Thursday, 31 July 2014

Looking back at Yojimbo and Fistful of Dollars

Akira Kurosawa and Sergio Leone are two of the most influential, yet different directors in cinematic history – but they met on a crossroads. That crossroads was Fistful of Dollars, Sergio Leone's Western that took the world by storm, that was said to be a copy of Kurosawa's Yojimbo. I decided to watch both back-to-back and have my say on the matter.

Much has been made about how Sergio Leone took Kurosawa's story and characters (most in particular being a rogue from out of town) and made them into his breakthrough Fistful of Dollars. Kurosawa even sued Leone over the story rights. But to those who wonder whether Yojimbo is 'better' than Fistful or vice versa need to remember one of two things: Kurosawa took the story from Dashiell Hammett's gangster novel Red Harvest (which was also adapted into The Maltese Falcon – go and watch that if you haven't done so already.), so neither film maker is making something really original; and that since each film is made in a different continent, and with the slightest different sensibilities about its characters.

I think people seem to forget that Yojimbo was more or less an homage to the Hollywood Western. Sergio Leone transposed the screenplay of Yojimbo to the Spanish desert, and he brought along a young television actor named Clint Eastwood, and together they revolutionised the western with Fistful of Dollars, and created an entire genre – the Spaghetti Western. It wasn’t much of a stretch to replace the Japanese actors with Americans and Italians and swap out the katanas for pistols. It’s still the same dusty town, the same shoot outs on the desolate streets. Whether it’s cowboys or samurai’s, it all adds up to one excellent cinematic experience.

There are enough cultural differences to distinguish both of them and to make them both enjoyable. For one thing, in Yojimbo guns are scarcer than in Fistful, and there's a treatment Kurosawa has with his actors that sets it apart from the small town western scope of Leone's weapons and actors.

Yojimbo is a wonderfully tight-scripted film that uses its action with just the right touches of voracity and excitement, and in the backdrop is also a sense of humour to the process. It carries wonderful images, and skilful direction that keeps the pace of the storytelling tight and tells most of the story through images – this is the kind of film that is so good it can be watched a silent film without losing too much of its impact or meaning.

But I think it would be hard to argue that Fistful is not the more stylish of the film. From Eastwood's poncho and hat, to the final scene, to the iconic music. It sported among its attributes a gritty, desolate landscape, and a cynical, postmodern lack-of-values ideology (traditional American westerns had quite plush landscapes and were always black and white (good and evil) in their value system. Fistful made a star of Eastwood Leone and rightly so. The film captured an audience and a generation. The music is still hummed to this day.

In other words, it's kind of like comparing apples and oranges picked in the same farm. They both taste good, but they have two very distinct different tastes. Everyone is going to have their favourite, but to dismiss Fistful because it is a 'copy' would be dismissing one of the greats of American Cinema and Yojimbo is one of the greatest films of all time, so why can't we have both?