1961, Movies

Yojimbo (1961, Akira Kurosawa)

I have seen A Fistful of Dollars, the American remake of this film, many times and I’ve seen Last Man Standing, the remake of A Fistful of Dollars, at least once. I’ve meant to see this movie ever since I discovered A Fistful of Dollars but somehow it took over two decades for me to watch it.

Watching the original (or a remake) of a film you’ve seen too many times can be quite weird: there’s deja vu but almost an uncanny valley version of deja vu. I kept expecting Mifune to utter the exact same words as Clint Eastwood. And, even though the plot is very, very similar, I still expected things to unfold exactly as they do in the remake.

Many people have made the point that Kurosawa invented the Spaghetti Western, rather than Sergio Leone. And, watching Yojimbo, it’s easy to understand why people think that.

The soundtrack is mostly extremely western for a Japanese film of the era and my ears detect the influence of the French New Wave in the score, not just Hollywood. But there is still a Japanese character to some of it. There’s at least one motif that seems to clearly have inspired Morricone even if there are few obvious similarities to the music. I’m not super familiar with Morricone’s music pre “Man with No Name” but I do wonder how much the aggressiveness of this score influenced his writing for the Leone films.

The film itself is clearly influenced by westerns, especially in how it’s shot. Even if it hadn’t been remade as a Spaghetti Western it’s very clear that this film is just a western set in Japan. The notable change, and one that helped launch revisionist westerns in Europe and then the States is how seemingly amoral Mifune’s character is. (Of course he’s not, really.) It’s nowhere near as bonkers as Leone’s filmmaking, though, and one reason why I think people might be going overboard a little bit in crediting this film with inventing the Spaghetti Western is that Leone brought a bit more of an anarchic (or, at least, very unconventional) approach to framing and zooms and the like, whereas Kurosawa mostly plays it safe.

But, aside from Leone’s distinct filming style, and Morricone’s more memorable (if no less whacky) music, this is very, very similar to the remake. As someone who has watched the remake too many times, I have bit of trouble giving this film its due (and removing at least some credit from the Leone film).

But I think you can argue that, in addition to being one of the most famous and iconic samurai films, this is also one of the most important films in the history of the western. Without it, A Fistful off Dollars doesn’t get made. (And maybe no similar film gets made by an Italian filmmaker in Spain, with an American lead actor.) And if A Fistful of Dollars doesn’t get made, not only doesn’t The Good, the Bad and the Ugly get made, but maybe The Wild Bunch and the American revisionist western aren’t made either.


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