Still from Yojimbo (1961)
Kurosawa’s samurai, Stuart Heisler’s gangster, Sergio Leone’s cowboy, and George Miller’s misfit suffer a similar black eye, but with dramatically different effect.
”With all this he did not wreck the formal detective story. Nobody can; production demands a form that can be produced.”
– Raymond Chandler, ‘The Simple Art of Murder’ (1950)
As any working artist will acknowledge (sometimes in whispers), artists create their own language based on the work of predecessors. By this they mean that all artists, even many of those considered ‘outsiders’, work within a lineage of prior artists from which younger generations learn the limitations of traditional practice and production. However, within these limitations, or perhaps because of them, artists create variations that mark their work as original while also remaining comprehensible within the lineage.
Occasionally, an artist will significantly alter the lineage; even more rarely, they may spark their own. Their work is examined and imitated by successors and their influence may then be studied by non-creators such as critics and scholars who act as the curators and custodians of the lineage (the word ‘canon’ comes into play here). The language of the creators, like all languages, is based on a system of symbols that convey meaning to an audience that interprets those symbols based on cultural parameters such as genre-expectations, moral consensus, and shared physiological fundamentals; e.g., I like that you expect horror films to scare me; I like that you think that murder is bad; and, I like that you have biological requirements that limit the length of time I can watch a film uninterrupted.
To illustrate this process, I present a case study from popular film. Japanese director Akira Kurosawa’s adaptation of hard-boiled crime novels and film noir in his 1961 samurai film Yojimbo effectively altered the language of the lineage in which he was working by introducing a new symbol. This is perhaps best represented in the cosmetic special effect in Yojimbo, the swollen eye.
The story begins 30 years prior to the release of the film, with the publication of two novels by a prime creator of the hard-boiled crime genre, Dashiell Hammett. Red Harvest (1929) and The Glass Key (1931) (both novels first appeared as serial stories in the pulp magazine Black Mask) are acknowledged influences on the later samurai film.
There were two film adaptations of The Glass Key, one in 1935, starring George Raft and directed by Frank Tuttle, and another in 1942, directed by Stuart Heisler, and starring Alan Ladd. The remake recreates many sets and shots almost slavishly: the most noticeable difference between the two would be a bigger budget and better acting in the second.
The Glass Key (1942)
Kurosawa claimed that Yojimbo was inspired by the 1942 film version of The Glass Key (the scene in which the protagonist is beaten is recreated in his film nearly shot for shot), while it was American film critics who first noticed the influence of the novel Red Harvest. While much ink has been spilled over the exact extent that Yojimbo is an adaptation of Red Harvest, it’s safe to say that the novel inspired Kurosawa’s film; meaning, ‘in the spirit of,’ for other than a broad outline and shared themes, there are very few actual plot points that are the same.
However, one important element that Kurosawa took from Red Harvest is the idea of a nameless character, a ‘man with no name’. In the director’s hands, Hammett’s nameless Continental Op becomes an 1860 samurai, who identifies himself only by his probable age and nearby vegetation. In Yojimbo, he names himself as ‘Kuwabatake Sanjuro’, after looking at a mulberry orchard (the name means ‘30year-old man, mulberry’).
Specific shots and effects in The Glass Key were re-created in Yojimbo, while the main themes and characters resemble those found in Red Harvest. That’s all that can be safely said about Hammett’s influence on the film, because the reality is that there has never been a film adaptation of Red Harvest. But maybe there doesn’t need to be. Perhaps Kurosawa’s narrative has more or less erased the Hammett stories, because it is Yojimbo, not Red Harvest or The Glass Key, that has gone on to have at least two full and one partial adaptation.
The first adaptation was as a Western, the seminal film that cemented the ‘spaghetti western’ style of famed director Italian director Sergio Leone. His 1964 A Fistful of Dollars, starring Clint Eastwood as ‘the man with no name’, is an explicit remake of the samurai film. However, Leone never got copyright permission to use the narrative and characters and apparently to this day MGM/UA has not admitted publicly that the Leone film is an adaptation (they did, however, settle the lawsuit that Kurosawa eventually brought).
The official adaptation is Walter Hill’s often grimly violent neo-noir film of 1996, Last Man Standing. This time, the wandering loner is a gunman played by a scowling Bruce Willis who has a name—John Smith—but it’s so common as to be a cipher. The story is set during Prohibition, which brings the narrative back to the era of the original Hammett novels. For a grid-like comparison of the films, the BBC has created a trivia page that maps the variations in each. However, the BBC comparison tends to map differences, not similarities, and misses one significant element that appears in all three films: the swollen eye of the ‘man with no name’. The swollen eye originates in the novel The Glass Key. How did it get into Yojimbo?
In a prolonged scene during which the protagonist Ned Beaumont is held captive and badly beaten, Hammett includes this line: ‘Ned Beaumont opened the one eye not too swollen to be opened.’ In a typical stylistic move, this line speaks volumes. Later in this scene, we get the line, ‘Ned Beaumont’s open eye looked dull hate into O’Rory’s eyes.’ And, once more, ‘Ned Beaumont looked dully at Whisky through a dull and bloody eye.’
In Hammett’s novel, the swollen eye has no significance beyond showing the reader how badly battered Beaumont’s face is, and how tough he is as a man. This lack of metaphorical depth was carried over into the film adaptations.
The 1935 film stayed fairly true to the original narrative, and the director includes the swollen eye during this scene. When Ned Beaumont (George Raft) makes his way to the bathroom where he finds the razor blade that will help him escape, he peers into the mirror of the medicine chest and sees (along with the audience) that one of his eyes is badly swollen.
When Heisler helmed the 1942 remake with Alan Ladd as Ned Beaumont, he recreated this bathroom scene shot for shot, including the swollen eye. Yet in this instance, the eye appears far more swollen, to the point of being closed completely. The bigger budget was used to make Ladd’s face appear far more beaten than Raft’s, which means the 1942 version accords more closely with Hammett’s descriptions in the novel. Yet in all three instances, the novel and both film versions, the swollen eye carries no metaphorical significance. It exists as a visual marker of the beating that the protagonist has taken and demonstrates his toughness, but once the wound heals after his successful escape, it is quickly forgotten.
As noted before, when Kurosawa made Yojimbo, he re-shot the beating sequence from the 1942 film of The Glass Key very closely. He included the swollen eye, but he changes the significance of it considerably. Unlike in The Glass Key, where the beating scene appears halfway into the narrative, in Yojimbo it comes at the end of the second act. The beating marks the low point in the three-act structure of the film; signified visually by the swollen eye, this is the point when things have gotten as bad for the protagonist as they can possible get. However, as in The Glass Key, the protagonist eventually escapes from his captors. In the third act, he will enact vengeance on the men that hurt him.
As the protagonist makes his escape, he pauses to watch as the gang that captured and beat him now slaughter their rival gang by burning down their hideout and executing them as they run out. There is an irony here that is missing from The Glass Key. In the ‘man with no name’ stories, the protagonist witnesses mass slaughter, but he does so with only one good eye. A killer himself, he has a good eye and a bad eye that metaphorically correspond to his psyche: the violence is seen and understood, but the moral lesson remains shut to him.
Within the narrative structure of the story, Kurosawa uses the swollen eye to mark the transition from the second to the third act. He also uses the swollen eye as a means of commenting on the moral complexity of the protagonist. But he also uses the swollen eye as a means of confronting the audience, for within the larger context of cinema, the ‘man with no name’ is gazing back at us. In Yojimbo, the protagonist peers directly at the camera while watching the slaughter, in a tight close up, that allows him to face us directly, too.
Put one way, we watch the slaughter along with the main character; put another, he watches us watching the slaughter. He bears witness not only to the violence within the narrative, but to our own delight at the violence onscreen. This presents a level of confrontation between creator and audience that is completely in form with the original hard-boiled impulse that propelled Hammett’s narratives which themselves often confronted his audience with their capacity and delight in violence.
However, Kurosawa’s use of the swollen eye is only possible in the visual medium of film in which the audience’s interaction with the medium is gazing (and listening). Having the protagonist gaze back at a crucial moment allows the director to momentarily break down the fourth wall and not only draw the audience further into the story, but to consider its participation (in this regard, Kurosawa is five years ahead of Ingmar Bergman’s postmodern exploration of this same phenomenon in his film Persona ).
The three directors handle this moment differently. Kurosawa has his actor Toshirô Mifune look directly at us, as does Eastwood in Leone’s adaptation. In a further complexity, in both of these versions, ‘the man with no name’ peers at us from inside a coffin: death gazing back at us. However, in 1996’s adaptation, Hill directs Willis to look toward us but to gaze slightly away, thus reducing the confrontation; further, Willis witnesses the slaughter from the back of the sheriff’s car. In these small changes, Kurosawa’s metaphor is nearly completely lost. In Hill’s version, the swollen eye is still used to mark the end of the second act, and it allows the main character to witness the slaughter with one eye closed, but death’s confrontation with the audience is missing, and the complexity of the audience’s complicity is effaced.
The use of make-up is also telling. Hill’s version is the most bloody yet not particularly realistic. The make-up on Willis is nearly horror film quality, but it looks like a Hollywood wound; it’s designed to thrill, not confront. In A Fist Full of Dollars, the make-up on Eastwood is grotesque yet so artificial as to be unbelievable. In fact, it isn’t even in the correct position on the actor’s face (there is a camp element to the ‘spaghetti western’ style that is rarely discussed, and this is a perfect example of it). The make-up on Mifune is the most realistic and believable, even if horrific: the actor actually looks like he’s been beaten up. (The make-up on Ladd is also realistic, and believable as far as the technical standards of the day. The make-up in the 1935 adaptation of The Glass Key is so minimal, and the lighting so murky, that the swelling is more suggestive than vivid.)
What we realize here is that while Kurosawa may have been influenced by Hammett’s novels and film adaptations of those novels, he was able to craft his own visual language that would in turn carry over into adaptations of his own narrative. This language transcends genre. While this is an achievement, significantly, the symbol could also become a marker of style that lacks the metaphorical power Kurosawa gave it.
While not being explicit adaptations, the Mad Max films of the early ‘80s owe much to Yojimbo. In Mad Max 2 (1980), the main character, played by Mel Gibson, gets a swollen eye, while the first two acts of the sequel, Mad Max: Beyond Thunderdome (1983), are lifted straight from Yojimbo. The Gibson character has been compared to the ‘man with no name’, a sort of samurai/cowboy with a sawed-off shotgun drifting across the post-apocalyptic badlands of Australia and setting wrong to right. Yet crucially, the Mad Max character lacks the cynicism of the other incarnations—Max may be madly violent, but he is always good. In the hard-boiled originals, the Continental Op, like the ‘man with no name’ after him, walks an uncomfortable moral line: that of the mercenary. Max may be mad, but there is no doubt about the moral certainty of his heroic position.
Mad Max 2 (1980)
In spite of the high body count in the Mad Max films, the loner’s swollen eye does not confront us with our own morally ambiguous entertainment. While the swollen eye in Mad Max 2 still denotes the end of the second act, it has lost the metaphorical meaning with which Kurosawa and his successors engendered it; the eye has been reduced to an empty totem. It is worth noting that Gibson is the only one of the leading male stars, all of whom were cast and marketed as both physical heroes as well as masculine heartthrobs, who looks ruggedly handsome with the swollen eye. The other actors merely look beaten-up.
The Mad Max films are fun in their way, as are all the books and films discussed here, and I do not mean to disparage them. By tracing the genesis, purpose, and influence of the symbol that Kurosawa created, however, it’s possible to see how different uses of it within the lineage alter its meaning (this is the academic study). For creators who want to work within the hard-boiled, ‘man with no name’ lineage, understanding how the metaphorical language works will help them to make informed choices to better achieve their desired objectives, no matter the medium (print or film) or genre (gangster, samurai, western, sci-fi).
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