Wednesday, March 4, 2009

The Bodyguard: Good, Whitney-less Version

Continuing our Kurosawa month, we watched Yojimbo at the Grand Illusion last night. Usually not translated, the title means a kind of bodyguard. The main character, the man with no name, is a masterless samurai, just wandering the countryside, pretending at points to be a bodyguard for hire. He really isn't all that into protecting anyone. It's definitely a classic, and a really enjoyable film. As I mentioned with Hidden Fortress, I tend to forget how well these work on the big screen. The atmosphere was good, aside from the annoying little performance piece in the place of a movie introduction. But, on the plus side, thanks for reminding me why I hate college kids' art!

Yojimbo is really familiar, since it was remade into the western A Fistful of Dollars. Both are great movies, and I enjoy each one a lot. Yojimbo is Kurosawa at his jidaigeki, or period drama, best. It's Kurosawa taking timeless themes like how power corrupts and the world isn't what it used to be and placing it in a place and time that is essential Japan. One great piece of this is the appearance of a pistol in the middle of the film. The man with no name just shakes his head. This is what happens, the scene says, the world is going to hell.

I had forgotten how dark the film is. The man with no name has lost almost all hope. Even when he gives in and chooses to help a pathetic couple, you get the sense it is from his past values more than his present. He's willing to live with the dishonor of his life, taking money for killing. But he remembers having honor. This is something Kurosawa loved to play with in his films, the sense of a changing world, of fitting values into a modern society.

In the film, the characters clap when exchanging money. The clapping is to drive away the bad spirits, to make the money in some way an offering. In traditional Japan, like in many cultures, money is a pretty dirty thing. Merchants were below farmers in a social system based on Confucius, and the rich were banned from true high society. The rulers levied harsh taxes to maintain the kingdom, but mostly they got power through conquest and marriage. Samurai never worked for pay; in fact when the Meiji reformers started mocking samurai, one of the things they'd say is that now they work for pay, or sell their swords to pay their debts. Mifune's character is a hired assassin, as far from a samurai as can be. But he isn't so far gone that he doesn't remember being a person of honor, who served his lord.

The translation was pretty good, though I did have a few of the usual quibbles. They translate "Suman" repeatedly as "Thank you." It's really more of an "excuse me" kind of phrase. In the movie it stood out as sounding both modern and a little humorous. Saying "Suman" when asking for a gun is either ironic or silly. You can say a sincere thank you, that has some weight. Another translation was "naruhodo" as "I see." I have actually argued about this even with Japanese people. Translation is a strange science, and it's hard to do unless you're really culturally and linguistically versed in both nations. There are almost no people for whom this is the case. That being said, I think the expression has an element of agreement that doesn't translate into the English "I see." The English sounds detached, unaffected by the outcome. The Japanese is often used in this way, but there is a tension to it that I don't hear in "I see." I would vote for "okay," because there is that element of tentative agreement in "okay" that gets that same tension across.

So, another great one from Kurosawa, another reason to get to the theater. I am really becoming enamored of the big screen these days. If I could get rid of all the college arty types, I would never leave.

1 comment:

Herc said...

Yeah, Castro's little performance piece was horrible. I really liked the guy from last week who gave a bit of history about the theater and the movie (though I didn't agree with some of it).

One thing that I noticed about Yojimbo was how much of a Western it was. Now, I know that westerns were influenced by Kurosawa, but here Kurosawa was influenced by westerns. He pulled it off, of course. He's basically perfect.

The score was much different than Hidden Fortress and completely different from that harshness of Rashomon. This was very jazz-influenced. The high-hat totally freaked me out. It was great!

Next week is Sanjuro and then that's it for such things. Shame.

Of course, there's Gremlins in 70mm!