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box Trans-Cultural Influence At Its Best
Yojimbo (DVD)
Yojimbo (VHS)
Dir: Akira Kurosawa
with Toshiro Mifune
Kurosawa admitted in interviews that this film was, essentially, an uncredited adaptation of elements from Dashiell Hammett's "Red Harvest" and "The Glass Key"; in addition, as so many samurai films do, it shares many tropes with the American Western, which made Sergio Leone's swipe of the swipe, turning "Yojimbo" into "Fistful of Dollars" all the more logical.

Bits from this film -- the confrontation and sword fight with the boastful thugs and one of them losing an arm -- and even more from another Kurosawa film, "The Hidden Fortress" -- made up much of the inspiration for the first "Star Wars" film, as well.

Mifune's wandering ronin is deliberately made almost the antithesis of the samurai ideal -- scruffy, surly, lazy and so lost to proper manners that he scratches himself in public -- to point up that it is difficult to judge good or ill from surface appearance (a point made even more strongly in the sequel, "Sanjuro").

Arriving in a town that is being destroyed by the running battles between two gangs of small-time gamblers and gangsters, the ronin plays both gangs against each other, hoping to lead them to destroy each other.

It almost works. And it almost gets him killed, too.

Kurosawa, like Leone, was a master of the meaningful silence, the understated gesture -- and the sudden shocking violence that releases tension gradually built up so quietly we almost haven't noticed it.

Like most of his films, at the heart of this one is a meditation on honor and strength and on what a man owes to himself and to those around him, and on whether having the ability to clean up a bad situation compels one to do it.

Is it true, as Spider-Man says, that "With Great Power comes Great Responsibility", or is it unreasonable to ask someone to risk his neck for a bunch of people he doesn't know, just because he's The Only Man Who...?

One of these days, i'm going to re-read the Hammett, then i'm going to rent "Yojimbo" and "Fistful of Dollars" and "Last Man Standing" and i am going to watch them all -- in order -- and then i'm going to reread David Drake's recent SF novel reworking the same themes, "The Sharp End"... just as a sort of crash course in how five masters of narrative tell the same story and make it theirs.

I must admit to being a bit cranky about the most recent subtitles that change one of my favourite lines {from the subtitles the theatrical version i first saw back in the 1980s had} to something flat.

In the print i first saw, when Sanjuro goes out to confront the thugs in the street (what became the "Apologise to my mule" scene in "Fistful of Dollars" and Obi-Wan's barfight), he touched off the fight by saying "Are you sure you want me to kill you?  It'll hurt, you know."

In the newer titles, he says something thoroughly unmemorable and not funny.