On this week’s post, I’m digging into a couple of samurai films. Samurai films of course come from Japan. They are traditionally centered in Japan’s feudal period, where samurai without masters roam the countryside getting into adventures. This week’s films are:
Akira Kurosawa – Yojimbo (1961)
Hideo Gosha – Three Outlaw Samurai (1964)
We’ve covered Kurosawa several times before. Maybe more than any other filmmaker so far, probably because he’s my favorite filmmaker. But we haven’t done any of his samurai films yet, the genre he’s probably most famous for. I’ve seen Yojimbo several times before, and it’s one of my favorites, but I’ve never seen a film from Gosha.
Let’s get into it.
Yojimbo is about a samurai who goes by the name Sanjuro, who enters a town in the middle of a gang war. They both want him to pick sides, but instead, he decides to play both sides off of each other to get paid twice and cut down their numbers.
Like several of Kurosawa’s film, this film has been remade several times, so the plot might sound familiar. The most famous remake is probably Sergio Leone’s A Fistful of Dollars with Clint Eastwood. Unfortunately, Leone didn’t actually have permission to do this, and was sued by Kurosawa, who won. Watching A Fistful of Dollars is like watching a shot for shot remake of Yojimbo. Even the dialogue is essentially the same. Not to take away from A Fistful of Dollars, but we can see what a great story Kurosawa had that it could so easily translate to a new culture and set of actors. It doesn’t hurt that Clint Eastwood was the star.
But in Kurosawa’s film, instead of Clint Eastwood, we get Toshiro Mifune. Mifune plays the lone samurai. He gives his family name as Sanjuro, but gives a fake first name, based on what he can see outside. The character rarely speaks, but his mannerisms make the character. He is constantly at ease, but able to leap into action in a moment. He constantly keeps his hands inside his robe, and reaches up to scratch his chin frequently.
We meet him as he’s walking along the road and comes to a crossroads. Rather than moving with purpose, he tosses a stick into the air and follows whichever path it points to. When he arrives in town, it is deserted. He walks through, but people just watch him from their homes. The only sign of life is a dog running through the streets carrying a human hand in his mouth.
He meets the constable who gives him an understanding of what’s going on. Seibei, the brothel owner, named his son his successor, and his right hand man Ushitora rebelled, setting up a rival gang and setting off a turf war. The constable offers to introduce him to either side, as long as he gets a finders fee.
Sanjuro goes off to investigate and runs into Ushitora’s gang, who insult him. He wanders back and finds a restaurant, befriending the owner. The owner gives him the rest of the information he needs. The original mayor of the town sided with Seibei, but Ushitora set up a second mayor in town. The town can’t function because no one wants to go out with the gangs fighting. The only merchant making any money in town is the coffin maker.
Sanjuro comes up with a plan. He will use the war to his own advantage. He says he kills for money, and there are many men in town who deserve to die. He asks for a job with Seibei, then says he will show his worth. He goes back to the Ushitora gang that insulted him earlier, and kills three of them without breaking a sweat. When he returns to Seibei, he’s ready to negotiate. He gets an offer, and tells him he thinks Ushitora will pay him more. As he leaves, Seibei tries to increase his offer, finally reaching a point where Sanjuro will stay.
Sanjuro toys with both sides like this throughout the film. After taking a job with Seibei, he overhears Seibei talking to his wife and son. His wife says they must kill Sanjuro after they win. Sanjuro plays it cool, but sets them up to start a climactic battle at noon the next day. When everything is set up, and swords are drawn, Sanjuro tells Seibei he’s changed his mind, gives him back the money he’s been paid. He then climbs a tower to watch the battle commence.
The ‘battle’ that we see next is truly pathetic. Neither side really wants to fight, but they’re committed. Seibei’s wife is driving his side forward from behind, and Ushitora’s crew has a wall behind him. They inch forward slowly, not engaging, backing up when the other crew moves forward.
The charade ends when a rider comes in, telling them that an inspector is coming into town. Everyone has to stop and pretend that everything is normal so that the government doesn’t interfere. This of course delay’s Sanjuro’s plans. He waits, fielding offers from both sides.
Things get more complicated when Ushitora’s brother Unosuke arrives, showing off his shiny new pistol. For a samurai, who fights with a sword, a gun is pretty much the end of their era. While the other players in town are nowhere near as smart and savvy as Sanjuro, Unosuke is a formidable opponent.
There’s a great subplot here where Sanjuro saves a woman that has been taken from her husband over a gambling debt and given to one of the mayors. Sanjuro is incredibly clever about how he pulls it off, making one side think the other is responsible, but Unosuke sees through it, capturing Sanjuro and torturing him, before finishing the war in favor of Ushitora’s side.
This leads to the final climactic battle with Ushitora and the rest of his men, which of course he wins, before wandering off into the sunset.
There’s a lot to love about this movie. The script is wonderful, exploring the cat and mouse game that Sanjuro is playing with the two sides. We’re generally a little bit behind his plans, but not too far, since the film doesn’t play like a mystery. It’s incredibly fun to watch Mifune toy with both Seibei and Ushitora, and see them fawn all over him, ignoring all warning signs that he’s scamming them.
The film is shot beautifully as well, as all of Kurosawa’s films are. And the supporting cast is wonderful, full of memorable characters. But the real treat here is the music. Every situation has it’s own little theme. The music really makes the film.
I want to talk more about the samurai genre, but let’s do that after we look at the second film.
Three Outlaw Samurai (1964)
Three Outlaw Samurai is the story of a samurai who runs across three peasants who have kidnapped a magistrate’s daughter so that he will take their concerns seriously. The samurai decides to help them, even recruiting another samurai to help him. But when the magistrate catches up to them, the samurai sacrifices himself, extracting a promise that the three peasants will be freed. But the magistrate goes back on his promise, having the men killed. The samurai and his companions decide to avenge the peasants leading to a major confrontation with the magistrate.
The film explores class and power by pitting the peasants against the magistrate. We not only see the conflict play out, but the film has the characters comment on it. There’s a great scene early on when Shiba, the main samurai takes food from the peasants, realizing that they have none for themselves. They’ve also fed Aya, the magistrate’s daughter, but she refuses the gruel they’ve served her. The samurai goes to her and forces her to eat some of the food, telling her that now that she’s tasted what they eat, maybe she’ll understand why this is happening. It’s a really powerful scene.
The magistrate continues to send men to free his daughter. First he sends his normal troops, who are fought off by the samurai. But then he decides he needs a samurai to defeat a samurai. He goes into the jail and finds Sakura, another samurai, brought in for a minor charge. He agrees to help rescue the daughter along with the magistrates personal samurai, Kikyo.
However, when they arrive, Sakura sees what’s happening, and immediately joins Shiba. Kikyo on the other hand, likes the comforts of working for the magistrate and refuses. It seems like the peasants plans are coming together now that they have two strong allies, but the magistrate also has a trump card. He captures one of the peasants daughters, and offers to trade her for Aya. But in a dramatic moment, the peasant’s daughter refuses to be used this way, and bites her own tongue off, killing herself (I’m not sure that’s actually possible, but there you go).
After a scuffle, Shiba realizes this has to end, and offers to return Aya, as long as the magistrate agrees to only punish him, and not the peasants. The magistrate agrees, and sentences the samurai to 100 lashes.
But after the lashes are complete, the magistrate goes back on his word, throwing Shiba into a tank of water and leaving him to die, and sending assassins out to kill the peasants, who have written a document of their grievances to take to the lord of the land, who is above the magistrate. The magistrate cannot let this happen. The assassins achieve their goal, but not before one of the peasants tosses the document into the river, which is found by Sakura.
There’s an interesting subplot here for Sakura as well. When he first heads to the mill where Aya is being kept, he kills an attacking peasant. It turns out to be the husband of one of the peasants he has now sworn to protect. Complicating matters, he falls in love with her. The film does a really good job exploring how complex this relationship is, all the way through to the end.
Sakura mounts a rescue mission into the magistrates compound, and manages it with some help from Kikyo, who finally changes alliances, giving us our three outlaw samurai.
In the end, the lord is going to ride through town, and the three samurai realize that this is their chance to deliver the peasants message. But the magistrate sends his forces, and some of the lords forces against them, leading to a final confrontation.
This film is a pretty good exploration of class structure disguised as a sword fighting movie. I don’t know if it’s an all-time classic, but it’s a good watch. The actors are capable, but not really memorable, and the plot is pretty standard. There’s a couple of great moments. The one I mentioned earlier with the porridge, and another where Shiba tries to get one of the peasants to give the grievances document to the lord and no one will volunteer.
But two great moments is pretty good for any film. And being able to discuss a complex issue like the power structure of society in a film like this is an admirable achievement.
The Double Feature
So what is a samurai film? In a lot of ways it works like an American Western. A wandering stranger rolls into town, and is pulled into a problem that the town has. It might be warring gangs, it might be bandits from outside the town, or it might be a cruel magistrate. In any case, the stranger is an expert fighter, they’ve seen it all. They become the only hope for the town. They’re always reluctant, but show their true colors when they get involved and put their skills to use, saving the town.
It’s no accident that the two genres are related. Japanese filmmakers, particularly Kurosawa were fans of Westerns, and adapted them for a particular time in Japanese history. American filmmakers looked at the Japanese films, and were in turn inspired by them, particularly George Lucas.
These are both great examples of a samurai film, though of course Kurosawa’s hero is much more of an anti-hero than the heroes we see in Three Outlaw Samurai. It’s a far cry from the noble samurai we saw in Seven Samurai, Kurosawa’s earlier film, which I’m sure we’ll cover at some point.
Both films have a lot in common. They even both have the same scene of the samurai tossing something into the air and letting it point the way to their next destination. The samurai in these films never stays in the same place for long, and just like the hero of the western, they often ride off into the sunset. It’s a romantic notion.
It’s Thanksgiving week as I’m writing this. I have extra time to work on stuff, so that’s great. My plan is to get my quals done before Christmas break, and as long as I can get my opening essay done this week, I have plenty of time to finish the entire thing. That previous paragraph makes zero sense to anyone not doing a PhD, but trust me, it’s a pretty good feeling.
So what about next week? I’ve been wanting to do a longer, epic movie, or maybe even a couple for awhile. The problem is, since I’m covering two films at once, my standard amount of time commitment for film watching is 3-4 hours. Making one of those movies more than 2 hours extends that significantly. A movie like Seven Samurai is 3 and a half hours by itself. Yikes.
However, since it’s Thanksgiving week, I have a lot more time on my hands, so I’m going to go for some big epic films. However, I’m going to change the rules slightly. Rather than watching them back to back, I’m going to allow myself to watch them on back to back days. I’m going to try to watch them on the same day, but we’ll have to see.
So next week’s films will be:
Michael Powell and Emeric Pressburger – The Life and Death of Colonel Blimp (1943)
Marcel Carne – Children of Paradise (1945)
The total running time of the two films is close to 6 hours, so it will be quite a day. Should be fun.
See you then.