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Matthew Pate | A Samurai down in Old Mexico

You might recall the old idiom, “Everything old is new again.” As I was recently organizing a shelf of DVDs I came across a boxed set of films that are among my favorites. They are a collection of movies by Japanese director Akira Kurosawa. Among the included titles are Sanjuro, The Hidden Fortress, Ran, Rashomon and my personal favorite, Yojimbo (trans. The Bodyguard).

If you’re a fan of Clint Eastwood’s so-called “Spaghetti Westerns,” made under the direction of Italian filmmaker Sergio Leone, you owe it to yourself to watch a couple of these.

Yes, I can already hear the grumbling about such a suggestion. It smacks of art house foppery. The films are in Japanese. There are subtitles; and heaven forbid, they’re in black and white. The abject horror of it all… still, give it shot.

Allen Bara of Slate.com describes the plot of Yojimbo: “A mysterious unnamed stranger carrying a samurai sword arrives in a town where two corrupt factions are warring. The film is set after a ruinous war that has destroyed all central authority; the only law and order in the town comes from the balance between two opposing factions, neither one quite strong enough to engage in open warfare against the other. The stranger hires out to both sides, playing both ends against the middle.”

As Leone freely offered, his 1964 Fist Full of Dollars is pretty much a whole cloth recasting of Yojimbo. Where Kurosawa’s guy carries a samurai sword, Leone’s man carries a revolver. After that, it’s pretty academic.

Just as a side note, the star of Yojimbo and several other Kurosawa classics was an actor named Toshiro Mifune. Mifune is every bit as stoic, sardonic and absurdist as Eastwood ever was. Plus, Mifune was the real deal when it came to sword play. He studied many years with Yoshio Sugino, a Japanese kenjutsu master and film choreographer.

Of course, the idea wasn’t original to Kurosawa either. He took the basic plot from Dashiell Hammett’s 1929 novel, Red Harvest. Some film scholars claim that Kurosawa’s exact inspiration was a 1942 film noir classic, The Glass Key, itself inspired by Red Harvest.

With a storyline so compelling, it’s not like Hollywood could leave it alone. There were multiple stalled attempts at a direct adaptation of Red Harvest, but complications just seemed to foil the efforts. Even so, in 1996 director Walter Hill shepherded Last Man Standing to the screen. This time the stranger is played by Bruce Willis. The scene is not too different — rival Irish and Italian bootleggers squabbling in a dusty nowhere town along the U.S.-Mexican border.

Naturally, the story would inspire other similarly themed offerings. We see some of it in George Miller’s dystopian Mad Max trilogy. We also see a more direct connection to Joel and Ethan Cohen’s 1990 Miller’s Crossing. Then there’s HBO’s Deadwood series.

Similarly it appears (as Bara notes) in snippets of George Lucas’ Star Wars, as well as Wild at Heart, Django Unchained, Kill Bill and many others.

Ultimately, all of this reminds me of an important lesson I learned while in a landscape architecture class at the University of Georgia. My design professor, Hank Methvin, said it best: “It’s ok to ‘steal’ creative ideas. Just be sure you steal good ones.”

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