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‘Yojimbo’, Kurosawa’s tale of an unnamed samurai

Sophia Ash examines the rising tensions of this 1961 masterpiece and its approach to the samurai genre

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Image Credit: Toho Company

Yojimbo is a tale that unravels in a fragmented land, in a small village of feudal Japan into which a masterless samurai stumbles. It is a world of instability, hostility, corruption and blood, where deceit governs and a fierce drive for self-preservation characterises its inhabitants.

The film unfolds into a haunting soundscape, and from the opening we are propelled into an auditory terrain of disorientation, greed, and human blood. The pulsing drums clatter and clammer like a heart striving to dislodge itself from its cage of bone. It is a rattling, haunting melody throbbing with the thud of the drums and piercing whistles that dissolve into a rasping wind. The sounds follow us like a phantom throughout the film, functioning as a kind of warning, a sinister signal of blood that is yet to spill. And these haunting sounds strain against those of the elements, crafting a stirring, phantasmic quality fraught with unreleased tension.

Within this unearthly fusion of sound unravels a kind of manic energy, heightened by the wails and shouts of the villagers, their strained protests and hysterical laughter. Etched onto these faces are impossibly vivid emotions; there is such palpable energy in their expressions, heightened and exaggerated into an almost farcical state. And yet, comedic as they are, seeping through these hyper portrayals of human emotion is a depth of suffering impossible to ignore. The people wail and tremble in one moment, only to dissolve into hysterical laughter the next.

It is in this haunting landscape that the tale of this nameless samurai is revealed. The elements war as the villagers do. Conflicts unfold against the rain and the mist. Here, the natural world is wielded masterfully, with this elemental turbulence becoming an echo of the psyche. And yet this masterless samurai exhibits a strange disconnect from the surrounding chaos. He serves only himself, expertly navigating a world of deceit and corruption. He eludes the wits of both a silk merchant and a sake merchant, convincing both to hire him as a personal bodyguard, and thus ensues a gang war of which he is the artful wielder. There is a sly humour threaded throughout this turbulent epic, a setting up of conflicts that serve not only to reveal divisions both political and moral, but also to infuse the film with an aspect of comedy.

Amidst the hysteria of villagers, the samurai maintains his composed demeanor. He is calm and aloof, surrounded by an insane and manic energy. The men around him lurch in drunken stupors, lumbering like beasts, while he stands nonchalant - impossibly cool. It is this strange but admirable disconnect that divides the samurai from others. And we never come to know his true name, reinforcing the rift not only between him and other characters, but also between him and the viewer. He is nameless for he is the embodiment of a fundamental condition - that of the samurai warrior. And it is this label that serves as his sole form of identification. He is almost more archetype than being, existing as a totem. Here is illustrated the surrender of the self into a representation of that self - a distortion of the boundaries between subject and object.

And the idea of the body as a commodity is one threading through this epic tale; we can see it in the female characters driven into selling their bodies as capital, as well as in the villagers boasting of time they may or may not have spent in prison, flaunting the price of their heads on a stake. The body, and what it has endured, becomes a product detached from the self: a colossus to which the self is bound but with which no kinship is felt. And here emerges a strangely distorted moral chart against which this world is strewn. The external conflict of the rivalling clans is pitted against internal moral conflict of indulgence versus self-restraint. There is a sense that the samurai operates on a hazy moral ground, and yet he spares the life of the targeted and denigrated family, revealing the profound goodness which ultimately propels him. And yet it is this act that sets him up as the target, the hunted.

There is a sense that whatever overarching moral governance may exist in this turbulent world, it is one whose compass is tragically disfigured. It is a world rooted in senselessness, inversions, paradoxes and contradictions. Yojimbo is a tale woven in a subtly sprawling style, one that is fraught with a kind of manic energy that is expertly laced with sly humour. Revealed are chasms in the psyche and in the earth, corruptions in perpetual struggle with moral goodness. In a mad world, only the mad are sane.

Editor’s Note: This film was screened at City Screen York

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