Tag Archives: Akira Kurosawa

My Thoughts on: A Fistful of Dollars (1964)

I’ve known about A Fistful of Dollars for years from its reputation as a shameless rip-off of Kurosawa’s film Yojimbo (1961). I thought I’d seen at least part of it before, but it turns out I was remembering The Good, The Bad and the Ugly instead. So as it turns out, this was my first viewing of the film.

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If you’ve ever seen Yojimbo, the similarities between that film and A Fistful of Dollars become obvious almost immediately. A lone gunslinger rides into a rural town that is being dominated by two rival gangs. The Man with No Name (Clint Eastwood) decides to eliminate both groups by playing them off against one another. Except for minor plot differences, this is the exact story presented in Yojimbo. One difference I couldn’t help but notice is that in A Fistful of Dollars, the gunslinger initially allies with the Rojo brothers (analogous to Ushitora and his brothers); in Yojimbo, Sanjuro initially joins Sebei’s side (analogous to the Baxter family).

Now excluding the fact that this film is a rip-off, A Fistful of Dollars is a really good film. It wasn’t the first spaghetti western ever made, but it was the first to become really big, which is why director Sergio Leone is often credited as the founder of the genre. Eastwood’s performance as the Man with No Name is really something to see: he doesn’t say much but his expressions say plenty. I’m still not quite sure if he enjoys what he’s doing or if he just sees it as something that needs to be done.

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Ennio Morricone’s score for the film provides a perfect complement to the action though, in atypical fashion, a large portion of the score was actually written before most of the film was created. I like how whenever the gunslinger does something like sits in a chair or shifts his cigar in his mouth, the music plays a little trill that comments on it.

If you’ve never seen a spaghetti western before, A Fistful of Dollars is a good place to start. One word of warning though: the film is obviously dubbed (it was filmed silent and the voices looped in after the fact) so yes you’re going to see mouths that don’t match up to the words. In fact the actors in this film spoke a plethora of languages: there were Germans, Austrians, Italians, Spaniards and Americans of course. And most if not all spoke their lines in their own languages (I can only imagine what filming a scene was like).

Let me know what you think about A Fistful of Dollars in the comments below and have a great day!

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Film 101: The Rashomon Effect

*the links in this post contain affiliate links and I will receive a small commission if you make a purchase after clicking on my link.

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poster from Rashomon

It’s been a long time since I updated Film 101, so I decided to pick something that I’ve wanted to cover for a while: the Rashomon effect, which you’ve most likely seen even if you didn’t know it was called that.

First, the definition: The Rashomon effect occurs when the same event is given contradictory interpretations by the different individuals involved. The name derives from Akira Kurosawa’s 1950 film Rashomon, where the murder of a samurai is described in four mutually contradictory ways, with the final description presented as “the truth.”

If this sounds familiar, it’s because it appears a lot in crime shows (imagine episodes of CSI where different suspects are being interviewed and they each describe what happened from their perspective, but everything is different each time it is told). Another good example is the third season Star Trek: The Next Generation episode “A Matter of Perspective” where Commander Riker is put on trial for allegedly murdering a scientist. Using the ship’s holodeck, the events are recreated using each person’s testimony, with radically different interpretations of the same events.

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Still from “A Matter of Perspective”

The Rashomon effect is interesting because it often forces the audience to ask themselves “what is the truth?” and even when the “solution” is given, there is sometimes an implication that there is no correct answer and the truth must be determined for oneself. As a side note, given that the characters involved give contradictory accounts of certain events, they can also be considered unreliable narrators (meaning, unlike certain shows where you have no reason to question what a character says, an unreliable narrator cannot be trusted under any circumstances).

Thinking about the Rashomon effect, do any examples come to mind? List one or two in the comments below, along with what you think about the Rashomon effect (like, is it still a good technique or has it had its day?) Have a good day and thank you again for supporting Film Music Central 🙂

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Film 101

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My thoughts on: Yojimbo (1961)

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Ever since I first saw Throne of Blood on Hulu (back when the Criterion Collection streamed their films on that site), there has been a special place in my heart for Kurosawa’s jidaigeki films (a jidaigeki film is literally a “period drama” usually set during the Edo period of Japan from 1603-1868, though some can be set earlier). And one of my favorite jidaigeki films is Yojimbo (1961), a film that may sound familiar to fans of Western films. Why would that be? Well, listen to the brief summary first:

A nameless samurai (Toshiro Mifune) comes to a small town that is the center of a feud between two families, both engaged in underworld crime. The nameless samurai plots to save the town by pitting the two families against one another by pretending to be a bodyguard (yojimbo) for each side until they destroy each other.

If that sounds like the plot of A Fistful of Dollars (1964) starring Clint Eastwood as The Man With No Name then you would be correct. What I never knew until I saw Yojimbo is that director Sergio Leone “borrowed” the plot of this film from Kurosawa’s work and repeated it wholesale for his spaghetti Western. Kurosawa filed a lawsuit when the film came to his attention, stating that while Leone had made “a fine movie, but it was my movie!” Ultimately the lawsuit was settled out of court for a certain percentage of the profits made from A Fistful of Dollars.

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As stated in the brief summary, the nameless samurai comes to a rural town that is slowly being suffocated by two families. It was originally ruled (more or less) by Seibei    (Seizaburo Kawazu) and his gang. But when Seibei sought to retire and announced that he would be giving all of his territory to his inexperienced son, his right-hand man Ushitora (Kyū Sazanka) balked and started his own gang in retaliation. The two have been trying to eliminate each other for quite some time but remain locked in a stalemate. Seeing how the town is suffering from the two gangs, the nameless samurai (who later gives himself the name Sanjuro Kuwabatake) determines to eliminate them.

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Ushitora (left) and his brothers: Unosuke (center) and Inokichi (right)

Part of what makes Yojimbo such an excellent film is that it turns the traditional depiction of a samurai on its head. As a general rule, samurai were depicted as these noble beings, not a hair out of place and they wouldn’t dream of killing anyone for something as base as money. Sanjuro is the complete opposite of all of these ideals: he’s visibly scruffy; his clothes have seen better days; and his whole world apparently revolves around profit (though this is later tempered when he secretly gives his ill-gotten gains to a peasant family to help them start a new life). Toshiro Mifune completely owns this role for certain. In fact, this film did so well that Mifune reprised the role the following year in Sanjuro (1962).

My favorite part of this film is the middle act where Sanjuro plays each gang off of the other, with both sides completely oblivious to the manipulation. For example, Sanjuro overhears one of Ushitora’s men drunkenly spouting off to a friend about how they murdered a government official. After capturing them and taking the pair to Seibei, Sanjuro goes back to Ushitora and tells them that Seibei’s men captured the pair (leaving out the fact that he made the capture himself).

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Seibei (left) begs Sanjuro to work for him

The plan nearly goes off without a hitch but there are some complications: right in the middle of Sanjuro’s scheming, Ushitora’s younger brother Unosuke (Tatsuya Nakadai) returns after a trip abroad. And the semi-deranged Unosuke brought back a present: a pistol (that he knows how to use very well thank you very much). On top of this, Sanjuro’s good deed of helping a peasant family escape (including the wife who had been forcibly given to one of Ushitora’s associates as a concubine) is found out by Unosuke, who drags him back to his brother’s gang to be beaten unmercifully until he gives up where the family went. Sanjuro manages to escape, naturally, and he makes sure his only friend in the town, Gonji (Eijirō Tōno) the tavern owner, tells Ushitora’s men that the samurai went back to Seibei’s place to hide.

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This proves to be the final straw: Ushitora and his men set fire to the rival gang’s base (a brothel) and slaughter them all as they come running out to fight, though they do spare the brothel girls as they run for their lives. After killing Seibei’s son and his scheming wife, Unosuke shoots Seibei and the war for the town is seemingly over. Gonji sneaks Sanjuro out of town to help him recover, but is caught taking supplies to him and is captured. Sanjuro won’t stand to see his friend hurt, so he returns to town to dispatch Ushitora and his gang. In relatively short order he kills them all, only sparing a young farm boy that he saw at the beginning of the story running away from the family farm, ordering him to go back to his parents and enjoy “a long life sipping gruel.”

With the gangs eliminated, Sanjuro frees Gonji and with a simple “See you around!” heads off for the road.

The film is made even better by Masaru Sato’s excellent, almost jazz-like score for this film. It doesn’t seem like the kind of music you should hear in a period film like Yojimbo, but it absolutely works. One of my favorite musical moments is, when Sanjuro is stalking Ushitora’s gang for the last time, all you really hear for a minute is a soft tap on a high-hat cymbal.

Have you seen Yojimbo or Sanjuro the sequel? If so, what did you think about them? Let me know your thoughts in the comments below! Thank you so much for coming by and checking out the blog, your support means everything to me!

For more of my thoughts on Kurosawa, see also: My Thoughts on Throne of Blood (1957)

And also see: Live-Action Films/TV for the rest of my film reviews 🙂

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My Thoughts on Throne of Blood (1957)

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Have you ever wondered what Macbeth would look like if William Shakespeare had been a Japanese playwright living in 17th century feudal Japan? Legendary director Akira Kurosawa pondered the exact same question and as a result created Throne of Blood (known as Kumonosu-jō or Spider-Web’s Castle in its original Japanese title). The plot is largely faithful to Shakespeare, but the characters have undergone some changes, so first I’ll list the main characters and their Shakespearean counterparts:

  • Washizu/Macbeth: a loyal retainer of the Great Lord who is unexpectedly promoted to commander of the North Garrison after helping subdue a rebellion.
  • Miki/Banquo: Washizu’s best friend since childhood. He also meets the Witch in Spider-Web Forest
  • Lady Asaji/Lady Macbeth: Washizu’s scheming wife who continually pushes her husband to fulfill his “destiny” as laid out by the Witch.
  • The Great Lord/King Duncan: Ruler of a large territory who places great trust in Washizu and Miki.
  • The Witch of Spider-Web Forest/The Three Witches: Instead of three witches, Washizu and Miki meet only one, who, after singing a morbid song about how all life is connected to the corruption of death, foretells that Washizu will be promoted and shortly thereafter become Great Lord of Spider-Web’s Castle.

 

As I said before, the film is largely faithful to Shakespeare’s plot: After defeating a rogue lord in battle, Washizu and his friend Miki are on their way to meet the Great Lord when they come across a strange witch in the forest. The witch foretells that Washizu will shortly be named lord of the North Garrison and become ruler of Spider-Web’s Castle thereafter. Miki asks his fortune, and the witch replies that while his son will one day rule, he (Miki) will not. The friends attempt to laugh off the encounter, but when the first set of predictions come true (both are rewarded as the witch said they would be), they begin to wonder if the second prediction will also come true (because the Great Lord has a son of his own).

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Behind the scene with the arrows in Throne of Blood

Washizu (to me) makes the great mistake of telling Lady Asaji about the prophecy and everything that’s happened and from that point on she can’t let it go; Washizu MUST fulfill the rest of the prophecy or he is no man at all. I have to say that Isuzu Yamada’s performance as Lady Asaji is one of the most chilling renditions of the Lady Macbeth character that I have ever seen. Part of the eeriness comes from Kurosawa instructing the actress to never blink on-camera. This gives her a not-quite-human affect and makes it like she’s wearing a mask (which is a reference to traditional Japanese theater, where the actors wore masks to denote their character). Asaji is near-sociopathic when it comes to getting what she wants, especially when she speaks of killing the Great Lord (which, as Washizu points out, would be an act of treason).

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Great Lord Washizu sees Miki’s ghost at a feast

Despite Washizu’s doubts, he finally gives in and murders the Great Lord off-camera when the latter comes to stay at the garrison for a night (Asaji having convinced him that all of this is a ploy that will eventually lead to Washizu’s execution). Despite successfully becoming the next Great Lord, Washizu is far from happy. But he at least sees one happy ending for his story: his dear friend Miki will be named his heir, as will Miki’s son, since Washizu has no children to succeed him. But while Washizu is content to reign and then turn the castle over to someone else, Lady Asaji is not. In a twist specificially created by Kurosawa, the devious wife drops a bombshell on her husband:

Asaji: “I am….with child.”

Washizu: “Truly?!”

Asaji: “….yes.”

The revelation that Asaji is pregnant (and she truly is, it’s not a lie) changes everything and gives Washizu a true motivation to eliminate Miki and his son from the picture. This is done, though Miki’s son escapes. At a feast later that night, Washizu sees Miki’s ghost sitting at his usual place in the hall, which terrifies the guilty lord who nearly reveals the whole truth to his entire court! I love Mifune’s performance in this scene, he is clearly wrestling with his fear and guilt and a part of him wants to badly to scream his sins in front of the world. But there’s still the child…isn’t there? Well, when the time to give birth arrives, a maid delivers the news: Asaji delivered a stillborn child, one that had been dead in the womb for some time, meaning Washizu ordered his best friend murdered for nothing. The loss of the child and the weight of her guilt combine to drive Asaji mad, and we last see her frantically trying to clean the phantom blood from her hands.

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Washizu with the fatal arrow in his neck

Washizu dies just like Macbeth at the conclusion of the story, but it’s the manner of his death that I’d like to talk about. Just like in Shakespeare, Washizu receives a final prophecy from the witch: he will not be overthrown until Spider Web’s Forest marches up to the castle. Since forests can’t walk of their own accord, Washizu assumes this means he’s invincible and he tells his men as much. But then, one night, an army organized by the son of the murdered Great Lord arrives and strange noises are heard in the forest. In the morning, the soldiers keeping watch cry out in panic, for there is Spider-Web’s Forest walking up to the castle!

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In actuality, the invading soldiers had chopped down the trees to 1) make it easier to reach the castle and 2) disguise how many soldiers and wagons they had with them. Seeing the prophecy come true, Washizu’s men turn on him and suddenly a few arrows are shot at the terrified lord. When he calls them out that killing the Great Lord is treason, a soldier yells back “And who killed our last lord??” Dozens of arrows pursue Washizu as he runs for his life, but every way is cut off by arrows. He’s pierced dozens of times, but he still struggles to get away until suddenly (in one of the best executed jump-cuts you’ll ever see), an arrow pierces his neck, killing him, and bringing an end to the tragedy of Washizu.

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An interesting note about the final scene with the arrows: Toshiro Mifune was really being shot at by live arrows (for the most part, a few are guided by wires which can be seen if you watch for them). His frantic arm movements are actually directing the archers as to which direction they need to shoot in next. This is why Washizu looks so terrified: because Mifune is genuinely terrified!

I would also like to give a quick mention to the wonderful score composed by Masaru Sato (1928-1999), who composed music for Kurosawa’s films for over a decade. He created music that highlights both the good and bad moments in Washizu’s life, and it really adds to the quality of this film.

If you’d like to watch Throne of Blood (which I highly recommend), the Criterion Collection has a restored copy on DVD/Blu Ray. It can also be streamed via FilmStruck. If you’ve seen Throne of Blood, what did you think of it? Let me know your thoughts in the comments below. Have a good day!

See also:

My thoughts on: Yojimbo (1961)

Live-Action Films/TV

Become a Patron of the blog at patreon.com/musicgamer460

Check out the YouTube channel (and consider hitting the subscribe button)

Don’t forget to like Film Music Central on Facebook 🙂