Monday, 8 June 2020

A Fistful of Yojimbo

The current Covid-lockdown has given me opportunity to program films I would not ordinarily have time to see, and recently I enjoyed a double-bill of Yojimbo and A Fistful of Dollars. The plan was originally to follow up Yojimbo with the sequel Sanjuro, but the chance to revisit Leone's film in close succession was too good to pass up.1 Not having seen both films in many years, I had assumed Leone’s film lifted just the bare outline of the story (á la The Magnificent Seven and Seven Samurai) but the borrowing was more substantial than I had remembered, with plot points, characters, even shots from Yojimbo reappearing in Leone's film with only a few minor tweaks. In fact much of the delight of watching both films together is how frequently they interlock, and credit is due to Leone and his writing partners for transposing a story set in feudal Japan to 19th century Mexico, and swapping a swordsman for a gunslinger with relative ease. There's an irresistible symmetry at work here between Kurosawa and Leone's film. Yojimbo filters the classic iconography of the American Western (the ramshackle frontier town, the mysterious stranger) through a Japanese mythology, whereby Leone absorbs this gene-splicing and returns it back to the Western. I like to imagine Leone bent over a moviola in Rome, running Kurosawa's film backwards and forwards, studying the text in detail, and if there's some truth to that, perhaps one can say that for the Italian Western (that is to say the spaghetti western), Yojimbo is the archetype of the archetype. 

Watching A Fistful of Dollars again, I was struck by the ghostly elements of the film - the desolate, lonely town, the eerie business in the graveyard; and while dried up desert towns and cemeteries full of fallen loved ones yearning for vengeance were a common setting in American Westerns, in A Fistful of Dollars, these elements assume an almost Gothic Horror atmosphere. I'm tempted to look at the Italian fantasy films of the period, when a certain Gothic flavor that was developing with films like I Vampiri, Black Sunday, and Hercules in the Haunted World, but I need only to glance back to Yojimbo and see a similar sense of phantasmagoria at work. If one was working through Kurosawa's filmography in strict chronological order, Yojimbo might feel just a little slight after Hidden Fortress and The Bad Sleep Well, and it probably is - the film is mostly confined to 2 or 3 sparse interior and exterior locations, but this limited, confined use of space lends the film a claustrophobic intensity.

To push the idea further, the town in Yojimbo feels just that little bit odd - apart from the warring gangsters, it appears that most ordinary folk have fled or remain shut up in doors, and the town feels less like an earthly plain and more like what the Japanese call Meido, a gloomy, shadowy afterlife where souls await promotion to Heaven or get flushed down to Hell. When Sanjuro wanders into the town, the rival clans are locked in an infernal stalemate where neither side has the upper hand. Even Sanjuro inadvertently finds himself stuck in this limbo perhaps for his roguish deeds, and is redeemed when he frees the captive wife of the local farmer and unites her with the family. For his uncharacteristic good work, Sanjuro escapes certain death after he is mashed to a pulp and is smuggled out of the town in a coffin to recuperate at a cemetery.

Yojimbo's eerie setting must have reverberated with Leone, because the town in A Fistful of Dollars are also strangely empty, apart from the inn-keeper, the ever busy coffin maker, and the family trapped within the Rojo-Baxter feud. Leone also re-stages the rescue of the imprisoned woman, and gives it an unmistakable religious bent. When the Stranger warns the family to get out of town, it reminds one of the angel from Matthew's New Testament warning Joseph and Mary to take Jesus to Egypt to avoid execution by Herod. The little boy whom the Stranger reunites with his mother, in case anyone missed the symbolism is named Jesús. Later when the Stranger is almost beaten to death, he duly escapes in a coffin, but in a slight departure from Yojimbo, the Stranger takes refuge in a mine (which is an underworld of sorts!). The cemetery location is in fact used earlier in the film, when the Stranger props up two dead soldiers against a tombstone, a ghoulish part of the Stranger's plan to further weaken the warring the families. If the Bodyguard and the Stranger emerge from their ordeals stronger and wilier, Leone playfully lends his man pseudo-supernatural powers in the climax of A Fistful of Dollars, when the Stranger emerges from a cloud of dust and appears impervious to Gian Maria Volonté's bullets, much to his astonishment, before the Stranger reveals a bullet-proof metal vest. 

It's perhaps not a stretch to say that Yojimbo is a better film than A Fistful of Dollars. Akira Kurosawa and Sergio Leone, indeed Toshiro Mifune and Clint Eastwood, were at very different junctures of their careers at the time they made their respective films. Kurosawa had a string of masterpieces under his belt when he made Yojimbo, while Leone was still a few years away from making his. Yojimbo is better plotted, better shot and better acted, but the irony of course is that it's Leone's film that has made the greater mark on Cinema. Where Yojimbo is elegant, with its luminous, noirish black and white photography and beautiful, dexterous swordplay, A Fistful of Dollars fizzes with a youthful energy and an unashamed vulgarity (as does most of Leone's films it must be said), and from the gaudy, comic book style credit sequence to the brash, sudden outbursts of explicit messy violence, it feels like a stick of dynamite tossed at the traditional American Western. A Fistful of Dollars was pivotal is resuscitating the ailing Western whose conventions were beginning to fall behind the times. Indeed, with one kick of the saloon door, it changed the face of the western all'italiana forever and spawned thousands of imitators and variations for years to come.

1. Had I copy of the film on DVD, I might have watched Walter Hill's 1996 film (and authorized Yojimbo remake) Last Man Standing. In fact I've not actually seen Hill's film so I made no mention of it in the post.

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