The cowboy and the samurai have long been touted as opposing metaphors for the cultural divide between America and Japan. Americans love the monolithic cowboy – his prowess with a gun, his loyalty to none but his horse, his moral constancy in a wild landscape – and see our own unfettered individualism and mobility in each departure into an ever-beckoning sunset. The samurai, by contrast, lives to serve. While just as intrepid, stoic, and deadly as the best gunslinger, a samurai’s allegiance is to his lord, not himself. Every endeavor and self-improvement, from wielding the katana (long sword) to practicing calligraphy and composing haiku, is to make himself a perfect, empty vessel for his master—a warrior who fears no harm because he regards his egoless self as already dead.
Akira Kurosawa made two movies, Yojimbo (1961) and Sanjuro (1962), regarded as tops in the genre of samurai period piece films known as jidaigeki (yes, that’s the term that inspired Kurosawa fan George Lucas to name his own flowing-robed swordsmen the Jedi). But his antihero, Sanjuro, as portrayed by the incomparable Toshirô Mifune, isn’t really a samurai. More accurately, he’s a ronin, a samurai cut loose from his master by death or dishonor and forced to wander the earth in a penurial state of disgrace, eking out a precarious living as roving mercenaries or bodyguards for hire. Ronin occupied a low position in the notoriously structured Japanese caste system, but their pariah status afforded them a certain amount of freedom and tolerance of their eccentricities.
The scruffy and iconoclastic Sanjuro needs all the tolerance he can get. For starters, he’s a mess – his topknot is greasy and scattered with flyaway hairs, and the habitual shrug of his shoulders under his threadbare kimono suggests the presence of fleas. But the blade of his sword is spotless, and that’s all that matters. When he arrives by chance in a backwater town bedeviled by two warring factions – on one side, brothel owner husband and wife team Seibei (Seizaburô Kawazu) and Orin (Isuzu Yamada), and on the other side lawless brothers Ushitora (Kyu Sazanka) and Inokichi (Daisuke Katô) – it doesn’t take long to figure out he’s right in the middle of something ugly. (It’s hard to ignore an indicator like a dog trotting by with a severed hand in its mouth.) But this squabble might be the meal ticket Sanjuro has been looking for. “I’ll get paid for killing,” he muses. “And this town is full of men who are better off dead.”
But Sanjuro isn’t a brainless thug. He’s got a keenly honed sense of what Taoists called wu wei (literally “without action”, the art of accomplishing one’s goals with a judicious minimum of effort). When he’s recruited to lead Seibei’s team in a noontime slaughter, he quickly determines the quickest way to achieve maximum carnage is to let the two sides duke it out without him. And when Orin conspires to kill him after the battle and take back his fee, he decides he’s not interested in being her bodyguard, prompting a bidding war for his formidable services. But his wheeling and dealing outruns his luck when third ruffian brother, Unosuke (Tatsuya Nakadai, a Japanese matinee idol and also-favorite actor of Kurosawa’s who received equal billing with Mifune in Yojimbo‘s original release) returns to town sporting his new prize: a very un-Eastern revolver.
That touch seems at first glance to be out of place in a period drama of feudal Japan, but some history backs it up. Jidaigeki are usually set in Japan’s Edo period, a two-century stretch of unprecedented prosperity and cultural flowering that ended with American Admiral Matthew Perry’s arrival in Edo Bay in 1853. Before then, Japan had imposed a strict policy of isolationism, but Perry’s arrival was the edge of a wedge that led to Japan once again entering in trade dialogue with other nations and sparking the West-infatuated Meiji era. Meanwhile, the United States in the 1850s was leaving its own era of relative peace and prosperity for the divisive Civil War and the beginning the Western Expansion movement that would fertilize the myth of the American West.
Kurosawa was no stranger to the Western. He openly admired the work of directors like John Ford and once admitted “Westerns have been done over and over again, and in the process a kind of grammar has evolved. I have learned much from this grammar of the Western.” The stamp of movies like Shane (1953) and High Noon (1952) is all over Yojimbo, from its shaded moral tone to the climactic showdowns on the town’s main drag (all that’s missing is some desiccated bonsai gusting by like ersatz tumbleweed). Kurosawa, long considered the most “western” (in style, not genre) director compared to the very Japanese tendencies of subdued auteurs like Ozu and Mizoguchi, loved the bluster and drama of Hollywood films and strove to imbue his work with the panoramic feel of epics like The Searchers (1956) and the crisp, well-composed chiaroscuro of My Darling Clementine (1946). When Unosuke shows up brandishing his gun, his character logically might have gotten it off an American trading ship – but it’s more fun to imagine he wandered out of this movie’s frame to swipe it from a desperado in another Western.
The irony of Kurosawa’s cowboy adoration is that, when Sergio Leone decided to remake Yojimbo (without permission) as his “spaghetti western” A Fistful Of Dollars (1964), Kurosawa wasn’t wholly pleased. ” Signor Leone,” he wrote in a polite yet firm letter to the director “I have just had the chance to see your film. It is a very fine film, but it is my film.” Leone (who, contrary to later pleas of innocence, was fully aware of Yojimbo and intentionally “adapted” its storyline) was thrilled that an internationally renowned director enjoyed his movie and ignored the part that mentioned money. (Some lawyers later set him straight, and Kurosawa eventually got his 15 percent.)
A Fistful Of Dollars is litigiously similar to Yojimbo; there’s the same nameless wandering warrior (Clint Eastwood), the same remote village torn by warring clans, the same woman separated from her son, the same cascade of tit-for-tat ending in a midday showdown. Eastwood’s The Man With No Name even cops Sanjuro’s post-massacre quip when he tells the coffin maker to build one more casket than originally requested. It’d be easy to dismiss Leone’s rendition as a pale copy of the original, especially if unfairly comparing the impact of his trademark extreme close-ups to Kurosawa’s masterful flat, deep focus mise en scene, or the soon-to-be archetypally western, mariachi-inspired Morricone theme to Masaru Sato’s unmistakably modern score, or noticing how the grimacing Eastwood stripped all the black humor out of Mifune’s clever and quixotic swordmaster.
But a strange thing happens when viewing these films back-to-back. Rather than highlighting its thievery, A Fistful Of Dollars instead teases out the western influence in Yojimbo, highlighting how much more suited the rootless, masterless Sanjuro is to the American West. The two films form a hall of mirrors, a recursive loop that could continue for a few movies more – or A Few Dollars More (1965), Leone’s next ronin-inspired Western with Eastwood. (And, as it turns out, the loop starts even earlier. Yojimbo‘s plot is uncannily similar to Red Harvest, the hard-boiled 1929 Dashiell Hammett novel about a visiting stranger who brings a corrupt town to its knees by playing both sordid sides against each other – a similarity about which Kurosawa was always circumspect). Sociologists might pit samurai vs. cowboy as symbols of the unbreachable divide between East and West, but the eastern Westerns of Kurosawa and Leone proved that we’ve got much more in common.