I’ve heard Yojimbo described as Japanese nihilism and that’s true up to a point. Morally speaking, there are no uplifting lessons here; it’s dog-eat-dog in Akira Kurosawa’s pioneering noir Western.dog eat dog The story revolves around an impoverished samurai, Sanjuro, who stumbles into a village terrorized by warring criminal gangs. Once admired for their warrior skills and aristocratic code of honor, the samurai had become swords-for-hire following the Western penetration of Japan in the mid-nineteenth century.

Sanjuro sells himself to the highest bidder, and has no qualms about double-crossing his employers. He appears unscrupulous, a casual killer who sponges off his hosts, lies and cheats, loyal to nobody. And yet he grows on us. Well before Sanjuro reveals his compassionate side, I found myself rooting for him.

For one thing, the bad guys were so much worse than he was, and let’s face it, the village was a mess. Who could blame him for wanting to get the heck out of there? Gary Cooper, Alan Ladd, John Wayne, Jimmy Stewart, Henry Fonda: I don’t care who you pick, nobody could have cleaned up that town.

Kurosawa was a fan of Russian literature. Ten years before he made Yojimbo, he adapted a Dostoevsky novel for the screen. The Idiot was his least successful project, but it was important to him, and very personal, a bleak commentary on postwar Japanese society.

Yojimbo covers the same yojimbo_aboveterritory, but it turns out to be less bleak in the end. The hero of The Idiot is too pure, too fragile, for the corrupt world in which he finds himself. Sanjuro, on the other hand, is well-suited for the modern era. In the Darwinian struggle for survival that characterized the evolution of the Western genre, his type would be selected for.

Seven Samurai

Seven characters make a story:  that’s the appeal of “Seven Samurai” in a nutshell.  Which is odd, because the point of the story—the lesson that Japanese director Akira Kurosawa intended the film to teach—is that individuals don’t count.  The community is everything.  In the words of the wisest character, Kambei, the Samurai leader, “This is the nature of war. By protecting others, you save yourselves.”

So you have Kambei, who cares nothing for status (we first see him shaving off his topknot, the symbol of warrior bravery).  He lives by the ancient samurai code, his every gesture embodies honor.  And yet it is he who recognizes the pointlessness of personal integrity.  His closing line is a lament:  “So.  Again we are defeated. The farmers have won.  Not us.”

At the opposite end of the spectrum is the film’s lovable buffoon, Kikuchiyo.  Crafty, vain, and impetuous, he possesses none of the samurai virtues.  But he understands the farmers because he’s one of them, and we’re even given a bit of his past.  In the scene where he rushes into a stream to rescue the baby of a woman who has been stabbed by the bandits, he confesses that he was that baby.  Next thing you know, he’s dead.

Skillful, stoic Kyuzo, who liberates a rifle from the bandits, killing two—acts for which he neither demands nor expects praise—also dies.  Same goes for the benevolent Gorobei  and the happy-go-lucky Hayashida.  We’re left with just three Samurai:  Kambei, the earnest adolescent Katsushiro, and Kambei’s former soldier Shichiroji, who has a bit of a death wish.  “We’ve survived once again,” says Shichiroji at the end of the film, his disappointment palpable.

The final sequence shows the farmers planting rice.  We see them working together, the women going about the chore with dance-like grace while the men play instruments; the rhythm of the villagers’ life has been restored.  Cut to a shot of the burial mount of the fallen Samurai.  Amid such harmony, Kurosawa feels, the nobility of a samurai has no place.

(15 April 2011)