feel of the film makes it seem to take place in an alternate history, where the Japanese colonized America yet did pretty much the same things that the Europeans did.

But, being Kurosawa, he has managed to make a damn good western. The plot is interesting, as Mifune - who never reveals his name, instead doing the old cinema cliche of naming himself after objects he sees (a field, in this case) - quietly manipulates both sides in a rivalry to get them to do what he wants. The plot twists in interesting ways, though it does rely on the criminals being profoundly stupid and gullible. Since they're small time in a small frontier Japanese village, it's believable that they're quite thick, so that's not a fault.

The thing with Kurosawa, and why he's influenced so many different directors (in strange ways, since here's where George Lucas' obsession with horizontal wipes comes from), is that he's different enough to be eye catching and unique, without being foreign enough to be off putting. You can see familiar themes in his work, and he likes using stuff like Shakespeare as a starting point so the stories often feel accessible. However, he's such a master of his frame that you can't help not only paying attention, but having the distinct urge to rip him off.

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