Sunday, April 17, 2011

Analysis: Yojimbo

It's time to veer away from game talk for a bit with an analysis of a classically archetypal movie. Its simple premise and approach has led to countless imitators and copies, and it illustrates the immediate appeal of a "natural world" that characters can logically interact with. In addition, its cinematography, while primitive in comparison to today's, nevertheless manages to be effective in ways that modern movies are less concerned about capturing. The movie in question is, of course, Akira Kurosawa's "Yojimbo".

Premise
"Yojimbo" is set in a small, semi-isolated village that has recently been torn apart by warfare between two gangsters: Seibei, the brothel-owner, and Ushitora, a more conventional crime lord. Each backs their own candidates for town mayor, and thus the warfare has both an open and discreet nature. Indeed, one major confrontation is interrupted by the arrival of a magistrate, forcing the hired thugs to hide inside to avoid being arrested and hanged.

Into this scenario comes a wandering swordsman, played by Toshiro Mifune. The swordsman learns about the situation from several people, including a farmer, a corrupt policeman, and an innkeeper. The last of these intends to scare him off with his description; instead, the swordsman decides to stay and exploit the situation, stating that "I'll get paid for killing, and this town is full of men who are better off dead." The swordsman then offers his services to Seibei's gang, killing three of Ushitora's men to prove his skill.

Following this, the swordsman (who uses the name "Sanjuro Kuwabatake") goes back and forth between the two gangs, using their fear of him to his advantage in order to demand more money. However, the gangsters are not totally passive, either; Seibei's wife plots to kill him in order to get their money back, and it is only through surreptitious observation that Sanjuro manages to uncover this plan. There's the sense that he's walking on a razor's edge, and is managing to get away with it through cunning and fear. He even gains a crafty rival in the form of the gunman, Unosuke, who is much more clever than his brothers Inokichi and Ushitora and is depicted as being very alert and intelligent when it comes to Sanjuro's schemes.

Sanjuro's downfall eventually occurs when he goes out of his way to help a family escape the town. The gangsters find out what he did (because the family left a note for him) and beat him within an inch of his life. He eventually escapes and leads Ushitora's men to believe that he's hiding under Seibei's protection, leading to a final showdown between the two that results in the latter's destruction. Following this, Sanjuro hides until such time as he's recovered, at which point he sets out to annihilate Ushitora's gang. With this accomplished, he leaves the town to enjoy the peace it has left.

The Character of Sanjuro
Sanjuro is a classic character - the wandering swordsman who combines skill with guile. His primary trait, though, is his decisiveness. It's obvious throughout the movie that he's not doing things randomly, or just letting them happen; he's always finding a way to create a situation to be exploited.

For example, he did not simply offer his services to one faction or the other. He deliberately set things up in such a way that his skill was proven, and then used his skill as a bargaining chip to raise his price. He sets himself up as a commodity that both factions wish to control. Even when he was caught, he used his escape as a way to further his own goals.

However, his plans are not unrealistically flawless or perfect. It's more accurate to describe them as "good enough"; he knows how to manipulate people with some room for error. Other people respond in predictable, but not robotic, ways. It's natural for gangsters to desire a powerful swordsman for their group, after all. It was necessary that he proved his skill with the sword for his plan to work. They do not simply wish to have him join them because he is a protagonist. Instead, his skill with the sword is what makes him important. Similarly, he does in fact lose at one point - when his choice to help the family is discovered, and he is savagely beaten to within an inch of his life. He's not perfect, but he's clever and resourceful.

In addition, while Sanjuro's past is not discussed, he's clearly a veteran swordsman, and his age is specifically stated (almost 40). He possesses a pair of swords (long and short) that mark him as a Samurai, and his clothing bears a clan mark of uncertain origin. Given that information, while the specifics of his past are not given, it's plausible that he's just an extremely skilled swordsman who's recently down on his luck for whatever reason. The information we're given is believable, and the information we're not given is, naturally, left to our imagination to fill in.

Finally, the issue of Sanjuro's morality is a pretty important one. When he comes to the town, most of the people he encounters assume he is a mercenary, referring to him derogatorily and indicating that he doesn't care about the town. However, over the course of the movie, his motives become more clear. He rescues a family at great risk to himself, and gets caught because of it. He spares one of the thugs at the end who begs for his life - the same character at the beginning of the movie who had rejected his humble origins as a farmer to pursue the "short, exciting" life of a gangster. Even though the townsfolk assume his aim is profit, inevitably he's more interested in bringing down both gangs.

However, his moral decisions are grounded in investment in terms of time, potential profit, and risk. He has to go out of his way to do good things, and in the case of the family it's at great cost to him to do so. It's self-sacrifice, rather than simply being a "good option" and taking it. There is a great cost associated with doing good, and that is what makes the choice virtuous, rather than simply "decent" or "nice". In contrast, his choice to spare the son as he begged for his life is also good, but in a more passive way. It reflects his compassion, but it is less about him going out of his way to do something and more about "not killing him". Ultimately, this was a situation where Sanjuro stood to profit a great deal (he was offered huge sums of money to act as a bodyguard), but he chose to give the money up to help people. These are the kinds of decisions that make his morality feel more plausible; he's not good out of convenience, he's good because he thinks it's the right thing to do.

The Scenario
Yojimbo's setup is a classic one - a semi-isolated town with two warring factions. It's been reused in plenty of other movies and games, because it's effective at what it needs to do. But let's look at the elements involved. The unnamed town in Yojimbo is "semi-isolated": the larger government exists, but mostly doesn't pay attention to the town. The arrival of an official, and the threat he represents of bringing the state government down upon them, is a big deal, but on the other hand when that official isn't around, there's open combat in the streets.

The "semi-isolated" aspect is important because it allows for a normal flow of resources and trade goods, but also means that the area can run by its own rules. Sanjuro can interfere because there is conflict, and the conflict exists because there's no state government cracking down on it. The town provides "natural borders" in terms of area of influence, but there's also a world outside those borders to get all the resources that the immediate area can't provide. If you made the area fully isolated, you'd have to explain every resource - food, tools, weapons, clothes, and so on. If you made the area not isolated at all, you'd have to explain why the police or military don't become involved when people are fighting in the streets. It explains the underlying supply issues while still giving the factions and characters room to move around and influence each other.

One important thing that the movie did (and which was copied by Way of the Samurai, a videogame influenced very heavily by it) was to minimize the civilian presence within the town. While one might normally expect a town to be bustling, in Yojimbo the town's population is very sparse. This means that there's a very core cast of characters outside of the two factions' various thugs and goons. Civilians exist, but as distinct characters instead of nameless rabble. This minimizes their role and reduces the number of "loose ends" that might interfere with the main plot. It also makes the civilians who are present more notable and identifiable.

The two factions in Yojimbo aren't exactly morally grey. They're both reprehensible, which is why it's a "good" act for Sanjuro to attempt to destroy them both. They're not differentiated by much more than their important characters; most of them are just criminals and sellswords, with no real underlying ideology or viewpoint differences. In some ways that makes it more grounded; they're not major political groups, they're just two conflicting crime lords. Their followers are in it for money and power. It makes sense.

Cinematography & Depiction
Despite its technical limitations, Yojimbo does a great job in portraying materials and environments - only natural for sets of that style, but it's the kind of thing that gets lost in CGI. Even in black and white, everything looks real. The simplicity of the recording means that it feels largely untouched, which makes it much more tangible than an environment that has been edited or altered in post-production.

The costuming is ramshackle, but never unrealistic; the criminal underlings wear a wide variety of cobbled-together clothing, but it feels natural instead of "these are thugs, they should wear weird things". They dress like people would dress, even when it means being somewhat impractical. It's something a person would do; they don't have to be totally practical 100% of the time, but an impractical decision should be justified by their personality. They stake a lot on their reputations and their personalities, and their clothes reflect that. They're not simple townsfolk, who would have reason to dress conservatively; they're brash criminals, and their viewpoint and society are reflected in something as simple as how they wear their clothing.

One thing I especially liked was the way combat is handled. There's a large scale battle between the two factions that's eventually interrupted (a picture of the scene in question can be seen above in the "scenario" section). Instead of two hordes of screaming, charging warriors, the battle consists entirely of two groups lunging at each other, then retreating. There's really a sense that neither side wants to be the charging group; they're concerned for their own lives, after all. Hence, the scene conveys trepidation and fear while also conveying bloodthirsty intent.

For his part, Sanjuro regards the whole thing as comical, and hence his own fights are much more dynamic. He moves quickly and surely, taking down his foes as efficiently as possible. The contrast between a hardened warrior and an amateurish thug is illustrated by this difference. The reason Sanjuro is a skilled warrior is because of this decisiveness, not just because he's better at using a sword. It's a subtle change that can actually be attributed to in-universe differences. That's one of the major features of the movie's design, really - things that make sense for people to do. The whole concept hinges on it.

Conclusion
The reasons Yojimbo works, I feel, are the result of doing a lot with a little. There's no supernatural elements or ancient conspiracies or super-powerful characters. It's a basic setup, grounded characters, and logical trains of thought. The world depicted is a simple one, and the most "exotic" thing in the movie is a simple six-shooter pistol. Yet it's a concept that grabbed people's attentions because of the way it portrays that world, and manages to be very compelling despite not having outlandish or unorthodox elements to it. It's the plot and the characters that are important, not the bells and whistles.

So, To Sum Up:
1) Yojimbo is a basic setup that's executed in an interesting and compelling way.
2) It's a good example of a movie that uses simple elements to convey a story.
3) It's also a classic "adventure" model, since the movie consists of the main character interacting with the environment and the environment occasionally interacting back.

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