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Posts Tagged ‘Tatsuya Nakadai’

A quarter of a century ago my then girlfriend and I decided to go and spend our Saturday night watching Whitney Houston and Kevin Costner in The Bodyguard, mainly because it seemed like the kind of thing couples were doing at the time. This was certainly the case at the Odeon in Hull, as the first time we turned up the screening had sold out before we arrived, and we ended up going to see Lord Attenborough’s Chaplin instead (which, truth be told, may well be a better movie, if less mechanically romantic). However, we were young and bloody-minded, and neither of us had yet figured out that the whole traditional relationship thing was possibly not for us, so we went back the following weekend and saw the Saturday matinee.

There’s a bit half-way through The Bodyguard where Costner takes Houston out for the night and, in an unusually interesting move for a Kevin Costner character, takes her to see a black-and-white Japanese movie from 1961, the title of which is not given on-screen. Hence it was that I was the only person in the theatre laughing at the meta-gag of characters in a movie called The Bodyguard going to see another (much better) movie also called The Bodyguard – or, in the original Japanese, Yojimbo.

Yeah, I may have been going to see Whitney Houston movies in my late teens, but my fate was probably already sealed by that point, for I had spent much of my middle teens watching movies like Yojimbo, directed by (of course) Akira Kurosawa. Or perhaps this is less of a surprise than I am insinuating, for it’s not as though we’re discussing some art-house obscurity – in terms of general fame and influence, this is surely one of the most significant Japanese movies of all time, with only Seven Samurai and the original Godzilla ahead of it.

Yojimbo stars that most celebrated of Japanese actors, Toshiro Mifune, in an iconic role as a nameless, drifting samurai swordsman. As the film opens he is wandering aimlessly through the desolate Japanese countryside in the middle of the 19th century (it’s a little startling to consider the film was set only a century or so in the past when it was released). However, he comes upon a small town paralysed by a power struggle between two rival gangs. Partly motivated by some vague moral instinct, and partly (it seems) to amuse himself, the swordsman decides to ‘save’ the town by orchestrating the destruction of both gangs and their leaders. The local innkeeper (Eijiro Tono), the closest thing he has to a confidante in town, immediately concludes he is a madman only intent on causing chaos and destruction.

In any case, his plan hits a number of snags, firstly when the local government inspector pays a visit (causing the gangsters to arrange a hasty truce so as not to attract the attention of the authorities), and later when the temporary cessation in hostilities looks like becoming a more long-term pause. Most serious of all is the appearance of the brother of one of the gangsters, Unosuke (Tatsuya Nakadai, who may perhaps have wanted a word with whoever did his picture on the poster), who has been spending some time on the other side of the Pacific and returned with a classic souvenir of American culture: a handgun…

(Rather appropriately, given there are some allusions in the subtitles to Unosuke apparently meaning rabbit in Japanese, there is a danger of going down a bit of a rabbit hole here about just when Yojimbo is set and exactly what kind of heat the gangster is packing. People who know more about such things than me (not a small group, by the way) have pronounced that the weapon in question is a Smith & Wesson Model 2: however, this only went into production in 1876, ten years after the Meiji restoration. Wikipedia suggests an 1860 setting, based on the introductory captions of the first American dub of the film; the implication certainly seems to be that it takes place in the last years of the Shogunate. The gun is totemic, anyway. (I believe this is what is known as a digression.))

Some people who are really refined in their tastes complain that Kurosawa’s fame as a director is mainly due to his willingness to make films in, for want of a better word, an occidental idiom (I am avoiding the word ‘western’ as it is likely to confuse the issue), and that he is not as properly Japanese a film-maker as, say, Yasujiro Ozu (whose films were not released internationally as they were ‘too Japanese’). Maybe they have a point – for many people, Yojimbo is most recognisable as the source material of A Fistful of Dollars, the Sergio Leone movie which launched the spaghetti western craze and the career of Clint Eastwood (it also spawned a not terribly good 1996 Bruce Willis movie, Last Man Standing). However, what’s considerably less well-known is that Kurosawa admitted the plot of the movie is drawn from a story by Dashiell Hammett, so the American flavour is baked into Yojimbo. The presence of Nakadai’s character is surely an acknowledgement of this – this isn’t just a movie which inspired westerns, on some level it was conceived of as a western.

Of course, it is many other things as well: it starts off as a very black comedy, and perhaps also a wry comment on some of Kurosawa’s earlier movies. Mifune’s character is not a noble, heroic figure from the same mould as Kambei (of Seven Samurai), but a scruffy cynic who initially seems to be interfering in the affairs of the town for rather dubious motives (he vaguely comments that it would be good to get rid of the gangsters, but also notes that it’s his job to be paid for killing). It’s only the fact that he seems to have some kind of integrity, and of course the fact that he is played by Mifune, who is always ferociously cool, that marks him out as in any way better than the venal, morally bankrupt people running the town. Only Unosuke seems in any way similar to him; this is why the gunslinger is really the swordsman’s main antagonist in this movie.

However, as the story progresses it seems that the swordsman becomes aware that this is not just game: innocent people are caught up in the struggle between the gangsters. And it is here that Mifune, perhaps inevitably, reveals that there is a well-hidden core of decency to his character. He professes to hate pathetic people, but it is his decision to help a young family that almost causes his downfall, and his inability to abandon an ally which provokes the climactic battle of the film. And even here he unexpectedly reveals the capacity for mercy, sparing the life of a young man with romantic delusions he briefly encountered at the start of the film. There is no honour or glory in death, the film suggests, there is just death, and it hurts. Even when all is said and done, the swordsman’s mask slips back into place – ‘Now we’ll have some peace and quiet around here,’ he observes, deadpan, at the end of the film, having just single-handedly slaughtered most of the town’s remaining population.

Performance-wise, this is Mifune’s film from start to finish, and he effortlessly dominates it (with Kurosawa’s connivance, naturally). Even the great Takashi Shimura does not make much of an impression as a lovelorn sake brewer in league with one of the gangs – only Nakadai comes close to challenging Mifune, which is surely as it should be. Most of the time Mifune is only competing for attention against Kurosawa’s typically energetic camerawork and editing, and Masaru Sato’s striking, angular score. The music is kind of jaunty and chaotic, as befits a film about a off-kilter, chaotic world.

You can see why Yojimbo was such a big hit that it led to a sequel and numerous remakes, official and otherwise. On one level it is a superbly made piece of entertainment, with moments of comedy, pathos, and action, with a very satisfying structure to the story. But there are also glimpses of more serious issues here, commentary on the state of the world and the people in it. If it seems to be just as cynical as its anti-hero about the characters – well, just as he reveals an unexpected soft streak, so the film treats its characters as flawed human beings, not one-dimensional cartoons. I imagine this is one of those movies that will be around for as long as our culture endures.

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