Have been down with viral the last 2-3 days. My nose runneth over. (Zen wisdom: if you have a bad cold, it is inadvisable to sleep on your stomach.) When a nose dies, all that remains is its name. Stat nosa pristine nominee, nomina nuda tenemus. Am writing this through an antibiotic haze. (And hey, what’s all this ‘feed a fever, starve a cold’ nonsense? I usually have both at the same time.)
Wasn’t planning to blog for a few days but then read something JAP wrote about Amitabh’s famous walk in films like Deewaar being inspired by Clint Eastwood’s in Dirty Harry. Well okay, but I prefer the copy to the original. Anyway, this got me thinking about the great walkers (no, Adam Gilchrist doesn’t feature here) and I reached, even in my enfeebled state, for my DVD of Kurosawa’s Yojimbo.
If Yojimbo had never be made, the word “swagger” could comfortably have been pulled out of all dictionaries by now. The incomparable swaggerer here is, of course, Toshiro Mifune, whose performance as the nameless samurai in this film (and its sequel Sanjuro) created the palimpsest for Eastwood’s Man With No Name in Leone’s spaghetti westerns. The opening scene is an exercise in style. The samurai comes into the frame from the right (we don’t see his face), scratches the back of his neck in a coarse, throwaway manner, and begins walking forward magisterially, as the camera follows behind him at a respectful distance. And all this while the titles are still rolling (atypical for Kurosawa, who usually preferred to get the opening credits out of the way before the film began). This great tracking shot ends with the samurai reaching a break in the road, where two lanes lead in different directions. He throws a branch into the air and unhesitatingly walks down the path it indicates. Thus, with utmost economy, Kurosawa establishes that the protagonist is a wanderer with no ties, while also making a nod to the arbitrariness that governs so many human decisions.
The town that the path leads to is caught between two feuding groups, each of which wants absolute control, and the focus of the story is how the amoral samurai sets about playing one side against the other until both groups have self-destructed. “The idea was about rivalry on both sides, and both sides are equally bad,” said Kurosawa, “Here we are, weakly caught in the middle, and it is impossible to choose between evils.” This can easily be related to the larger subtext surrounding the film – that it was made by a Japanese director at a time (1961) when the Cold War was at its peak, two superpowers holding a reluctant world hostage. Nowhere does this come across more strongly than in the superbly composed scene where the samurai, having professed his allegiance to one gang, brings the two groups face to face for a battle and then abdicates. He takes up a vantage point between the gangs and amusedly watches the cowardice hidden beneath all their bravado – they mostly stay where they are, shaking their weapons at each other pathetically, making ape sounds, advancing and retreating for quite some time before they actually get anywhere near each other.
Yojimbo is one of my favourite Kurosawas, an enormously stylish, irreverent black comedy and – this isn’t noted often enough – a great musical too in its own way (in his book on the director, Donald Richie notes how ballet-like the film is and how the characters’ movements all seem to be choreographed). One memorable scenes follows another and even the briefest shots impress themselves into your mind: the cheerful-looking doggie trotting along, a human hand in its mouth, and the expression on Mifune’s face as he watches this; the coffin-maker who wants there to be more bloodshed so that his business improves – but then says ruefully at the end “When a battle gets too big, no one needs coffins anymore”.
Dominating it all though is the Mifune walk, which is where this post began. Hungry tigers would flee, caterwauling, at his approach. Think it’s time to start a series on some of the great screen walks. Calling Henry Fonda next.