Yojimbo, story and borrowed ideas

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So I finally got around to watching Yojimbo. And yes, I know, you’re thinking “what took you so long?”. And you’re right. It’s a classic and I should have seen it many times by now, but I’ve been busy, okay?


Aside from the fact that it’s a great film and Mifune is stunning, what struck me most was just how much was, um, repurposed when Sergio Leone and Clint Eastwood remade it as A Fistful of Dollars.

It’s not uncommon for films to be remade. Sometimes it’s for good reasons – because a filmmaker has a different angle or idea to express. Sometimes it’s not so good – Hollywood is notorious for producing inferior copies of foreign films mainly because of the alleged reluctance of Americans to read subtitles.

The Leone/Eastwood remake, as we all know, is itself a classic in its own right. An Italian/German/Spanish co-production, it was the first of the so-called Spaghetti Westerns that would make Eastwood a star. But while you’d expect the overall plot structure and story premise to have similarities to the source, I was unprepared for how many small details were also carried over.

Let’s take the way Mifune uses his kimono. (Stop tittering at the back. Yes, Japanese men wear kimono. It just means ‘thing to wear’. And samurai were known to wear women’s kimono because those garments are open at the side, allowing a dagger to be drawn easily.) In many scenes, Mifune pulls his hands and arms inside, leaving the sleeves dangling and looking for all the world like Eastwood’s trademark poncho.

In some scenes he’s also seen chewing on something that looks suspiciously like a cheroot. And he’s in the habit of scratching and rubbing his chin when thinking. It looks like Eastwood even adopted many of Mifune’s expressions.

In the opening scenes, we see both Mifune and Eastwood stop and pull water from a well. And later, after both have been severely beaten, they end up hiding under a building.

The similarities even extend to the music. A piccolo in Ennio Morricone’s famous score for Fistful serves exactly the same purpose as what sounds like a wooden flute in Yojimbo.

I’m going to have to re-watch Fistful to look for more ‘coincidences’.

You might think that none of this is important. Why wouldn’t there be similarities in a re-make? The problem was, Leone didn’t get the rights for a remake. Fistful was presented as an original film. Yojimbo‘s director, Akira Kurosawa, and his co-screenwriter Ryûzô Kikushima sued – and won. They received 15% of Fistful‘s worldwide gross, and exclusive distribution rights for Japan, Taiwan and South Korea. Kurosawa later said he made more money from Fistful than he did from Yojimbo.

Which is funny, considering that Yojimbo – or at least its basic concept – seems to have been taken from the 1929 novel Red Harvest by Dashiel Hammett which, to this day, hasn’t officially been made into a movie. And it’s clear how much Yojimbo took from cowboy movies – not least the showdowns in the town’s only street.

What goes around comes around, I guess.

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