Akira Kurosawa’s 1961 ronin samurai film Yojimbo is a combination of the film noir and Western film genres, and makes use of several of the key concepts that define them. This essay will discuss the film techniques and historical precedents that are associated with both of these genres, and demonstrate how they are employed in Yojimbo.
Critics describe film noir more as a movement than a genre, with it rising ‘from a period of political instability: 1941-1958, the time of the Second World War and the Cold War’ (1). These dates correspond to the mid and latter war years for Japan, and it’s subsequent occupation by the United States, certainly a period of political instability for the society and the culture. While Yojimbo was released in 1961, the years previous were clearly influential on Kurosawa in ways similar to those of American and European filmmakers who worked during these years. While Western Europe had been rebuilding and the United States began it’s rise as a superpower, Japan remained an occupied nation until the Treaty of San Francisco went into effect on 28 April 1952 (3). With the ban on the production of
Jidai Geki films lifted (2), Kurosawa returned to the genre clearly influenced by these experiences. Film noir is also ‘above all a visual style which came about as a result of political circumstances and cross-fertilization’ (1). The social, cultural, and artistic exchange that occurred during the occupation between US forces and the Japanese nation would be a major example of this ‘cross-fertilization’.
The ‘essential ingredients’ of a film noir are described as: specific location or setting, high-contrast lighting, and low-key lighting, a particular psychology associated with the protagonist, and a sense of social malaise, pessimism, suspicion, and gloom (1). This film manages to hit each of these essentials in the following ways. The location is very specific, beginning with a textual tag near the beginning of the film that informs the viewer that the year is 1860, the end of the Tokugawa Shogunate. This is a specific location in time. As the movie progresses, we find that with only a few exceptions does the camera stray from the main town, with all other secondary locations assumed to be in close proximity to this town.
Lighting plays a key part in the look and feel of film noir, and Yojimbo employs both the techniques of high-contrast lighting and low-key lighting. Figure 1 shows a frame from Yojimbo early in the film that demonstrates both of these techniques:
fig. 1 Here you can see the high contrast of Sanjuro’s clothing, which is already considerably dark in shade regardless of lighting. The key lighting from the right of the frame illuminates his right side, leaving his left side in shadow, creating high contrast. This same key light is positioned very low in the scene, and not in the standard 30 to 45 degree angle above the character’s eyeline that is normally used (4), resulting in what is called low-key lighting. This creates greater areas of shadow on objects, and as can be seen above, casts long shadows across a wide area.
fig. 2 This technique of low-key lighting continues to be used throughout the film, as can be seen in Figure 2, an indoor scene involving dialogue where the key light is again placed more at the eyeline and from the right of the screen. In this frame, the old inn owner Gonji has his weathered features accentuated by the deep shadows cast by the low-key light, while even Sanjuro’s comparatively youthful features are deepened by this technique.
The protagonist of this film, the ronin samurai Sanjuro, is cast in a role that immediately has a psychology associated with it. The samurai were highly trained and dedicated, following the warrior code of bushido and instilled with a sense of honor from an early age. Having no fear of death, they were just as capable of doling it out with impunity. It is this character type with this set of psychological traits that we come to expect in the ‘samurai cinema’ genre. This fits well into the ‘essential ingredient’ list for film noir, where the protagonist has a particular psychological makeup associated with him.
fig. 5 The final ‘essential ingredient’ as Hayes lists them is ‘a sense of social malaise, pessimism, suspicion, and gloom’ (1). We can see this set of feelings at several points in the film. The social malaise is presented fairly early in the film when Sanjuro encounters a heated argument between a peasant father and his son (Figure 3), who is set on leaving home to live the glamorous life of a gambler in a classic ‘live fast, die young’ type of proclamation made as the protagonist looks on. The father next confronts his wife as to why she did not do more to stop their son. Her monotone, apathetic response demonstrates her own social malaise and gloom. This scene ends with the father’s pessimistic summary of the gloomy, hopeless situation in the town. The father’s suspicion of the protagonist is made clear when he makes a thinly veiled comparison to the ronin samurai and hungry dogs smelling blood (Figure 4). The Gonji character continues this description of the situation, the pained expression in his face being evident in Figure 2. Even the gamblers and fugitive mercenaries hired on exhibit a sense of doomed resignation (Figure 5.)
There are considerable similarities between Yojimbo and American Westerns as well. A Western will contain ‘civilization and the open range or wilderness – two first keys in the topology of this genre’ (1). As Yojimbo begins, we are presented with a scene of the mountainous terrain that the protagonist faces (Figure 6), as he wanders about the land, from one pocket of civilization to another. Hayward further states that ‘the hero is constantly operating at the point of conjecture of these two opposing values’ (1). While written about the protagonist of the Western, the same may be said for the ronin samurai in Yojimbo as he wanders the land. His encounters in the towns and cities would all be heavily influenced by the fall of the Tokugawa Shogunate as the Meiji Restoration took hold and Japan began it’s modernization, leaving the displaced warrior class to deal with the sudden changes. The Shogunate and the Meiji, being the two ‘opposing values’ in the case of Yojimbo, and not without some giri/ninjo conflict as well.
fig. 6 Hayes also states that there is an ‘ideology inherent in the Western of the wandering cowboy or gunhand who must restlessly move on’ (1). The ronin samurai embodied this same ideology as he wandered about from place to place, getting by on his set of skills the same way the gunhand or cowboy might pick up work from one ranch to another. The protagonist in Yojimbo is hiring out his skills just enough to continuously destabilize both sides before he destroys them both. His task complete, he simply moves on again, wandering elsewhere.
A broader consideration as to The United States entered an isolationist period in its history after the end of the First World War, which Hayes believes led to the revival of the Western film genre. ‘The revival of the genre reflects an inward-looking nationalism that is simultaneously nostalgic, having regard for things American but things of the past…’ (1). A similar situation had developed in Japan at the end of the US occupation, though the circumstances were different. Japan was entering a period of isolationism as well, though not self-imposed as in the case of pre-war America. Japan’s response was similar to that of America in the 1930’s, and the rise of the ‘samurai cinema’ starting in the 1950s is an example of this, with Japan also looking inward with nostalgia, and with things of the past. Yojimbo is a cinematic result of these factors; similar to those that gave rise to the Western genre in the United States.
As we have seen, Yojimbo makes use of a variety of technical and storytelling techniques that have been used in both the film noir movement as well as the Western genre. While this was likely intentional on Kurosawa’s part, it is interesting to note the social and political factors that went into the creation and evolution of both the film noir and the Western, and see their presence in Japan’s own history which led to such films as Yojimbo being produced.
(1) Hayward, S. (2000) Cinema Studies – The Key Concepts, 2nd
Edition. London, New York: Routledge
(2) Dr. Ward, M (Instructor). (2005) Drawn from lecture notes
(3) Wikipedia (2005). Occupied Japan
Retrieved April 23, 2005, from http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Occupied_Japan