Thursday, March 22, 2007

Revisit: Yoijimbo/Fistful of Dollars

A Toho Company release 1961

Directed by Akira Kurosawa

Writing credits:
Akira Kurosawa
Ryuzo Kikushima

A wandering samurai (Toshiro Mifune) enters a rural town divided between two gangsters and plays one side off against the other.

A United Artists release 1964

Directed by
Sergio Leone

Writing credits:
Ryuzo Kikushima (screenplay Yojimbo)
Akira Kurosawa (screenplay Yojimbo)
Víctor Andrés Catena (screenplay)
Jaime Comas Gil (screenplay)
Sergio Leone (screenplay)

A wandering gunfighter (Clint Eastwood) plays two rival families against each other in a town torn apart by greed, pride, and revenge.

A Fistful of Dollars is most well known as the first installment of Sergio Leone’s popular spaghetti western trilogy featuring Clint Eastwood as the nameless gunslinger. These films demythologize the traditional American western, appropriating standard genre motifs and reinventing them; shot in Spain by Italians and produced by Germans, these spaghetti westerns exist as a reflection of America the melting pot. However, Fistful is also of particular note in that it is a transcultural adaptation of Akira Kurosawa’s samurai film Yojimbo. The films share much in common, especially in regards to character and story arc, but ultimately the transitioning of genres separates the two from each other.

Yojimbo takes place in 1860, a time where samurai were beginning to be erased by a thriving middle class. The film follows a hungry ronin (Toshiro Mifune) who finds himself in a desolate town split in two by a pair of feuding gangsters. The samurai, who names himself Sanjuro Kuwabatake in film, seizes the opportunity to play sides, ultimately killing all the gangsters and making some money in the process. Similarly, Fistful of Dollars deals with a nameless character that enters a town ravaged by gangsters and follows his attempts at confounding the corrupted. Both films also feature subplots that involve the rescue of a concubine and the subsequent return to her family.

The construction of character in both Yojimbo and Fistful is very similar as well. The main protagonist in each is portrayed as a mysterious, mythologized version of their real-life equivalent. Both the samurai and the gunslinger exhibit physical abilities beyond the norm: the gunslinger is a perfect shot, the samurai a fierce, unparalleled warrior. Their clever manipulation of the gangsters mimics a god-like force, supported by the frequent elevated character placement – “Everything looks different from up high,” says the gunslinger – and use of close ups and altered perspective to make the characters appear bigger than their surroundings. Rolling boughs of fog introduce each character, and both are equated with death and ghosts at some point, reinforcing character mythologization.

It is clear that the basic details of both of these films are very similar. However, what most disrupts these similarities is the transition of genre from samurai film to western. For example, the introduction of a gun in Yojimbo is a major turning point. The gun represents a new threat, western technology and the rising middle class, and the samurai’s ability to avoid and castrate the gun supports the mythological presentation of his character. Because it’s a western, everyone in Fistful uses a gun. The threat is now about size (colt vs. rifle), and though the mythological effect remains, the symbol of the gun loses its multi-layered meaning.

Likewise, the town in Yojimbo is divided evenly into two equally powerful gangs, whereas the town in Fistful is split between the ineffective law (Sheriff Baxter and his gang) and the ruthless Rojo gang. This alteration places the feud in a different context, making the division line between good and bad seem a bit more clear. This is a definite convention of Leone’s work: though the characters are all portrayed as morally ambiguous, there still exists a sort of tiered hierarchy that allows for the sympathy of characters on multiple levels. This does not really exist in Yojimbo; the gangsters are all clearly bad, and the samurai exists as the only morally complicated character. Finally, the subplot involving the concubine and her family is anchored as a central plot device in Fistful, rather than as an effect of narrative discourse like in Yojimbo. The concubine is shown within the first few frames in Fistful of Dollars, visually alerting the audience to her condition and foreshadowing the inevitable rescue. Eastwood’s character seems fascinated by her in the film, almost as if he were about to fall in love. This foregrounding of the concubine story shifts character motivation and provides a sort of romantic element that is unexplored in Yojimbo.

Ultimately, Yojimbo and A Fistful of Dollars share much in common. However, the translation of genre provides for some very distinct changes that make Fistful its own unique film.

1 comment:

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