Through mise-en-scene, Yojimbo utilizes different techniques and aspects that enhance the film’s plot and characters.
Despite the feudal Japan style of clothing and costumes, Yojimbo is very much a Japanese presentation of western films, which is easily seen through from the beginning shots: A lone samurai(gunslinger) walking into a town that’s a brewing with trouble. In fact several scenes exemplify this. Before the onset of trouble and conflict, a very visible wind that throws up dust is reminiscent of the western tumbleweed that almost always is present in conflict. Also, the silent standoff between foes is another aspect that is seen in the battles in the film.
Lighting in film accentuates the mood. As seen in Sanjuro’s escape sequence, the lighting is very dim and sidelights are used to emphasize his mangled face and worn clothing. Low key lights can be seen in how the shadows highly contrast with the characters in order to portray the feel of tension and suspense, especially in Sanjuro’s case. The scene in the beginning where Sanjuro first meets and converses with the barkeeper in the tavern used lighting extensively and skillfully. Here lighting is rather dim to give a dreary and dreadful first feeling of the town, even more so when the camera pans to the weary looking villagers and their confines. Lighting is also in the form of backlights that feature Sanjuro’s and the Barkeeper’s silhouettes with the key light source the light that peers in from the cracks between boards. In fact, lighting is used in general through the entirety of the film to play off the dreadful crooked nature of the town.
Makeup also plays of the dreadful nature, as the common villagers would often have dark bags under their eyes in order to emphasize their pitiful situation, whereas the gang members had a more clean look to show their power and status that would get sullied only when major conflict arose.
The setting clearly showed the dreary nature and heightening of conflict through its desolate and empty look that only got worse and decorated by debris and the dead later in the film.
Yojimbo, directed by famous Japanese director Kurasawa, takes elements of various film styles and weaves them together in a narrative that is both traditional yet distinctly influenced by American Westerns. This movie also inspired the American film A Fistful of Dollars, which starred Clint Eastwood and followed the original plot closely.
It is obvious when watching Yojimbo that there is much influence from the American Western genre of film. A mysterious stranger arrives in a lawless town, only to become entangled in their affairs. He seems to have a chip on his shoulder and has no qualms about killing anyone who gets in his way. The lighting is used to flatten the landscape, creating a feeling of desolation. Also, while the costumes, names, and language were completely Japanese, the dialogue was translated into the English generally used by those in the Texas/Mexico territory around the “Western era.” This was evidenced by the presence of casual words like “ain’t” and “guy.”
While Yojimbo and A Fistful of Dollars shared an almost identical storyline and screenplay (save for the costumes, setting, and implicit culture differences) there was one aspect that struck me when comparing the two films. The main character in Yojimbo, while not a bad guy, was not a good guy by any means. He didn’t even really fit into the mold of the reluctant anti-hero. He seemed all to eager to practically tear down an entire village, and had no real reason for staying and wreaking the havoc that he did. He was honestly the lesser of three evils. Even in his grand moment of heroism (saving the man’s wife) he seems not to do it out of compassion, but merely out of convenience. He doesn’t end up liberating the village, just practically demolishing it.
This seems to be less of the case in A Fistful of Dollars. This may be due to the American expectation of a redeemable main character that one can ultimately root for and tie to the greater good. The way the main character is presented, you feel more like he is intentionally doing good as opposed to doing it out of his own search for a good fight. As stated earlier, this may be due to the fact that the American audience responds well to heroes and selflessness.
One major character similarity, though, was the apparent disregard and unimportance of money to both main characters, which I believe speaks more deeply about both characters than much of their actions.
I think that using Yojimbo and A Fistful of Dollars parallel to one another to talk about mise-en-scene is perfect. Both movies tell the exact same story and yet they are two different, standalone films, each with a different feel.
Yojimbo was obviously directed and acted in by people of Japanese descent, but this heritage was also reflected in hairstyle, clothing, makeup, architecture and stylization of fight scenes. A Fistful of Dollars, a work done by many people of different ethnic backgrounds, didn’t have such a clear-cut nation in which it was rooted. Though the buildings and layout of the town were indicative of Western America, the actors, names and some of the costuming also had very Hispanic or Mexican tones as well.
Kurosawa really made use of light to create contrasts and shadows in different areas of his film. Two of the most important uses were really in the same scene: when the Samurai sees the unlocked chest and when he crawls under the staircase a minute or two later. Light shines from his face to the broken lock and when we follow his gaze, it gives a perfect line showing both the audience and the character what is going to happen next. This is an example of props creating cause for something to occur, which drives the plot of the film. Also, when he is under the stairs, low-key lighting is used to allow us to barely see the Samurai; we can see the outline/shadow of his body, but we can’t get a clear image of him. This also contributes to the mood of the moment, because as he is running around in the dark (and we can barely see him), it heightens our sense of confusion and urgency.
Something I did note, though it’s more a point about narrative than anything else, is that in both films, neither of the lead males ever have or ever get a love interest. It’s so rare to see a movie like that now that I wonder if love-related subplots are something we’ve been conditioned to expect in film as a whole.
For some reason, I had a lot of trouble connecting with Yojimbo. Though I found that I could pick out elements of mise-en-scene, it was hard to emotionally and logically follow the story. What were the Samurai’s motives? Who was he actually loyal to? I just found the storytelling to be lacking a little in Yojimbo, whereas I was more easily able to follow A Fistful of Dollars.
Yojimbo and A Fistful of Dollars
In terms of mise-en-scene, Kurosawa’s Yojimbo and Leone’s A Fistful of Dollars have unique aspects that further enhance each film. Particularly, they both put great significance onto certain props used by the characters. In the beginning of each film, the protagonist of Yojimbo uses a toothpick while the protagonist of A Fistful of Dollars uses a cigar. Essentially, both props carry the same meaning in which they represent each character’s calm demeanor and confidence in the face of danger and chaos.
Both films also gave deep significance and theme to weapons. In Yojimbo, the theme resided in blade versus pistol and in a Fistful of Dollars, it resided over pistol versus rifle. In either case, the antagonist carried the more powerful weapon while the protagonist carried the considerably weaker one. Similar to the cigar and toothpick, both movies gave the same motif; although the antagonist’s weapon was more powerful, it was the hero’s skill that prevailed in the end as the true strength. In terms of the audience, these props gave the effect that the hero was at a disadvantage and therefore added more suspense to the scenes, especially the western showdowns that each director conveyed.
An interesting observation I made was the effects that using a natural setting entailed. In both films, the wind is a noticeable factor due to the fact that most of the action takes place outside. Whether it was the leaves dancing in the wind (Yojimbo) or the sand creating a blurry storm (Fistful of Dollars), it gave the scenes depth and even a sense of mystery such as in the case of Clint Eastwood’s character appearing from the sand storm in one shot.
Focusing solely on Yojimbo, another observation I made was that as the plot heightened, the set became more chaotic. By the showdown, the town of Yojimbo was in ruins due to the conflict between the gangs. A great technique by Kurosawa, it unified the setting with the story of the film. The most interesting shot in either film for me, however, was a shot in Yojimbo immediately after the gangs’ first encounter. In the shot, we see the two mob bosses face to face and Sanjuro is between them high above standing on a ladder. I found this to be one of the most powerful shots in the whole movie, especially in regards to mise-en-scene, because it showed Sanjuro’s power and manipulation over the two mod bosses at that moment. He was the one that manipulated them into fighting (or at least attempting to fight) in the first place. In this particular shot, I viewed Sanjuro as the puppeteer and the bosses as his puppets. Ultimately, through admiration for mise-en-scene, both directors were able to make visually brilliant movie experiences.
Yojimbo is an interesting combination of an American story with a Japanese setting.
The setting is restricted to the town once Sanjuro ends up there by chance. Most of the film takes place during the day, except for one scenario in the middle that takes place at night. This scene at night can be categorized with other occurrences in which the setting is very much aware of times of turmoil. It is windy during many of the battle scenes, and this can lead to the inference that the setting is as much of a character as any of the people in the film, maybe even more so, given that many of the supporting characters and their fates are largely inconsequential (especially when compared to the bigger figure that Sanjuro represents).
Most of the movie is brightly lit. In fact, even during a scene that takes place at 2:00 a.m., everything still seems pretty well-lit, and the time difference between this and other scenes of the movie may not even have been noticed if not explicitly mentioned.
As for framing and staging, Kurosawa greatly utilizes the close-up. Toshiro Mifune’s acting performance is very subtle and displays feeling through actions more than words. For the character of Sanjuro, the close-up works very well to display his emotions, for he is not a very wordy man. The film is also filled with many moving-camera shots, and this clearly distinguished the movie from the older films that we have watched this semester. One particular shot that I found interesting was when the innkeeper was hanging on a rope, and Sanjuro finds him. The camera pans upwards to make us aware that the innkeeper is indeed the one hanging from the rope, and then the camera moves to the left to follow the gang members and to show that they are alarmed (with the innkeeper at the right of the shot), and then the camera moves right again to show Sanjuro, there to save the man, with the innkeeper at the left of the shot. All the while we can see the innkeeper’s alarmed expression. This staging and camera movement adds suspense and shifts attention from character to character, and this moving-camera style can definitely be seen in movies that are influenced by those of Kurosawa, especially anything made by Tarantino, as others have mentioned.
Finally, the battles in the film, although fought by Japanese swordsmen, are staged and played out like Western standoffs. One group stands on one side, the other group on the other, and they engage in a tense stare-down before making the first move. One can definitely see the influence this film has had on later cinema.
Akira Kurosawa’s Yojimbo exemplifies a Japanese take on an American Western film.
The film relies heavily on natural lighting and fog machines to create the look of a dusty “Western” Japanese village. Nearly everything shown on-screen takes place in the village, however the setting is not very important; the same action could have occurred in any Japanese village. Typical of the Western genre, the village is constructed almost entirely out of wood, and the roads are made of dirt.
The use of costumes in Yojimbo distinguished the rich from the poor—the powerful from the powerless. The traveling samurai stood out from everyone else because of his costume—a solid navy or black robe with a white floral pattern. The women all wore kimonos and the men all wore either robes or some sort of working man’s getup. Everyone had long hair, and everyone tied his/her hair in a bun of some sort. Seibê (the brother operator)’s wife held great power in the film which reflected in her very intricate and expensive-looking kimono.
The film made great use of long shots. Nearly every shot in the film was a long shot; there were very few, if any, short shots, and montage was very sparingly used. I think the use of long shots in the film made the action in the film feel very slow and drawn-out rather than fast-paced. Much of the film’s plot consisted of the samurai waiting in the old man’s house while eating or the samurai waiting in some other location engaging in dialogue or eavesdropping on others’ dialogue. Long shots helped fill time, I suppose, but they made for a boring viewing experience (at least in my opinion).
The makeup on the men seemed very minimal or non-existent except for the obvious bloody and bruised make-up looks. The women wore very minimal makeup as well.
I found there to be an uncanny amount of similarities between Yojimbo and A Fistful of Dollars. I really didn’t expect to see so much resemblance between a Japanese film and a western film. Although they were filmed in the same time period, the location and assumed cultural differences between the movies led me to believe they would be completely different. Having similar plots is one thing, but there were so many details that matched up very well.
Some examples of similar mise-en-scene included setting, characters, lighting, and music. In Yojimbo, there was a coffin maker who was “the only one making money” in the town (which in itself was just depressing and somehow ironic). There was also a crazy man running around banging on a prayer drum in a somewhat annoying and very repetitive fashion when everyone was lying dead on the ground. A Fistful of Dollars had a lot of these similar elements, from the snippets that we saw in class. There was a coffin maker and a crazy guy ringing a bell when everyone lying dead and the sounds he created were also very impactful and repetitive.
The settings were also surprisingly similar: they both were rundown and seemingly abandoned towns with one dirt road going down the middle. As soon as I saw the western scene I immediately began to notice similarities. The plots of the two films were obviously very much the same overall and ended almost exactly the same way: the skilled shooter/warrior came in and had to pick a side to help fight to win power of the town, betrayed someone along the way, and ended up winning with cunning moves and skills.
Even though there are plenty of films out there with similar plots, I found it very intriguing that the little ghost towns were lit the same way at night, had the same quirks, and extremely similar stories going on. I guess that shows that even if it’s in western America or Japan, mise-en-scene can still be very much the same.
This was the first Japanese film I have ever watched and I must admit that it was not at all what I was expecting. Shockingly enough I would probably say that my expectations were surpassed and my appreciation for the more intricate aspects of film is growing. Yojimbo is excellent to discuss mise-en-scene because the entire film plays off the attributes associated with mise-en-scene: setting, color, props, costume and make-up, lighting, and source. This film takes pace in a small town in the middle of a desert with no salvation as far as one can see. The setting adds to the film in sense that there are no firm laws, boundaries, or rules. These fugitives were living a completely ruthless life full of chaos and death. Since the only colors in the film are black and white, the lighting hints at the importance of objects while providing the audience with implications. The direction of the lighting changed throughout the entire film, emphasizing different props and or people. When the Samurai was helplessly looking for a way to hide from the other men, frontal lighting illuminated the lock on the coffin. At that moment we knew that this prop was going to aid him in escaping his death. Overall I thought side lighting was used the most frequently in Yojimbo. It really enhanced the grungy look of the characters, making them appear even filthier. As the Samurai was crawling under the house, the lighting was very limited. However there were occasional spurts of light, indicating that there was still some hope for him. The props themselves play a significant role in the film. The Samurai is blamed for the killing of six men due to his astounding sword skills. Even though practically everyone in the town carries a sword, they knew he was the culprit. A sword led to his near death experience, but it also permitted him to finish what he had begun and leave the town with dignity. The possession of swords by all the inhabitants in the small town just denotes its cruel nature.
This week we watched Akira Kurosawa’s Yojimbo and Sergio Leone’s A Fistful of Dollars, because the two movies have one same theme, and many similar aspects that are presented to the audience in very different ways. The major theme between the two would probably be the violence and death that follows the main character, a bounty hunter. The “similar aspects” of the films refer to the plot structure and story, and what “Presented to the audience in different ways” means is simply that each of the respective directors used genre, mise en scene, costumes, sets, makeup, and other plastics to create two very distinctively different films from the same story.
Kurosawa’s Yojimbo is set in 1860 in Japan and involves a rogue samurai who creates war between two rival gangs. Leone’s spaghetti western A Fistful of Dollars is about a lone stranger who does the same in a Mexican town. However despite having the same premise and many of the same sequences, The two films distinguish themselves through the mise en scene. In Yojimbo, all the male characters have swords and all the female characters wear heavy Japanese makeup. All of the characters wear clothes and act in a way that resembles the time of the setting. Kurosawa uses the plastics to distinguish this movie from A Fistful of Dollars. In A Fistful of Dollars Leone uses the vast “Mexican” desert as the setting, the sets are much more complicated, and all the characters have western attire complete with a pistol. Basically, Leone uses the plastics in his film too, but to send a different message than Kurosawa. Leone uses the spectacle of a spaghetti western to create a movie based more on style and action sequences, while Kurosawa’s Yojimbo seems to be more about the substance of the plot and the driving of the story.
Parts of the mise-en-scene such as the setting, costumes, lighting, and props all greatly enhanced the unique tone of Yojimbo and its identity as an essentially Western film taking place in a feudal Japanese setting, with many Quentin Tarantino-esque elements. The clashing of the old time-esque Japanese setting and the distinctly Western vibe of the film (conveyed through the nature of the shots and also through the way the plot unfolds), proves almost pleasantly discordant, giving the film a very unique identity.
I noticed that the architecture was undeniably Japanese, but that the actual layout of the buildings and their spacings from one another were very Western (facilitating the execution of the iconic show-down scenes later on in the film).
Props prove very important throughout the film, not only giving it an authentic Japanese appearance but augmenting the symbolic essence of it as well; swords are found prevalently, but when the gun is introduced, it becomes obvious that it will become an important plot device (as well as an indicator of the film’s Western influences). It also becomes insinuated that the owner of the gun will ultimately have to face-off with the main character, as the gunman is the only one who can match up to the main character’s unparalleled swording skills. However, in the end, the main character is ultimately victorious with a simple shorter blade (shaped like a kitchen knife), as his intimidatingly-accurate aim maims the gunman’s shooting arm.
I first noticed the significance of the characters’ costumes when the two warring gangs faced-off in the streets; the contrasting attire of each samurai is what identified them to whichever corresponding group they were part of. Also, the greatly-decorated costumes of the two gang leaders identified them as being members of higher status than their fighting samurai. The costumes interact with the lighting as well, emphasizing the dark vs. light juxtaposition throughout the film.