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Kurosawa’s “Yojimbo” and Leone’s “Fistful of Dollars” Comparison Essay

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Akira Kurosawa is an iconic Japanese director who helped define Japanese cinema in the post war era. Sergio Leone is an Italian director famous for his Spaghetti Westerns. This paper will be an analysis of two movies. The first movie is Akira Kurosawa’s, 1961 classic, Yojimbo. The second movie is, Sergio Leone’s 1964 western, Fistful of dollars. Yojimbo was allegedly remade as the Sergio Leone western A Fistful of Dollars. Both movies involve the protagonist playing rival camps against each other. The movies are so similar that Kurosawa actually won a court case and received a share of the profits from Fistful of dollars. In order to verify or belie these claims, these two movies will be compared and contrasted for similarities in style, cinematography, plot and character development.

Background information on the Directors

Akira Kurosawa 1910-1998

In order to better understand the two movies it would be best to first have a backgrounder on the two directors who made the movies possible.

Akira Kurosawa was born on 23 March 1910 and died at the age of 88 on 6 September 1998. His curriculum vitae as a filmmaker, producer, screenwriter and editor is the stuff of Japanese Legend. Before he could become a legendary director/screenwriter he was firm born to modest beginnings as the youngest of eight children albeit the descendant of a samurai linage with above average means. His father embraced western culture and exposed his children to western movies which provided a considerable educational experience to the young Akira. As a child Akira had some talent in drawing and this was encouraged by his teachers in school. But it was Heigo his intelligent older brother who had a more profound impact on him. During the Great Kanto earthquake which destroyed Tokyo Akira was an eye witness to the number of deaths and he took away the reflection that to look at a frightening thing head-on is to defeat its ability to cause fear. By the time Akira was 23 a series of tragedies left him the sole survivor among four brothers in his family. He married actress Yoko Yaguchi and has two children with her.

Akira began his career in movies in an apprenticeship program for directors under PCL. As with most directors in pre-war Japan his work was strictly monitored by the Japanese government and closely monitored for propaganda value. During that period movies were used to promote Nationalism. Having endured so much censorship in the pre-war era it was not surprising that Kurosawa’s first post-war film No Regrets for Our Youth was markedly critical of the old Japanese regime and about leftist wife who was arrested for her political convictions. Kurosawa’s early post-war work was mostly contemporary but he was recognized internationally for his unique storytelling in Rashomon.

Kurosawa distinguished himself as a director because of his cinematic technique. He used telephoto lenses because they flattened the frame and believed that placing the cameras farther away than normal produced better performances from actors. Kurosawa uses multiple cameras simultaneously so he could shoot the same scene from different angles. Another trademark was his subtle use of frame wipes as a transition device. He was also known to use weather effects to heighten the mood in his movies. A brilliant director he was also known for his quirks. Among which was his tendency to be very extravagant in his uses of props. He was also a perfectionist extraordinaire. For example he demanded that his actors wear the costumes several weeks before they were actually to be used in order to wear them out and make them look more realistic. Regardless of his quirks, his directorial style and unique storytelling have earned Akira Kurosawa a place among the greats of film making. His seminal works, Rashomon, Seven Samurai and Yojimbo are immortal classics of Japanese cinema.

Sergio Leone (1929-1989)

Sergio Leone was a famous Italian film director, producer and screenwriter. He was best known for his spaghetti westerns. Spaghetti westerns are so called because they are supposed to be movie about the American west but are directed and produced by Italian, the actors are predominantly Italian or Spanish and the film itself is shot in Spain. Sergio Leone was once of the better spaghetti western directors which helped transition the genre from derided B-movie to something of an art form.

Leone was born in Rome to Vicenzo Leone, better known as Roberto Roberti, and his wife a silent film actress. As the son of a director Leone grew up surrounded by the film industry. He loved filming so much that he dropped out of law school to pursue a career in film. His career started with writing screenplays for peplum historical epics which were the vogue at the time. Aside from scriptwriting he also worked as a director understudy on the movie Ben-Hur. His first shot a directing came when Mario Bonnard got sick during the production of The Last Days of Pompeii in 1959. Leone stepped up and took over completion of the film. As a result when it was time for him to take the helm under his own credentials he delivered a superlative product called The Colossus of Rhodes.

By the time Leone was directing the peplum historical epic was no longer in vogue. However Leone was on the cutting edge of the next big thing: the Western. His Man with No Name Trilogy began in 1964 with A Fistful of Dollars and he pioneered the genre that would be known as Spaghetti western. Among the credentials of A Fistful of Dollars were its similarities to Yojimbo, the two were so similar that Akira Kurosawa successfully sue for a share of its profits, and that it was Clint Eastwood’s catapult to fame. Leone’s Man with no name trilogy was established because it had all the elements of a gritty, violent and morally complex western movie but also carried a unique aspect. Unlike traditional westerns where the characters were clearly defined, the hero wore a white hat versus a black one for the villain; Leone’s trilogy has a morally ambiguous main character.

After his successful Man with No Name Trilogy, Leone went to the United States to direct Once Upon a Time in the West. Like all Spaghetti westerns it was mostly shot in Almeria Spain. This film suffered under the hands of the editors and did not meet expectations. After this movie he continued to direct movies of the Spaghetti Western genre with decreasing success as the genre was slowly falling out of vogue. Leone turned down The Godfather and instead worked on a script based on the Hoods, a story about Jewish gangsters in the 1920s and 30s. The film became known as Once Upon a time In America. Like Once upon a time in the West, this new movie would suffer at the hands of the editors and was severely trimmed down from its original four hours and as a result became a confusing substandard piece of work. Leone was severely affected by what the studio did to his film and would not direct another movie unto his death.

Leone’s trademarks are his spaghetti western films and his unique style of juxtaposing extreme close-ups with lengthy long shorts along with making up original soundtracks. His most famous films were the Man with no name Trilogy (A Fistful of Dollars, For a Few Dollars More and The Good, the Bad and the Ugly), which starred Clint Eastwood, Once Upon a Time in America and Once Upon a Time in the West.

Movie Synopsis

Yojimbo

Yojimbo is the story of a Ronin, literally a master less samurai, who comes to a town which is dominated by two competing crime lords. The criminals make money via gambling. The Ronin is able to bamboozle both sides into hiring him as “protection” against their rival. Using intrigues, guile and a hefty skill with the sword he is able to bring peace to the town and death to most of the gangsters. Kunwabatake Sanjuro, the name the Ronin calls himself, means “30-yr old mulberry field“ and his choice of a name was inspired by his looking at a mulberry field when asked what his name was. Sanjuro would be the prototype of other nameless protagonists like Clint Eastwood’s Man with no Name (Hammett 1989).

A Fistful of Dollars Synopsis

Leone introduces a new kind of hero to Hollywood in this movie. Clint Eastwood’s character is not the squeaky-clean goody-two-shoes that John Wayne’s cowboy persona. Instead he is an imperfect aloof person who isn’t really much better than the hooligans he defeats. He enters the Mexican border any-town that goes by the name San Miguel. Here, like in Yojimbo, the town is dominated by two gangs albeit this time they are mafia gangs. The rival gangs are the Rojos and the Baxters.

The Man with no Name sees opportunity in this town’s misery as he decides that he can make a “fistful of dollars” by playing the two families against each other. Typical of Western movies he is able to get a girl in the form of the Rojos’ prisoner Marisol. He is captured and tortured yet is able to make an escape. The Rojos’ are victorious in the inter gang fighting but for some reason the Man with No Name is able to outfight them all in a dramatic duel. He makes an escape before any retribution can come to him from either Mexico or the United States.

Style and Cinematography

Yojimbo is told using Kurusawa’s signature style of using camera angles that are farther than conventional from the actors and use of weather to emphasize the mood of the characters. As can be expected from Kurusawa the attention to detail is very meticulous and costumes look worn and aged just like he prefers them. Western influence can be seen in Yojimbo’s style. For example, shots of a deserted town with only the hero approaching. While it can not be known how big the budget of the movie was there is no doubt that Kurusawa spared no expense in insuring that his movie was as close to perfection as he could attain.

A Fistful of Dollars is a spaghetti western, that being said it was a relatively low budget film. Costumes look reedy and cheap, this helps emphasize that San Miguel was a run down backwater town. However this was also because the studio was trying to save money. Clint Eastwood actually provided some of his costume. The Cinematography is signature Leone and signature western. Dramatic scenes of a final duel between the good guy and the bad guy are iconic of Western movies of that era. Ultimately it is the difference in the cinematography that redeem A Fistful of Dollars from being seen as an utter carbon copy. A change in the setting and the fact that the movie was shot using the expert lens of Leone are all that separates this movie from Yojimbo.

Plot

In order to show how similar the two films are this plot comparison will compare scenes from Yojimbo with very similar scenes from A Fistful of Dollars. As there are Twenty-two scenes which are remarkable analogous there can be no doubt that both screenplays appear to be the same. This in turn lends credence to the theory that A Fistful of Dollars is a remake. In short this section will compare the parallelisms in the two.

The hero of Yojimbo is a scruffy unkempt, ronin from the 1860, a time when many samurai are unemployed because of the general peace of the Tokugawa era. By comparison A Fistful of Dollars features a scruffy unkempt Man with No Name in the late 19th century Mexico. This time period is famous for its lawlessness and banditry before governments on either side of the border could truly exert any meaningful control over their frontiers.

Sanjuro is listless man with no goals or direction in life, therefore in order to decide where he must go he decides to let fate decide. Sanjuro tempts fate by throwing a dead tree branch in the air and elects to follow the direction where the branch lands. Equally listless and aimless the man with no name does not resort to such theatrics and simply lets his mule follow the road to whichever path it wants to take. As a result of their aimless behavior, Sanjuro winds up in a nameless, downtrodden and dusty Japanese village. On the other hand, the Man with no Name ends up in a downtrodden and dusty Mexican village with a name; San Miguel.

Upon arrival in the new town Sanjuro is shocked when he sees a dog with a severed human hand in its mouth. The Man with No Name gets a similar shock when he sees a dead Mexican peasant mounted on a mule leaving town. Startled Sanjuro decides he needs to pump someone for information about what is going on in town. He turns to the corrupt time keeper of the village named Hansuke. Likewise, the Man with No Name turns to Juan De Dios, the town bell-ringer. No sooner is Sanjuro in town that he is bullied by several tough guys working for a local gang lord. Without any provocation they start to jeer at him. Baxter’s goons perform the same function against the Man with No name. Instead of simple jeers they resort to shooting at his mule to cause him to lose control of it. Befuddled by what is going on Sanjuro seeks more information from Gonji, the local tavern keep. Silvanito, also a local tavern keeper, will do the same for the Man with No Name.

Chastened by knowledge Sanjuro now knows that the town he had just entered is infested by two rival gangs. These two gangs are the Seibei who are employed by the silk merchant and the Ushi-Tora who work for the sake merchant. In San Miguel the two gangs are the gun smuggling Baxters and the liquor running Rojos. Jobless and with no prospects Sanjuro decides to hire himself out as a mercenary to one of the gangs but to establish his credentials as a fighter he first kills three Ushi-Tora henchmen. To gain credibility the Man with No Name goes off to kill four of the Baxter henchmen. With a reputation now, “Sanjuro” identifies himself to his new employers as Kuwabatake Sanjuro which literally means 30yr old mulberry field. A reference to what he was looking at when they asked his name, quite possibly the mulberry field is really 30 years old. The Man with No Name is less civil and does not give his name. Instead the local undertaker calls him “Joe”. But this little contract with the gang does not last long; Sanjuro is forced to leave the gang after he hears Seibei and his family plotting to kill him. In the same regard, the Man with No Name leaves his gang when the Rojos brothers plot to kill him and he conveniently overhears them.

Unosuke of the Ushi-Tora, an expert with a revolver will eventually become Sanjuro’s main rival and the two meet towards the middle of the movie. The Man with No Name meet Ramon Rojo of the Rojo clan and he is an expert with a rifle. The plot progresses when the Ushi-Tora arrange to have a government official assassinated a major crime. The major crime committed by the Rojos involves the massacre of a Mexican army expedition and stealing the gold they were carrying. Always on the look out for his own welfare Sanjuro captures the two assassins, sells them to the rival Seibei gang and informs the Ushi-Tora of their location. Not to be left behind, the Man with No Name sets up two dead bodies as possible witnesses and tricks the Baxters and Rojos into fighting a gun battle for the bodies. During the battle between the two gangs Seibei’s son is capture by the Ushi-Tora gang. Likewise, in San Miguel the gun battle results in the capture of Antonio Baxter by the Rojos. In order to retrieve his son Seibei returns Nui, Tokeumon’s mistress, to her husband. She had previously been taken to settle a gambling debt. Marisol takes the place of Nui in A fistful of Dollars. She is Ramon’s mistress and she was also taken away to settle a gambling debt.

At this point in the story the normally selfish and feckless Sanjuro gains a heart when he learns about how Nui was mistreated. He switches to the Ushi-Tora gang and kills the guards to reunite her with her family and helps them get out of town. Not to be left behind the Man with No Name massacres Marisol’s guards and reunites her with her family and helps her get out of town herself. But unfortunately before Sanjuro can make his escape he is captured by Unosuke beaten and tortured by the giant hulking henchman. The Man with No Name is also caught by Ramon and is beaten and tortured by a big fat henchman. However since he is a hero, and movies where heroes get killed are no good, he is able to escape from Inouye’s clutches by hiding in a coffin barrel. The Man with No Name is also due to appear in two more movies so he can’t be allowed to die, instead he is able to sneak away using a wooden coffin as his hiding place.

While in hiding Sanjuro bears witness to the massacre of Seibei’s gang. Each member is hacked to death or shot by Unosuke as they try to escape from the smoke in their house. The Baxter’s are likewise annihilated as each member is gunned down while their house burns to the ground. Of course the Man with No Name is safely in his coffin watching but not intervening. While Soujiro is safe, the bartender who helped him is captured and he is unwilling to allow the poor man to suffer for his heroism. Hence he comes to the rescue carrying a sword given to him by the coffin maker. The man with No Name comes to the rescue with equal bravado but instead of a sword he comes forth with a pistol and dynamite from the undertaker. As can be expected Soujiro wipes out Unosuke’s gang and in the finale defeats Unosuke by throwing a kitchen knife into his pistol arm defeating him once and for all. The Man with No Name is somewhat more creative as he knows Ramon is a crack shot. He uses an iron plate to deflect the shots and then defeats Ramon in a pistol vs. rifle match.

There are a total of 22 scenes mentioned here which are almost entirely identical. The only major difference is most cases is that the first movie is set in 1860s Japan while the other is set in 1890s Mexico. Hence the settings were changed to fit the different locale. For example, swords were replaced by pistols and Mexicans replaced Japanese. Given so many similarities there can be no doubt that A Fistful of Dollars is really a remake of Yojimbo.

Character Development

With their almost entirely identical plots there can be little doubt that the character development will also be the same. In the beginning of the story both Soujiro and the Man with No Name are heedless, selfish men gnarled by their difficult experiences. In fact, both of them are drawn to the chaos not by any desire to help people but rather simply because they thought they could profit from it. In fact their only motivation was that money could be made in town. The parallelism does not end there. Both are Machiavellian and willing to play both sides of the conflict against each other if it means that they are able to profit. Character development occurs upon the entrance of the female character Nui and Marisol respectively are the catalyst that changes the two heartless ‘heroes’. Upon seeing the cruel fate of the woman an epiphany strikes the lead character and they have a change of heart. Both remain heartless in their destruction of their enemies but two admirable traits emerge. First they are willing to sacrifice themselves for the sake of another. Second, they are willing to reciprocate this sacrifice from others as shown when they went back to save the bartender who helped them escape. Like the plot there is really little to distinguish the two movies both are almost exactly the same in terms of character development as well. Again the only difference is that in A Fistful of Dollars the setting is different.

Conclusion

To put it mildly, A Fistful of Dollars is an utter remake of Yojimbo. It is no wonder that Kurusawa later won a court case that gave him a 15% cut on the profits of the movie along with distribution rights in Korea and Japan. The story is a complete carbon copy. From start to finish the movie is exactly the same. Only the setting was changed. Ironically Kurusawa latter admits that he made more money on the proceeds of the court case against Leone’s studio than he did on his own movie. This might be because Leone’s film although a Spaghetti Western where the only thing American in the movie was Clint Eastwood, it was still more palatable to the movie going audiences in America and Europe. Leone already had a reputation as a director in Europe and watching Italians and Spaniards masquerading as Americans was definitely more appealing to audiences than watching the somewhat inaccessible Japanese classic that is Yojimbo. Aside from the language barrier audiences would have trouble connecting to its setting since at that time knowledge of what happened at the end of the Tokugawa era in Japan was minimal in the Western world. Compare this to the fact that a long slew of Western style movies staring the like of John Wayne have long permeated cinemas.

Works Cited

Hammett, Dashiell. Red Harvest, 1989, Vintage Publishing

Crowther, Bosley. A Fistful of Dollars Movie Review. 2009. Web.

Kurusawa, Akira. Yojimbo (1961)

Leone, Sergio. A Fistful of Dollars (1964)

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