Cinematic Soulmates: Yojimbo and A Fistful of Dollars
Remakes (or reimaginings, reboots, etc) seem to be all the rage in Hollywood these days, but this phenomenon has been occurring within the realm of cinema for a long time. Most of the time, remakes are pointless and don’t bring anything new or interesting to the table, thus alienating fans of the original work while simultaneously failing to bring new viewers into the fold. This is often the case whenever Hollywood insists upon remaking foreign films, removing anything interesting or daring from the original in favor of a delivering a pandering bit of product that is little more than a pale imitation. However, sometimes taking a familiar story and setting into a new context yields fascinating rewards, and occasionally results in the creation of a film that apes the original but nevertheless manages to stand on its own.
Such is the case with Sergio Leone’s groundbreaking Spaghetti Western classic A Fistful of Dollars (1964), which is a remake of Yojimbo (1961), a Japanese samurai film set during the Edo period and directed by Akira Kurosawa. Apart from some aesthetic differences, the two films are almost exactly the same, but this doesn’t mean that there is nothing beyond surface variations that distinguishes one from the other. Leone’s film is every bit as rich and rewarding as Kurosawa’s, and when watched back to back, they reveal a wealth of distinct cultural differences that illuminate information about both of the national identities that are associated with each film. This is why I am going to use this column to look at Yojimbo and A Fistful of Dollars, because even though they are identical in a lot of ways, sometimes the most obvious pairings prove to be the most rewarding.
In Yojimbo, the always charismatic Toshiro Mifune plays a nameless wandering samurai (known as a ronin) who wanders into a rundown town controlled by two rival gangs. On one side is Seibei (Seizaburô Kawazu), who controls the silk trade. On the other side is Ushitora, Seibei’s former right hand man who now has a stranglehold on the flow of sake into and out of the impoverished village. Caught in the middle are the locals; Tazaemon (Kamatari Fujiwara), the local silk merchant and de facto mayor; Gonji (Eijirō Tōno), who owns the town’s sole restaurant; Tokuemon (Takashi Shimura), the sake brewer; and a poor family that has been torn apart by the violent cold war being fought by the two gangs. Gonji feeds the ronin, but then immediately urges the stranger to leave town. However, the ronin, who takes the name Kuwabatake Sanjuro, senses an opportunity to do some good, and he decides to play both gangs off each other in order to free the town from their oppression. Thus, he offers his services as a swordsman first to one gang, and then the other, sowing mistrust and dissension among their ranks as a way of taking them down from the inside. He is soon found out, however, when he runs afoul of Seibei’s brother Unosuke (Tatsuya Nakadai), a ruthless gunman who prefers bullets to blades. The ronin is captured and tortured, but manages to escape with the help of Gonji, who is himself captured by Unosuke and the rest of Seibei’s gang. Now it’s going to take all of Sanjuro’s wits to get both himself and the rest of the innocent townsfolk out of this mess alive. Luckily, he is much craftier than any of them give him credit for.
A Fistful of Dollars, meanwhile, tells the exact same story, only it substitutes Wild West archetypes for samurai. See if any of this sounds familiar: A drifter who calls himself Joe (Clint Eastwood) drifts into San Miguel, a dusty Mexican border town that is controlled by two gangs. On one side are the Baxters, a family of rough and tumble cowboys led by the patriarchal John Baxter (Wolfgang Lukschy). On the other side are the Rojos, a ruthless gang of Mexican bandidos led by the weak-willed Don Miguel (Antonio Prieto) and his vicious brothers, the headstrong Esteban (Sieghardt Rupp) and the coolly calculating Ramón (Gian Maria Volonté). After getting the skinny on both gangs from a local bartender named Silvanito (José Calvo), Joe decides there is some money to be made by playing the warring factions against one another. His chance comes when he witnesses the Rojos slaughtering a detachment of Mexican soldiers in order to steal the gold they were transporting. Joe hires himself out as muscle to both gangs, and sets about taking them both down from the inside. However, he is soon found out, and is captured and tortured by the Rojos. He escapes with the help of Silvanito and the coffin builder Piripero (Joseph Egger), and they nurse him back to health. Soon after, Silvanito is himself captured by the Rojos and tortured, and now Joe is going to have to rely on every ounce of his smarts if he wants to save his friend and free the town from the ruthless men who want nothing more than to crush it under their boot heels.
The films are very similar, but there are several small differences that reveal how the two culture approach the same material. For instance, when Kuwabatake Sanjuro is introduced in Yojimbo, he comes up on the house of a poor farmer and his family. Sanjuro asks for some water, and the farmer reluctantly gives him some. Meanwhile, the son and the wife are arguing, and the son soon runs off to the town where the bulk of the film’s action takes place. It is here that Sanjuro learns of the two gangs, and it is this knowledge that sends him to the town in the first place. The existence of this prologue implies that Sanjuro is actually setting out to save the town, and thus he is established as a noble, honor-bound character right from the start. Sure, he is not above making a little money along the way, but nevertheless, Sanjuro is immediately established as a good character who is out to save the townsfolk. This sets him apart from his Italian counterpart, who simply arrives in the town and decides that he can make a some money by playing these two gangs against one another, regardless of what happens to the townsfolk along the way. His amorality is such an issue that it prompted ABC to add a four minute prologue to the film for its television debut, in which Joe is dispatched by the government to bring down the gangs that have taken over San Miguel. In the original cut of the film, however, he is not there to save anyone; instead Joe’s only concern is in lining his wallet. Sure, his attitude changes as the film progresses, and by the end he is fighting for the life of a man he has come to regard as a friend, but that doesn’t change the fact that he is quite a different character from Japanese predecessor.
Ultimately, though, the two films share more similarities than differences, and the story flows in much the same way. Both men arrive in towns that are plagued by death, a fact which is established by a shot of a noose in A Fistful of Dollars and a dog carrying a severed hand in Yojimbo. Both films feature strong yet evil women who use their wiles to exert a small amount of control over their the gangs their husbands nominally lead. In Yojimbo it is Seibei’s wife Orin (Isuzu Yamada) who pulls his strings, while in A Fistful of Dollars it is John Baxter’s wife, Consuelo (Margarita Lozano), who is the woman behind the man. The aesthetic differences go on from there, but I think you get the idea.
While most remakes are completely pointless affairs, sometimes they can yield interesting results, especially when transplanting a story from one culture to another. Such is the case with Yojimbo and A Fistful of Dollars. While they are both great movies in their own right, they become much richer and more rewarding when viewed together, and this is why they belong in the pantheon of cinematic soulmates.