WTF ASIA 106: Yojimbo (1961)

You are the worst bodyguard ever.

Available in Australia, Canada, the United Kingdom, the United States, and maybe a few other countries. Approximately 111 minutes.

 

It is a hundred years ago…okay, it is a hundred and sixty years ago, but bear with me. It is a hundred years ago. Japan has recently experienced the forced opening up of the country thanks to Commodore Matthew Perry. The Tokugawa Shogunate is on its last legs. But life goes on. And so does death. In this time of uncertainty, a lone lordless landless Samurai wanders through the middle of nowhere. His name is…uh…let’s call him Toshiro.

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Toshiro is walking down a road until he hits a fork. Well, he probably has no idea where either path leads, so he throws a stick up in the air and wherever it lands shall determine his direction. He goes where the stick leads and it is not too long before he sees a young man and his father on the road. The son wants to run away to participate in a battle, which he calls the chance of a lifetime. The father scolds him, saying that he will merely get killed. But the son would rather live a short glamorous life than live on the farm eating gruel, and he runs off.

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The father goes back to his house, upset that his son has run away to die, less so that Toshiro had witnessed the whole exchange, followed him back to his house, and now asks to use their well. Instead, he yells at his wife for letting their son leave, even though she was also powerless to stop the kid. He blames the rise in gambling that makes everyone think that they can make easy money. Toshiro is still there drinking from the well as the man talks about a local sake brewer starting to trade in silk and offers to pay more than the local silk merchant pays for their wares. His wife does not see how this will make much of a difference, since the town is in such bad shape that there is little way to know when the next silk fair will open. Finally, the husband glances at Toshiro and says to his wife that hungry dogs come running when they smell blood. That is not particularly fair to Toshiro. He came this way by pure chance…and not even a gambler’s chance. In any case, the farmer’s outburst about impending violence finally gets Toshiro to stop drinking the water. He may not have smelled blood, but he has heard talk about bleeding. It is time to see what is going on about this town.

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Toshiro walks into the town to see it practically deserted…at least on the streets. It is the middle of the day and he appears to be the only person outside. Suddenly, a bunch of house panels open and suspicious-looking figures gaze upon Toshiro with curiosity and suspicion. But no one comes out to see him…only a dog…carrying a human hand in its mouth.

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Finally, a man emerges from one of the houses. Gleefully so. The man, Constable Hansuke, asks Toshiro if he wants to make money as a bodyguard, since the price has gone way up recently. He says that his commission is one ryo…or around…let’s say $40. Hansuke asks Toshiro which side he would take: brothel owner Manome Seibei or inn owner Shinden Ushitora. Hansuke recommends Ushitora, and tells Toshiro to use his name as a reference. Toshiro says nothing during this, but Hansuke acts like a deal has been struck and runs back. So, that is the law in the town.

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Toshiro goes over to Ushitora’s so-called inn and is met by several men with bad customer service. He stares down each of the men before turning around and walking back. The men laugh at him and go back inside. Hansuke tells him that he has to be more assertive in proving himself, maybe cut off one of their arms; they are not as tough as they act anyways. Once again, Toshiro barely acknowledges Hansuke, walking over to the…restaurant. The restaurant owner shoos Hansuke away and lets Toshiro in.

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The restaurant is empty other than the two of them. Even empty of food, since there is no business. Well, there is cold rice, which Toshiro accepts. He admits that he has no money to pay for the rice, but may after he busts some heads. The restaurant owner, Gonji, refuses, saying that there has been enough fighting already. Toshiro can pay for the food by leaving town after finishing. Gonji then drops some exposition. Seibei used to run all gambling in this town. He decided to give his territory to his son. His right-hand man, Ushitora, rebelled and the gang split in half. Both sides have been recruiting drifters and criminals to their sides. Now only the casket maker next door (!) is making much money. The constable is in the pocket of Ushitora. Tazaemon, silk merchant and supposed mayor, is allied with Seibei. Sake brewer and Ushitora ally Tokuemon, however, calls himself the new mayor. And, as mentioned earlier, he has started selling silk in a bid to completely oust Tazaemon. Gonji had been telling Toshiro all of this to convince him that the town was doomed and that it would be best for him to leave immediately. Toshiro, however, decides to stay. He can rid the town of all these men and maybe even get paid for it. He starts to formulate a plan while drinking sake, which is always a good idea. Gonji concludes that Toshiro is crazier than anyone else in this crazy town.

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Toshiro goes over to the brothel and demands to see Seibei. He asks if Seibei wants to hire him. He then leaves as Seibei and his men file out to observe him. He then goes back to Ushitora’s place and starts antagonizing the men who confront him, calling into question they capacity for violence. Three of the men specifically start boasting about their criminal status, but Toshiro is not impressed. Swords come out. Toshiro kills two of the men instantly and the third loses his arm. The rest of the men just stand there in disbelief as Toshiro walks off. He tells the casket maker to make two – no – three caskets, and then meets with Seibei inside the brothel.

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Seibei offers Toshiro three ryo to finish off Ushitora and his gang. After an extended exchange where Seibei pretty much humiliates himself in front of his prostitutes and hired thugs, Toshiro agrees to fifty ryo; twenty-five now and the other twenty-five after the job is done. Also room and board. Seibei’s wife, Orin, is…not quite so happy with this arrangement and asks to speak to him privately with their son. Unfortunately, neither of them thought to keep someone guarding Toshiro, so he eavesdrops on their scheme. They will attack Ushitora today at noon, then kill Toshiro when the job is done, and then get the money back. The son will have to kill him; what better way to establish himself as the boss? The prostitutes, who can also overhear this exchange, are terrified, but Toshiro simply sticks his tongue out at them and sneaks back to where he had been talking with Seibei before.

Yojimbo 09

Seibei gives him 25 ryo and some sake. He then asks Toshiro for his name. Toshiro blatantly looks outside at the mulberry field before replying that his name is Kuwabatake Sanjuro, or 30-year-old Mulberry field. And then he admits that he is closer to 40 than 30. Yeah, it is a nonsense name; I am sticking with Toshiro. Seibei tells him and his men that they will raid today at noon, a break from the usual night-time murders. He assures them that they will win with Master Homma and Toshiro leading, but his shaking hands suggest uncertainty.

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Noon arrives. The thugs on both sides empty out into the streets while Orin locks up the prostitutes so that they cannot use the chaos to escape. Meanwhile, Toshiro lounges about in the brothel, noticing Master Homma fleeing. Perhaps he has the right idea. Eh.

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So, this is it, the big confrontation. The clash between…oh, wait. Not quite. Toshiro gives the money to Orin, saying that he does not want to simply be killed after the fight and telling them that Homma ran away. He then calls for Ushitora and tells him that he has cut ties with Seibei. With that all out of the way, Toshiro climbs up to the top of the bell tower at the center of the street to watch the two sides cut each other to pieces.

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Oh, it is a sorry affair. Neither side is eager to truly get in on the fight. They do not so much charge as they do lurch forward and retreat back. Orin has to swing a sword at the men on her side to keep them going in the right direction. Meanwhile, Toshiro is having the time of his life; this pathetic show of cowardice must be the funniest thing that he has seen in a long time. And it was all (or mostly) thanks to his engineering.

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Suddenly, a man on horseback rides through the street. An inspector from the capital city is coming, he warns. It looks like the great battle will have to wait until he leaves. Awwww…and just when things were going to start getting good. Seibei and Ushitora, trade threats before going their separate ways and the two factions scurry to avoid getting noticed, as well as order the rest of the town to open up their houses and businesses as if everything were functioning properly.

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Back at the restaurant, Toshiro observes the mayor and the constable attending to the inspector and his men, which includes spiked tea and bribes. Tokuemon also goes over to bribe the inspector. And then comes Seibei with a bunch of prostitutes. Not quite as hilarious as the battle that wasn’t, but Toshiro still laughs, as does Gonji a little. Gonji is still upset at Toshiro for masterminding the huge fight, even though it failed. Now he believes that Ushitora and Seibei will both act against him. Toshiro, on the other hand, believes that they will each try to entice him to their side. And he is proven right.

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Ushitora’s brother Inokichi arrives. Even among this town’s circle of geniuses, he is considered a half-wit. He tells Toshiro that he likes him. Toshiro asks about the three men whom he had killed, and Inokichi replies that they were worthless. Toshiro tries to toy with Inokichi a bit before Orin arrives. She sits right next to Toshiro and tries to act chummy, dismissing their mutual betrayals as no big deal. Orin and Inokichi start to bicker over who will be the one to pay for drinks with Toshiro. It is unclear whether either of them prevails.

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Days pass. Rain. Rain. Rain. And the inspector is still in town. Toshiro seems to have been staying at the restaurant for all this time in spite of Gonji’s continued antipathy. Ushitora arrives and tells Toshiro that the inspector will leave the next day, upon learning of the murder of a magistrate in a town 24 miles away. How does Ushitora know about this, but not the inspector? Hmmm…in any case, Ushitora gives Toshiro 30 ryo in advance, with the promise of another 30 if they prevail over Seibei. Toshiro refuses, saying that he will consider any offer after the inspector leaves.

Yojimbo 17

The sun is back. The inspector is gone. Yet, neither side has returned to make an offer to Toshiro. Well, it turns out that the two sides have made peace. Gonji is overjoyed, but Toshiro argues that this is just a way for both sides to consolidate their forces in preparation for a bigger fight. They need to have the silk fair to make use of the gambling rooms and raise funds. Smart, maybe. But Toshiro wonders how these gaggle of nincompoops even thought to make a peace treaty after he had riled them up so much. The coffin maker theorizes that it wat Ushitora’s other brother who put forth the idea. Unosuke, the worst of the bunch. He had returned after a year and brought with him a new toy.

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So…this movie…

An absolute classic, to be sure, one that has been beloved to this day, hugely influential, and remade more than once. And though it was not without criticism in its time, it was well-liked enough for Kurosawa to make a semi-sequel with Sanjuro the following year.

This movie is a dark action comedy in the wrappings of historical fiction. And it allows for a male power fantasy in the form of a nameless and fully independent warrior, dispensing of the bad guys through skillful kills and guile. This is some cathartic stuff that is perfect for a time of upheaval…and time when everything is fine…which is never.

The first shot of the movie, while the credits are still rolling, is of Toshiro descending from wherever to face the mountain range in the distance, which is angled to appear shorter than he is. This image of him towering over literal mountains is slightly undercut by him scratching the back of his head like a dog. But as this beast of a man turns away from the mountains, they fall below the screen and he once again rises to the top like a titan…who is still scratching himself. This man is larger than life, larger than death, but still a man of the dirt. His clothes are not particularly well kept either. It is both reverent and irreverent, like a stuck-out tongue to those who called Kurosawa movies elitist.

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Yeah, I’ll show em. I’ make a scene where the 40-year-old protagonist sits atop a tower and laughs at the chaos that he orchestrated among the filthy riff-raff below. That’ll rile up the haters. And it did. Look, y’all. We can make thinkpiece after thinkpiece about whether action movies are fascist propaganda; Kurosawa had made films under Imperial Japan. Anything that he made would be scrutinized and found wanting by the 1960’s radicals, for whom the leftist leanings of past meant nothing. Dudes. This movie is a fun romp. Come on. Loosen up. Kids these days are all mad.

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The Samurai with no name lives in a time when that label was meaning less and less. Instead of lamenting the end of his kind, this man finds it liberating, just wandering carefree throughout the countryside. He has no money, but has little concerns regarding how to get by. He has neither family nor lord. He is alone; independent. A rugged individual. He is both from the upper echelons of society and outside of society. But he eventually comes across society, and it is not a good sight. Everything is shut down thanks to violent lowlife criminals. Rich businessmen, politicians, and lawmen are all complicit. The family unit is dysfunctional if not completely broken. This has been the premise to more serious movies and more serious action movies. For our Samurai, these people just make easy targets. And Kurosawa heaps even more contempt for them by making them dirty cowardly idiots. What else could turn someone in these troubled time to a life of crime then the promise of easy money?

The Samurai is a new kind of protagonist, at least for Kurosawa. While there may have been characters like him in previous Kurosawa movies, this one puts him front and center: he is just a badass. He is hardly one to moralize or talk of honor or whatever. The only lesson that people learn from him is that they should not have messed with him. His grievances against these groups of thugs may very well be that he cannot believe that such pathetic wannabes could ever throw their weight around like they do. His sympathy for the downtrodden innocent civilians who have not yet run away is…well, I would not say non-existent, since some of his actions on behalf of individuals later on suggests some level of sympathy for them, but his trying to play the two factions off each other and accelerating their gang war does risk burning the entire town down. Is that what Kurosawa is suggesting? That this crumbling society would be better off if it just burned down in order to start fresh?

Kurosawa had claimed that he got some inspiration from the 1942 film noir film The Glass Key, which was based on the 1931 Dashiell Hammet novel of the same name. Others, however, have pointed to Hammet’s 1929 novel Red Harvest as a having more similarities. And, aside from one scene that was directly inspired by The Glass Key, I do seem much more overall ties to Red Harvest, regardless of whether they were coincidental. In any case, the bitter cynical take on society seeped into Yojimbo, where it was cutthroat strategy and strategic cutthroatery that won the day over being good. The unnamed Samurai plays the game for as long as he wants to. But, despite a few missteps, he never allows himself to get swept up or pulled under. After all, this is not an expression of anxiety over an uncertain future. This is an action comedy.

And the comedy does sometimes take precedence over the action. The title itself is ironic, as the nameless Samurai is a willfully terrible bodyguard, or yojimbo. The big battle sequence that got interrupted by the cops thirteen years before Monty Python did it would have been pathetic anyways, given how un-badass both sides acted in the leadup. There are a few big scenes of violence that are either only partially shown or not shown at all. Partly this is because the spectacle is not the point of the movie. Partly this is because they do not directly involve our nameless Samurai, who is the point of view character for almost the entire movie. He displays enough badassery to suggest that maybe he could have taken on all both groups himself and won if he really wanted to do so. But violence to him is just one tool of…well, two. The other is manipulating these dopes.

The criminal types of the film are comically pathetic. Seibei seems to hold absolutely no authority. Orin’s initial introduction as a Lady MacBeth-type wife becomes somewhat undermined by her utter brazenness. Inokichi status as a half-wit is displayed by him biting his lower teeth all the time, making him look like a goofball. Ushitora’s huge henchman with a mallet seems more over-the-top than actually intimidating. None of the underlings particularly come off as tough guys even before the big battle that never took place reveals them all to be cowards. Only Unosuke shows himself to be anything close to a match for our nameless Samurai.

Look, I had so much trouble starting this part of the article as it is and, as you can see, I did not really organize my thoughts very well. So I am not even going to attempt to wrap this up in any sort of elegant manner. Yeah, so this is it.

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WTF ASIA 107: Eat Drink Man Woman (Taiwan: 1994, approx. 124 minutes)

Wikipedia

Available in AustraliaCanada, the United Kingdom, the United States, and maybe a few other countries.

 

WTF ASIA 108: The Chaser (South Korea: 2008, approx. 125 minutes)

Wikipedia

Available in the United Kingdom, the United States, and maybe a few other countries.