This past weekend, I rented Yojimbo (1961, dir./co-writer Akira Kurosawa) and A Fistful of Dollars (1964, dir. Sergio Leone, starring Clint Eastwood). They were recommended by my student advisor at RRFC (a mentorship program) to help develop a story I want to write. It only helped inform me of a direction I don’t want to take. The rest of this article is more of a diary for me, so feel free to skip it, but it does cover some similarities and differences between the films and explains why I fell asleep to both.
My story called for someone to create a hit list that turns a high school’s student body against each other (more like McCarthyism, black lists, witch hunts, or The Twilight Zone episode The Monsters are Due on Maple Street). But my mentor thought watching these two films about an outsider turning two rival gangs on each other would be helpful. Little did I know that they’re the exact same story!
Made only 3 years apart on two different continents (Japan, then Europe) the first 15 minutes makes it obvious that Sergio Leone had ripped off the Kurosawa film in basic premise and even dialogue. So much so that Kurosawa sued Leone and they settled out of court.
I watched the latter first since I had seen The Good, The Bad, and The Ugly (1966, dir. Sergio Leone, starring Clint Eastwood) a few months earlier, and I really enjoyed it for its characters, plot (and twists), and music. Furthermore, I had seen Seven Samurai (1954, dir./co-writer Akira Kurosawa) a decade ago, because Star Wars, and I don’t remember it all but I do remember being bored and forgetting about it.
In the opening of A Fistful of Dollars, Clint Eastwood (a hired gun) walks into town see some family fighting, then is harassed by some gang. Then he enters a tavern where the owner feeds him despite knowing the stranger doesn’t have money. The owner then warns the stranger to leave after eating, informing the stranger about the two rival gangs and their back story. He also tells the stranger that the only venture that’s profitable is casket maker for all the dead bodies. The stranger decides to stay, informing the owner that there is much money to be made for him. He then heads outside, tells the coffin maker to make 3 coffins, picks a fight with the gang that harassed him, kills 4 of them, then heads to the rival gang to be hired, but while walking past the coffin maker tells him, “My bad, better make that four.”
In Yojimbo, a Samurai (a hired warrior) walks into town, sees some family fighting, then is harassed by some gang. Then he enters a restaurant where the owner feeds him despite knowing the stranger doesn’t have money. The owner then warns the stranger to leave after eating, informing the stranger about the two rival gangs and their back story. He also tells the stranger that the only venture that’s profitable is coffin maker for all the dead bodies. The stranger decides to stay, informing the owner that he makes money from killing people and after he kills all the gangs, the town can start fresh. He then heads outside, picks a fight with the gang that harassed him, kills 3 of their members, then heads to the rival gang to be hired, but while walking he passes the casket maker and tells him to make 2 coffins, make that 3.
There are differences between the two, with the remake being a little bit more complicated and intricate to the Western setting as opposed to the Japanese setting. But overall, the same story.
This video here demonstrates some similarities, completely failing to note how the tavern scene was beat-for-beat the same, with slightly different words.
And this article here delineates some of the other similarities. http://nerdist.com/rampant-remakery-yojimbo-vs-a-fistful-of-dollars/
So I’m not going to repeat them. Not knowing that they were related, I was simply shocked at the first fifteen minutes of Yojimbo after watching half of A Fistful of Dollars, falling asleep, then having it summarized by my brother.
At one point during watching Yojimbo, around 1hr 9 min, I switched to the audio commentary (thanks to the Criterion Collection DVD) and that’s exactly the point the film expert making the commentary mentioned that Kurosawa’s inspiration for the story was actually the film noir The Glass Key (1942) which was based off of the 1931 novel by the same name (written by Dashiell Hammett). Red Harvest is also mentioned. Wikipedia also points out that: “In Red Harvest, The Glass Key, and Yojimbo, corrupt officials and businessmen stand behind and profit from the rule of gangsters.” They also claim Last Man Standing (1996, dir. Walter Hill, starring Bruce Willis) is also an adaptation of Yojimbo.
I highly recommend watching the whole movie with that narration instead if you’ve already seen Fistful.
Overall, neither film appealed to me. Both were dreadfully slow and about despicable characters doing despicable things to each other. Like many films I hate, it was an excuse to create violence. There were rarely any laughs and I was not attached to any character. I think in both films, the protagonist is too cool and seems to not care about anything or anyone (in fact, money drives him). Contrast this to any Tom Cruise movie or Indiana Jones movie where the protagonist is always working toward something and is more cocky than cool. A too cool character has no passion. People like passion. It can be argued that the lack of clear motive in any scene for these characters makes the audience wonder, what’s he up to?, but for me, it makes me lose interest. Momentary cockiness is cool and fun, but cool and stoic for the whole movie is boring.
For me, A Fistful of Dollars was also too complicated to follow too since all of the Italian actors looked the same (especially when playing Mexicans using black-face) and it had more sets than just the town. Yojimbo was slow too but easier to follow (maybe because I knew the story by now). I had to say that both were well shot. However, Yojimbo felt more like it was filmed on sets, which in one aspect meant that the blocking in a room and camera movements were more interesting. A Fistful of Dollars made great use of what felt like real locales and more stylized camera angles (both wide angle close ups and zoom lenses). Also, Yojimbo felt more emotional due to music and Japanese intensity. Overall, Yojimbo was a much better movie. More passion, more emotional scenes, easier plot, well filmed (more epic), and great music. But I still stopped halfway through to listen to the audio commentary which was extremely enlightening as it breaks down writing decisions and cinematic film decisions Kurosawa made and the films historical context and commentary on capitalism and the fall of feudalism and the Samurai. He also calls out the “jokes” that us westerners never really get.
But I’m glad I got a chance to watch them both because I’m becoming a more knowledgeable filmmaker and now people can’t use this plot line against me. And maybe when I make another film, I can use it to my advantage. But they’re not for me and not for my current script. Both are foreign films though and help to inform me of what other cultures are capable of cinematically. So I’m very grateful to have watched them. But now I need to return both to the rental store because I don’t want to pay for another week with them.