The Samurai, Western, and Film Noir

It’s somewhat amusing how George Lucas stole from Akira Kurosawa when Kurosawa himself tended to swipe things.

I recently got around to watching the commentary of the Criterion Collection version of Yojimbo. Yojimbo has an interesting history of artistic stealing and being stolen from. It’s been remade repeatedly, most notably as A Fist Full of Dollars. But Yojimbo is often referred to as stealing from American Westerns and from The Glass Key.

gun vs swordThe historian whom the Criterion Collection has talk about the movie, Stephen Price, both points out and downplays the influences. He is rather dismissive of the influence of Westerns despite the obvious similarities of the layout of the town and the violent showdowns that take place in the street. Then at the same time he points out a theft that I had missed entirely (though I watched the other movie recently): the coffin maker hammering on the background, which comes from High Noon.

Sanjuro getting himself beat to a pulp is taken from The Glass Key and done almost the same. The plot of the movie, however, has more similarity to Red Harvest, a book written by Dashiell Hammett who also wrote the book The Glass Key. In Red Harvest, the Continental Op (who does not have a name) goes to a city beset by warring gangsters and manages to trick them into wiping each other out. In Yojimbo, a wandering samurai (who gives people an absurd made up name) shows up in a town beset by warring gamblers and manages to trick them into wiping each other out. Price completely dismisses this. Now perhaps this is an example of nothing new under the sun or maybe Kurosawa saw a similar element in The Glass Key (Ned’s pretend shifting loyalties) and played it up. I don’t know but the similarities are decidedly suspicious.

Saying that an artist took elements from something else doesn’t really damage the genius of that artist. It’s like pointing out that someone making a mosaic didn’t make the individual pieces. It makes a difference what he does with them. Yojimbo is a brilliant and beautiful film. It doesn’t matter if Kurosawa took pieces from Westerns and film noir to build it because what he built was its own thing.

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