Yojimbo, from Nigel Davies

July 21, 2007 |

Akira KurosawaI'm becoming a big fan of Akira Kurosawa's movies, despite only having watched two so far (Dersu Uzala and Yojimbo). I commented earlier on Dersu Uzala.

The storyline and elements of Yojimbo can be seen in many Westerns. But there's much more to Yojimbo, mainly because of the insights we gain into the mind of the enigmatic lead character, a masterless Samurai (we never learn his real name).

The film starts with the Samurai throwing a branch in the air to determine which road he will take. Arriving in a town he discovers there is a conflict between two warring clans and soon has them competing for his services.

Yet as the film continues we start to discover that his true motive is not money — he later gives his entire fee to a family he saves (simultaneously describing them as 'pathetic'), and apparently leaves without making a penny. So what is it that makes the Samurai tick?

I believe that much of the answer can be found in Japanese history. With the outbreak of peace that came with the Tokugawa shogunate, many Samurai found themselves with nothing to do. Yet generations of Samurai had devoted themselves to warfare and the perfection of their skills, with warfare and honor being in their blood. Could they simply forget about this and do something else?

Apparently not, as the Satsuma Rebellion (very roughly portrayed in 'The Last Samurai') was to demonstrate. History ascribes this rebellion to the loss of status the Samurai had to suffer, but in Yojimbo there is a clue to another element. When a man has lived for an appointed task (whether it be warfare, chess or trading), he is only truly alive when given the opportunity to ply this trade. Take the trade away and he becomes a kind of anachronism, but one which will search for pockets of meaning.

This, I believe, is the dark secret in Yojimbo which Kurasawa was no doubt aware of (he was born into a Samurai family) but which I don't think will be widely understood. When one compares the Samurai with, for example, the character William Munny in 'The Unforgiven' , Munny is given a financial reason for embarking on his killing spree (failing farm, kids to feed and then subsequently the murder of his friend) with his darker side being something akin to Dr. Jeckyl's Master Hyde.

The Samurai, on the other hand, kills because of what he is, the gradual emergence of his humanity being an endearing weakness that almost costs him his life. The brusqueness of his final goodbye shows that he doesn't intend to let it happen again, and not because he fears death. It's more a question of professional pride. 

Kim Zussman comments:

I am reminded of the busted traders of yore hanging around Wall St. If markets evolve, there must be extinctions as well as successful mutations. Is it possible that new and profitable traders must defeat the old lions, and have the advantage of not yet holding a deep identity as market maven? Once deemed a master it will be difficult to accept the possibility that old market understanding has become obsolete, and what should be a logical inflection becomes instead a battle to the death.

Similarly, success at trading begs to be made a continuous career; though there is pretty good evidence that tradable periods are ordered irregularly in time.

The best lady’s-men are truly indifferent. 


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