Yojimbo (film)

Yojimbo (Directed by Akira Kurosawa)/1961

Near the end of Tokugawa Shogunate era, the samurai (or ronin, which were samurai without masters) are losing their status.  Guns are starting to be introduced into Japan and the virtues and skills held by samurai are rapidly losing relevance. Yojimbo covers events that unfold as one of these mysterious no-name ronin arrive at a village controlled by two rival gangs.  Yojimbo means “body guard” and both the gangs try to recruit this ronin to be their yojimbo.  The ronin uses his wit and swordmanship to bring peace to the village.  This is a typical black and white (literally and metaphorically), good versus evil story.

One of the great things about these kinds of action flicks is that it is a good indicator of society’s shared notions around aesthetics and characteristics associated with "good" and "evil".  Fictions often associate evil with ugliness and good with beauty.  While the simplistic formula itself in the association may be problematic I find it interesting to see what kind of behaviours are associated with evil and what features are considered ugly in the world of divergent cultures.

In Yojimbo, all of the bad guys are shorter than the ronin.  Some of them are scrawny and poorly dressed, and others are obese or have a deformity.  The ronin is a good foot taller, possessing broad shoulders and chest.

When the ronin is presented with geishas he appears put out by women with dark skin, freckles and big noses.  He is disgusted by the way they sing loudly and lift their feet up high as they dance.  The one woman considered beautiful has light skin, big eyes and a round face.  She was also very quiet and completely helpless to a point where she wouldn’t even move without being dragged by a man.  The only time she shows any strength was when she runs to her crying child.

One point of note is how the most challenging gang member, Ushitora, looks more like the ronin than the others.  He is as tall as the ronin, has fairer skin and big eyes.  It seems that the closer the physical features of the evil are to the good, the greater challenge to overcome.  Ushitora is also cleverer than the rest and carries a gun with him at all times.  His possession of a gun appears to symbolise the tidal wave of new technology that was shunting the samurais at the time; he is also someone that is quite happy to fight an unfair fight: gun against a sword.

In a film where there is only one noble character, we are presented with a simple view of what is good and what is bad because ultimately all physical and behavioural characteristics are judged based on the “good guy”.  The film shows that it is despicable for a man to: get drunk, be fearful, be ego driven, be easily influenced, gamble, and be weak mentally or physically.  The ronin expresses particular hate when he comes across a man who loses his house and wife gambling and cannot do anything about it.

Whether or not these portrayals are politically correct or aspirational it is nevertheless interesting to note differing views on good and evil in other cultures. For me, this is what makes Yojimbo a fascinating watch.

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