Yojimbo (1961) with a Fistful of Dollars (1964)
It is a cold season somewhere in the middle of the Japanese nowhere. We see the unemployed samurai Yojimbo walking through a bleak black and white landscape. He enters a ghost town, a scanty dog passes him carrying a chopped off hand in his mouth. This is no pleasant place to live nor is this the film.
Kurosawa deliberately sets his jidai-geki movie in a deep dark tone flanked by black humor, exposing a number of, for the time, drastic “splatter” effects. Blood spills out of bodies, arms get chopped off and people die like flies. Of course, due to the black and white character of the film blood is barely visible but shown for the first time within this genre. Leone on the other hand was far more conservative by displaying violence. People get shoot indeed, but the rather clean traditional way. The Italian Western just emerged at the beginning 1960s and was orientating itself towards the traditional US Western. Spaghettis should become far more explicit in the years to come.
One thing becomes evident immediately during Yojimbo’s opening sequence. Kurosawa’s cameraman Kazuo Miagawa, famous for his virtuous camera dolly track compositions, gives the film an enormous drive using tracking shots all the way through. First he uses several close-ups shots from slightly blow of Toshiro Mifune, tracking alongside the actor while he enters the town. Only in a view shots the main street of the town gets revealed as a whole. Leone never went that close during the opening shots. He rather exposed the great landscape surrounding the ghost town and the wide feeling of the dusty streets. He builds up tension step by step, establishing the place as remote and almost dead, the business of the undertaker as only way to make a living here. Kurosawa on the other hand immediately characterizes his town as heavy populated. We see a bunch of women at a window and Yojimbo gets surrounded by a large group of swordsmen as he passes along the street. Miagawa kicks off the thriving story with his dynamic camera work as he needs to introduce all the characters and their relations to each other as soon as possible in order to start with the actual story.
In general both films use the cinemascope format but handling the medium in different ways according to their own cinematic cultures. Miagawa uses the wide character of the format especially elaborated during dialog scenes with a large number of people, in groups of three or more. The alignment of protagonists within a certain space, apparently interior sets, is always based on the camera’s composition and the appearance of each protagonist within the dialog. Actors with more and important lines are taking more space within the composition, but do not necessarily need to be in the foreground. A panning and/or tracking camera within dialogs can elevate the dynamic of each conversation but is highly choreographed as protagonists walk in and out frames. Since Italian Westerns were not based on dialog scenes rather than stylized moments of confrontation the use of the format was more focused on establishing a single person within a huge environment, isolating him as character and also displaying the inner struggle of trusting human beings. Hence, landscape shots as well as extreme close-ups from the expressionless face were main focus. Special arrangements of protagonist groups are usually used as means to elevate certain suspense within one scene or confrontation.
Mifune’s Yojimbo argues in the middle of the film “This town is boiling” and Kurosawa indeed heats up the town in a symbolic way. While the tension between both clans starts to get out of hand houses are set on fire and people die in heaps as the rivaling families wiping out residents. Heavy dust clouds ripping through the streets just complete the picture of a boiling pot cooking over full of steam. Leone rather centers his symbolism around the tool of destruction, the gun. Various scenes where the protagonist showing off their shooting skills, one tries to impress the other, can be considered as substitutional duels, finally culminating into the “real” gun-down. However, both films have in common that special weaponry defines the villain. The more powerful weapon in Yojimbo is a gun but finally gets defeated by the traditional sword as the more superior rifle of Packo’s gets vanquished by a smart trick and the traditional pistol.
Kurosawa however, goes one step further in his symbolic arrangements as Leone does. Taking advantage of the Japanese architecture we see a great number of shots filmed through wooden windows shades. As these lattice windows appear like prison bars and most of the angles are taken from the POV of Yojimbo observing the daily routine and reactions of the several clan members, one could argue the town’s residents are living within their own prison. Incapable to leave town they fight for their ground, their clan and their identity. Yojimbo is like a prison guard pulling all the strings and finally cleaning up the city as his last words are: “Now it will be quiet in this town.”
Last Man Standing (1996) in comparison
Director Walter Hill and his DoP Lloyd Ahern are setting their story now within the context of US Prohibition era. The general storyline keeps unchanged. We find the lonely main protagonist, here played by Bruce Willis, traveling through the middle of nowhere looking for a fast buck to earn hitting the small shanty town Jericho ruled by two rivaling gangs. Hill’s Neo Gangster Western obviously navigates alongside its two prototypes but also find inspiration in classic American Film Noir, especially as he takes great use of a story telling voice over. Willis plays his character somewhere between a John MaClane and Bogart’s Rick Blaine; washed up, slightly lethargic and constantly drinking but still smart. Such a self dishonored figure would have been unthinkable within the strict conventions of Kurosawa’s samurai codex nor would Leone let his hero that stripped and distant emotionally. Probably a personal comment to US culture by Hill.
Most significant to its predecessor is clearly the visual style. Jericho is portrait as a place constantly being inside a sand storm. Dust and wind everywhere, isolating the town from the world. Sun can cut through only occasionally. Ahern’s color palette barely holds other tones than brown, orange or gray. Therefore it is quite comparable to the black and white compositions of Yojimbo, especially during its showdown since Last Man Standing simply appears like a tinted version.
But Hill sets his own course to the old story. Interior scenes are typically composed by his special sense of spatiality. The camera measures the space by small tracking shots along the staircases during scenes of tension and confrontation. A tool Hill already took great use of in Trespass (1992). Those compositions are constantly sliced through by partition walls and balustrades. Most significant Hill’s spectacular way of how people get shot to death. 9mm bullets from a ’45 colt can let a person fly through a window 10 meters right down onto the street. Here, he uses the Peckinpah editing mode of mixing the real time action of the shooter intercut with slow motion angles of the person shot.
However, one crucial difference can be stated in the final showdown. Hill’s shootout is quick, abrupt and surprisingly anti-stylized. Leone and Kurosawa were building up icons throughout their films and therefore having an epochal duel at the end, throwing in all finesse in terms of composition, framing and editing to build up suspense. They celebrated it as defining moment of their characters. Hill, however, makes it simple. It’s just a situation the characters have to sort out, a troublesome thing urged to get rid of.
Hill definitely feels home within the Western genre. Most of his films bear Western typical elements and motives as 48hrs (1982) or Red Heat (1986). As initiator of the Buddy Action Comedy he clearly transformed the Western into an urban environment set against a present context. However, he always stuck to the Western till today. From Long Riders (1980) where he refined Peckinpah’s revolutionary style of The Wild Bunch (1969) to the TV series Deadwood (2004) which seems just the subsequent advancement of Spaghetti Western “anti-values” and superelevation of a world in amoral .
There are two more candidates in need to be analysed since both deal with the same story as the three above: The Warrior and the Sorceress (1984) with David Carradine as some sort of Conan variation and the most recent production from Japan Tsubaki Sanjûrô (2007). Unfortunately, I haven’t been able to get hold of both. As soon as I get them the comparison will be completed here.
Furthermore, the BBC web site holds also an analysis of all three films. The rather sober listing of different plot points does hold, however, some interesting background information: