Image-Yojimbo

by Andrea Grunert

60 years ago – on 25 April 1961 – Kurosawa Akira’s Yōjinbō (Yojimbo) was released in Japan. Since then, much has been written about this highly influential film that inspired many Japanese and international productions, of which Sergio Leone’s Per un Pugno di dollari (A Fistful of Dollars, Italy/Germany/Spain, 1964) is the best known. The Japanese film’s ambiguous central figure – the yōjinbō or bodyguard, played by Mifune Toshirō (1) –, its graphic violence (2) and its various mise en scène devices (3) have left their indelible mark on filmmaking both in Japan and in the West.

Subverting genre conventions
Leone turned Kurosawa’s film into a Western (made in Europe), and Yōjinbō itself contains elements reminiscent of this most American genre, including shots of the protagonist emerging on the dusty main street of a small town where the final showdown will later take place. There are also numerous details that evoke Westerns as well as elements of the hard-boiled genre in film and literature. However, the setting and many other aspects are distinctively Japanese. The many references to a great variety of narrative and visual elements in Japanese and other cultures (4) reflect the history of Japanese cinema (and of the country as a whole), contributing further to the originality of Kurosawa’s film.
With its many fight scenes, Yōjinbō could be called a chanbara, a swordfighting film, but its complexity makes the label jidaigeki (period film) more appropriate. The action is set in the early nineteenth century in the last decades of the Tokugawa era, which ended in 1868 after more than 250 years with the samurai no longer the official rulers of the country. As in Shichinin no samurai (Seven Samurai, 1954), Kumonosu-jō (Throne of Blood, 1957) and Kakushi toride no san akunin (The Hidden Fortress, 1958), Kurosawa offers a critical view of the samurai class and its codes of behaviour. However, in contrast to these earlier films, he openly challenges genre conventions. The yōjinbō defeats his opponents using their methods, and Kurosawa reacts to the jidaigeki and chanbara genres from within by subverting their conventions.
Distancing himself from the mass productions by the successful Toei studio – the champion of chanbara production with its stylized fight scenes and stereotypical plots and characters – Kurosawa pushes graphic violence to new extremes. The shot of a severed arm falling to the ground or blood gushing from the neck of a victim create gore effects unknown at that time in mainstream period films. As Yoshimoto Mitsuhiro writes, “there was no direct representation of blood in conventional chambara. Yojimbo destroys this convention once and for all!“ (5). In Kurosawa’s ground-breaking film, the realistic approach to violence is also explored in the sound effects – one particular innovation being the sound of human flesh being slashed.
Kurosawa’s shift from formulaic expression had already inspired Araki Mataemon: kettō kagiya no tsuji (Vendetta of Samurai, 1952, Mori Kazuo), for which he wrote the script and in which Mifune was cast in the leading role as the famous swordfighter Araki Mataemon. The film starts with a ballet-like swordfighting scene reminiscent of early silent films and their origins in Kabuki theatre. A voice-over informs the viewer that this form of representation belongs to the past, new films being more realistic. Both Mori’s film and Yōjinbō present realistic fight scenes and have complex main characters. However, the critical reworking of the samurai ideal in Araki Mataemon is mainly expressed through narration whereas in Yōjinbō aesthetic aspects are important in the critical discourse on the values attributed to the samurai and on genre conventions. Moreover, Kurosawa’s film eschews the didactic intention that is revealed in the first sequences of Araki Mataemon. Yōjinbō’s various cultural references and its rich intertextual dimension that is an integral part of Kurosawa’s filmmaking and Mifune’s media image enhance the critical exploration of the film’s genre renewal. It is this multi-layered approach that makes Yōjinbō a masterpiece of modern cinema.

Hero and mise en scène
The hero of Yōjinbō has been described as the “the narrative attractor” (6), and in the film, he openly talks strategy with the innkeeper Gonji (Tōno Eijirō), who identifies his role as manipulator and initiator of violence when, referring to a series of killings, he asks: “Did you write this play?” This hero, a ronin (a masterless samurai) is reminiscent of the nihilist samurai and ronin figures in the films of the late 1920s and 1930s (7) but is adapted to fit the 1960s, making him darker and also funnier. Whereas the traditional image of the ideal samurai celebrated the value of loyalty, Kurosawa’s hero sells his services to two masters and his sole aim seems to be to make money – a further aspect of the film that is in strong contrast to the ethos of the warrior class. He is part of a society still ruled by the samurai but in the nineteenth century largely dominated by the merchants, the lowest of the four classes (8) into which Japanese society was divided in the Tokugawa period. In this world, notions of honour and loyalty are meaningless and so is the conflict between giri (loyalty) and ninjō (personal feelings) that is at the core of many period films. When asked his name, the ronin, looking at a mulberry field, says that it is Kuwabatake (mulberry field) and that his first name is Sanjurō (literally 30th man, which is his age). Instead of exploring the conventional relationship between the samurai, who often had a short life, and the cherry blossom – the delicate flower which only blooms for a short time – Kurosawa offers the mulberry as an ironical alternative, reinforcing his criticism of the warrior ideal perpetuated in many of the Toei productions.
This materialist hero who kills in cold-blood is a pivotal element in Kurosawa’s bushidō criticism and also an important figure in the intertextual discourse as a means to subvert genre conventions. The disparity between this unkempt ronin and figures such as the famous swordsman Miyamoto Musashi, whom Mifune played in Inagaki Hiroshi’s Samurai Trilogy (1954-1956), or the loyal general Makabe Rokurota in Kurosawa’s Kakushi toride no san akunin adds a touch of irony to the figure of this highly ambiguous ronin who then became the model for more modern cinematic heroes. However, the fact that Sanjurō does not hesitate to kill also reveals what the Samurai Trilogy and other period films of the 1950s only suggest – namely that their heroes are killing machines and alienated characters (9).
As in Shichinin no samurai, Kurosawa pursues a realistic streak in which external elements are a reflection of life conditions and an inner struggle and thus appropriate for this alienated loner hero. The yōjinbō’s kimomo is greasy, his hair unkempt, his face unshaven. To these physical aspects Mifune adds mannerisms that underline the character’s poverty, loneliness and marginality. Gestures are means of characterization. The way he tucks his hands inside his kimono to keep them warm, scratching himself frequently and chewing on a toothpick also contribute to the ironical detachment that inspires the portrayal of this hero (10). “Sanjurō never presents himself as a defender of social justice; he is a self-consciously humorous character who always maintains a critical distance from himself” (11), a description that Mifune’s economic acting supports magnificently with his amused, laid-back attitude. The speed with which he changes the expression on his face, – an ability that Kurosawa admired so much – and his enormous creativity as an actor made him the perfect choice for the role. As for his walk – swaying movements, his shoulders hunched –, it is Mifune’s own creation, heightened by framing, camera lenses and music (12).
Mifune’s performance is a marvellous match for Kurosawa’s complex mise en scène and Miyagawa Kazuo’s sublime cinematography. Constant use of deep focus, allowing maximum detail in the shot, together with unsettling close-ups create a highly elaborate visual experience. The unusual orchestration of Satō Masaru’s soundtrack prefigures Ennio Morricone’s music for Leone’s Spaghetti Westerns. Its playfulness, contrasting with the violent action, creates a comic counterpoint that is a further contribution to the genre subversion at the core of the film. Humour is an important part of the narrative and is also captured in a number of caricatures such as the cowardly town constable Hansuke (Sawamura Ikio). In the Toei productions and in the “cinema of cruelty” that followed the success of Kurosawa’s film, humour is absent. It is also the element that most clearly distinguishes Yōjinbō from “other graphically violent films” (13) such as Kobayashi Masaki’s masterpiece Seppuku (Harakiri, 1962).

Post-war masculinities
The yōjinbō is a hero endowed with almost supernatural powers. The way he unbelievably escapes death in impossible situations also contributes to the film’s ironical dimension, bypassing realism. This combination of supernatural powers and alienation makes Sanjurō a symbol of his time, his marginalization creating a link to Japan’s recent past. “Although this film is set at the end of the Tokugawa era (1600-1868) when Japan was ‚forced‘ to open to the West and began to modernize, the roots of Yojimbo do not lie only in the imagined heroic past but also in the moral dilemma of the immediate postwar era.” (14) In one of the first sequences, the protagonist crosses paths with a stray dog carrying a severed human hand in its mouth. The sight of the dog with the human hand is a signal to the ronin of the state of anarchy in the town; and the viewer is also invited to identify the lone figure in his shabby clothes with the dog. Not unlike the animal, he lives on the margins of society, a reminder in 1961 of the Japanese soldiers returning from the battlefields in China or the Pacific who were regarded as outcasts by their compatriots and considered no better than stray dogs – a topic that Kurosawa addressed directly in Nora inu (Stray Dog, 1949). Here, Mifune plays a young police inspector who tries to overcome his war trauma and adapt to the new, peaceful Japanese society in a film dealing symbolically with the feeling of emasculation experienced by many Japanese men after defeat in 1945 (15). Sanjurō, by contrast, displays a newly regained masculine strength which is, however, tainted by alienation and loneliness as symptoms of a society dominated by materialism and greed. The past is inseparable from the present; and the historical setting becomes infused with social and political meaning. Addressing modern-day concerns about a corrupt society in which politics, the economy and crime are intertwined, Kurosawa’s 1961 jidaigeki continues the critical discourse of his previous film Warui yatsu hodo yoku nemuru (The Bad Sleep Well, 1960) set in 1960s Japan (16).
Intertextual elements support the film’s reflections on masculinity and heroism. The elderly yojinbō Homma, who leaves the town before the first fight, waving good-bye to his colleague, is played by Fujita Susumu, the star in Kurosawa’s directorial debut Sugata Sanshirō (Sanshiro Sugata, 1943). As Stephen Prince puts it, “the moment becomes self-referential, a scene in which the two heroes, past and present, of Kurosawa’s cinema meet.” (17) The idealistic young man represented by the judoka Sanshirō is replaced by the middle-aged alienated hero played by Mifune. “It is also a farewell to a more innocent conception of the past, as an era that could nurture Sanshirō’s childlike optimism and spiritual commitment. From now on, the force of history would be felt in terms incompatible with these conditions.” (18) This brief moment in the film is also a reminder that since Yoidore tenshi (Drunken Angel, 1948, Kurosawa), Mifune has presented a far more complex masculinity than Fujita did in Sugata Sanshirō and its sequel (19), a masculinity less concerned with physical prowess than with the inner struggle of the male protagonists.
However, this estranged and violent hero is still capable of altruism. He saves Nui (Tsukasa Yōko) and her family from violence and humiliation and, in giving them all his money, rejects his materialism. Nor does he kill the young peasant who has joined one of the gangs. Instead, he sends him back to his parents, repaying the couple for their kindness when they let him drink water from their well on his arrival in the town. Sanjurō’s violence contrasts with that of Unosuke (Nakadai Tatsuya), the younger brother of one of the gang bosses terrorizing the town. When the innkeeper asks whether he scripted the series of killings, Sanjurō answers: “Half of it. The other part was written by him”, referring to Unosuke. This reply perhaps suggests that he and Unosuke are two sides of the same coin, evoking the doppelganger motif Kurosawa so often explored in his films and with Unosuke, the incarnation of evil, being the yōjinbō’s dark side.
Unosuke, the younger of the two men and not a samurai is the symbol of a new, changing society and, as indicated by the fact that he uses a pistol, influenced by the West. He is the extreme version of modern Japanese youth, even though he does not wear an Aloha shirt like the yakuza Matsunaga in Yoidore tenshi or the rebellious teenager in Ikimono no kiroku (Record of a Living Being, 1955, Kurosawa). In Yōjinbō, the sword wins out over the firearm, tradition over modernity. Anarchy and crime are abolished, but order is only restored by resorting to violence and repression. There is no feeling of harmony or liberation in a world permeated by crime and corruption when the yōjinbō turns his back on the town to continue his solitary life on the road.

Notes
1. Shiba, the ronin played by Tamba Tetsurō in Gosha Hideo’s Sanbiki no samurai (Three Outlaw Samurai, 1964), is reminiscent of the character created by Kurosawa and Mifune in Yōjinbō. Mifune played the lead in the film’s sequel Tsubaki Sanjurō (Sanjuro, Japan, 1962, Kurosawa Akira) and he played the ambiguous, alienated figure of the yōjinbō in Inagaki Hiroshi’s Machibuse (Incident at Blood Pass, 1970) and Okamoto Kihachi’s Zatōichi to yōjinbō (Zatoichi Meets Yojimbo, 1970), both produced by Mifune’s production company. He also portrayed the ronin/yōjinbō in several television series produced by his company such as Kaya no surōnin (Ronin of the Wastelands, 1973-1974) and Surōnin makaritorū (The Lowly Ronin, 1981-1983), where this figure is a much less rounded character.2. “A new genre of film called ‚cruel film‘ (zankoku eiga) emerged in the wake of the commercial success of Yojimbo and its ’sequel‘ Sanjuro. In 1963, for instance, Toei’s most successful film at the box office was no longer a formulaic jidaigeki film but Imai Tadashi’s Cruel Stories of Bushido (Bushidō zankoku monogatari), an omnibus film that graphically depicts the masochistic sufferings of the protagonists over seven generations.” (Yoshimoto Mitsuhiro, Kurosawa: Film Studies and Japanese Cinema, Durham, NC, Duke University Press, 2012 [2000], p. 290-291). The heightening of graphic violence is also visible in the Spaghetti Western, a genre that began with Sergio Leone’s remake of Kurosawa’s film.
3. The perpendicular, medium-length shots frequently used in Yōjinbō became an action film convention and were exploited by directors such as George Lucas, one of the many admirers of Kurosawa.
4. With regard to these possible references, Dolores P. Martinez (“Kurosawa’s Noir Quartet: Cinematic Musings on How to Be a Tough Man” in Chi-Yun Shin and Mark Gallagher, eds.   London/New York, I.B. Taurus, 2015, p. 37-52) examines Yōjinbō in the context of film noir and Japanese folklore whereas Gerald Sim (“Cinematic Expressions of Rakugo in Akira Kurosawa’s Comedies Yojimbo and Sanjuro”, Asian Cinema, Fall/Winter 2011, p. 253-268) reveals the film’s close links with Rakugo, a traditional Japanese form of entertainment.

5. Yoshimoto, op. cit., p. 289.

6. Leonard Ginsberg, Rhapsody on a Film by Kurosawa, CreateSpace Independent Publishing Platform, 2013, p. 16.

7. The period film was very much an innovative genre in the second half of the 1920s and in the 1930s in which directors such as Shōzō Masahiro, Itō Daisuke, Itami Mansaku and Yamanaka Sadaō expressed social criticism through criticism of the bushidō. Their films, having abandoned the Kabuki-inspired style of earlier productions, contained spectacular swordfighting scenes and were characterized by more realistic acting. Their heroes often played by the stars of that period – Tsumasaburō Bandō and Ōkōchi Denjirō – were social outcasts and the settings the poor quarters of Edo (present-day Tokyo).
8. Japanese society of the Tokugawa era was divided into four classes: samurai, peasants, craftsmen and merchants. The merchants, whose world was money, were much despised by the ruling warrior class, whose ethos put honour above material needs.
9. In Inagaki Hiroshi’s Sohen Sasaki Kojirō (Kojiro Sasaki, 1950), Mifune had already played Miyamoto Musashi, a minor character in the film. This Musashi is clearly guided by his killing instinct, his savagery underlined by Mifune’s energetic acting and wild glares.
10. The reference to a toothpick has a historical foundation. Ruth Benedict writes: “They [the samurai] were forbidden to give way to hunger but that was too trivial to mention. They were enjoined when they were starving to pretend they had just eaten: they must pick their teeth with a toothpick. ‚Baby birds,‘ the maxim went, ‚cry for their food but a samurai holds a toothpick between his teeth.’” (The Chrysanthemum and the Sword: Patterns of Japanese Culture, Boston, Mass., Mariner Books. 2006 (1946), Kindle edition, no pagination. The fact that the poor ronin in Yōjinbō chews on the toothpick has nothing to do with honour – he is truly starving.

11. Yoshimoto, op. cit., p. 292.

12. See Donald Richie, who refers to a statement by Kurosawa (The Films of Akira Kurosawa, third edition expanded and updated with a new epilogue, Berkeley, University of California Press, 1996, p. 155).

13. Yoshimoto, op. cit., p. 292.

14. Martinez, op. cit., p. 37.

15. Yoidore tenshi (Drunken Angel, 1948), Shizukanaru kettō (The Quiet Duel, 1949) and Nora inu.

16. Warui yatsu hodo yoku nemuru and Yōjinbō were the first two films produced by Kurosawa’s own production company, established in 1959.

17. Stephen Prince, The Warrior’s Camera: The Cinema of Akira Kurosawa, revised and expanded edition, Princeton, NJ, Princeton University Press, 1999, p. 230.

18. Prince, ibid., p. 230

19. Two years after the release of Sugata Sanshirō, Fujita Susumu played the role of Sanshirō in Zoku Sugata Sanshirō (Sanshiro Sugata II, Kurosawa, 1945).

 

by Andrea Grunert

When I first watched Sekigahara (Japan, 2017), I was intrigued by its great formal beauty, complex structure and the many outstanding performances. Harada Masato’s film brings to life a crucial moment in Japanese history; and its main protagonists become real human beings of flesh and blood. The battle that took place on 21 October 1600 near the village of Sekigahara on the western edge of Mino province (1) was the crucial event in a campaign that had started in July of that year (2). Its outcome changed the course of Japan’s history, achieving unification and marking the beginning of about 250 years of Tokugawa rule – 250 years of peace based on a complex bureaucratic system and a strict military regime. The battle was a confrontation between two rivals for supremacy in Japan – Tokugawa Ieyasu (1543-1616), played in the film by Yakusho Kōji, and Ishida Mitsunari (1563-1600), played by Okada Jun’ichi. At that point in history, Ieyasu was the richest and most influential daimyō (3) in Japan. He was the lord of the eight provinces of the Kantō region in the east of the country and one of the five regents (tairō) for five-year-old Hideyori, the son and designated successor of Toyotomi Hideyoshi (1537-1598), the general who is regarded as the second unifier of Japan following more than hundred years of civil war (4). Mitsunari was one of the members of the go-bugyō, the council of five magistrates in Hideyoshi’s government, and he defended the young heir’s interests during the Sekigahara campaign.

Narrative complexity meets aesthetic beauty
Adapting for the screen Shiba Ryōtarō’s novel Sekigahara, published in 1966 (5), was clearly a tremendous challenge; and the film reduces the several hundred characters in the three-volume epic to around 50. It depicts the battle as the culmination of a complex series of events that are traced back over several years. Harada’s account of some of these precursors to the final confrontation near Sekigahara reveals the desire for power and revenge, the shifting alliances and the hatred at the core of the conflict.
The focus in the film is on Mitsunari, defeated in the battle, who had previously been belittled for a long time as a mere bureaucrat. Anthony J. Bryant describes Mitsunari as an “inveterate schemer” (6), which is also how a number of films had presented him, including Tanaka Kinuyo’s Ogin-sama (Love under the Crucifix, 1962) and Kumai Kei’s Ogin-sama (Love and Faith, 1978), both adapted from Kon Tōkō’s novel Ogin-sama (7), and Teshigahara Hiroshi’s Rikyū (Japan, 1989), based on the novel Hideyoshi to Rikyū (8) by Nogami Yaeko. In all three films, Mitsunari is depicted as a villainous and treacherous character (9), but this is a view that Harada disagrees with.
After a first brief sequence set on the plain near Sekigahara on the eve of the battle, a series of flashbacks outlines the political context and Mitsunari’s role as Hideyoshi’s confidant. The flashbacks start in 1573, when Hideyoshi, who was to become the most powerful man in Japan a few years later (10), meets Mitsunari for the first time. According to a famous legend, 13-year-old Ishida Mitsunari – then called Sakichi – served tea to the thirsty general, who was taking a rest in a temple near Nagahama Castle in Ōmi province (11). Mitsunari’s origins are obscure, but a remark in the film suggests that he was a peasant. Hideyoshi takes a liking to the boy – perhaps because he reminds him of his own humble background. The following scenes refer to various events showing Mitsunari as a grown man who has distinguished himself in the service of Hideyoshi and has become one of his most trusted collaborators. After Hideyoshi’s death, he kept his position in the council of the bugyō, but real power was exercised by the five regents, the most important of whom was Ieyasu.
The series of flashbacks reaches its narrative climax in 1595 with the execution on the Sanjō riverbank in Kyoto of the wives, concubines and children of Hideyoshi’s adopted son Hidetsugu, who has been accused of treason. This key scene, in which Mitsunari tries in vain to save the life of Princess Koma (11), brings together several of the film’s main characters, namely the samurai Shima Sakon (Hira Takehiro), the daimyō Kobayakawa Hideaki (Higashide Masahirō), Ōtani Yoshitsugu (Ōba Yasumasa), and the ninja Hatsume (Arimura Kasumi), a fictitious figure (12). The sequence on the riverbank reveals Mitsunari’s compassionate nature and at the same time his ultimate powerlessness against the wishes of his benefactor Hideyoshi, thus challenging the rumours that Hidetsugu’s downfall was the result of one of Mitsunari’s schemes. It also provides some clues to the complex relationships between the five characters. The young Kobayakawa Hideaki accuses Mitsunari of having failed to save Koma and the other women. Shima Sakon says that the killing of women and children will bring disgrace on Mitsunari, Hideyoshi’s loyal collaborator Sakon is disgusted by Hideyoshi’s perfidy but Mitsunari nevertheless succeeds in persuading Sakon to serve him (i.e. Mitsunari) despite his alliance with Hideyoshi. And he also saves the life of Hatsume, the ninja woman who becomes his faithful servant.
The sequence on the riverbank combines distance shots and swift action with close-ups and medium close-ups that reveal Mitsunari’s inner torment, his hectic movements emphasizing his inner turmoil. Not unlike a Noh play, Sekigahara switches between movement and stillness, the emptiness of large rooms contrasts with shots packed with human bodies in the fighting scenes and silence contrasts with the noise of the battle. The symmetry of the Japanese architecture and the choreography of the sophisticated movements in accordance with official etiquette is challenged in the battle scenes and also at other moments in which violence erupts among the constantly brawling samurai. Great attention is paid to detail and to authenticity with regard to architecture, costumes, objects and customs, and this is also true for the portrayal of the main protagonists. In one scene in which Ieyasu leaves his bath half-naked, the camera reveals his enormous belly, recalling that this first Tokugawa shogun is generally described as a man with a paunch. The scene in which an excited Ieyasu observes a battle from the balcony of his quarters while dining is described by several historians and other writers (13). It is also reported that while Ieyasu was studying Kobayakawa Hideaka’s movements during the Battle of Sekigahara, “he chewed nervously on his fingernails” (14), a gesture performed in the film by Yakusho, revealing Ieyasu’s emotional involvement while observing the course of events on the battlefield from his quarters.
Harada’s shots of interiors reveal the complexity behind the apparent simplicity of Japanese architecture, with pillars and paravents fragmenting almost empty spaces. This sophisticated spatial structure is mirrored in the episodic style of the narrative, which shifts between events centring around the two main characters and on the ten or eleven other important figures such as Hatsume and Shima Sakon. A number of shots from the sequence at the beginning of the film reappear, now integrated into the chronology of events in the scenes just before the battle. The battle scenes are magnificently filmed, combining choreographed movements of troops and the chaos of violence and death (15). There are also variations on a single motif: Mitsunari, on the eve of the battle, putting a Jizō statue (16) he finds lying by the roadside back in its place in a small shrine and Ieyasu doing the same thing when he inspects the battlefield after his victory. The execution scene in the first part of the film is also echoed at the end of the film, with Mitsunari on his way to the same execution site on the riverbank.

Ishida Mitsunari
Harada has commented on Shiba Ryōtarō’s approach to Ishida Mitsunari: “The author did a certain justice about recreating Lord Ishida. as a rational, logical person, unlike any other Japanese historical character. His way of thinking is more of contemporary Westerners. and thus, I understand Ishida’s character quite well.” (17) The film challenges widespread view of Mitsunari as an arch-schemer, presenting the bugyō as a man courageous enough to challenge Hideyoshi, who is eager to conquer China. However, when asked why he is “loyal to that tyrant”, he simply replies: “That tyrant made me.”
Emphasizing Mitsunari’s modesty and seriousness, the sombre colours of his kimono and hakama – dark blue and black – contrast with Hideyoshi’s gold-coloured attire and Ieyasu’s less flamboyant clothes with their elaborate design but dominated by shades of yellow, green, beige and brown. Harada depicts Mitsunari as an idealist whose credo “dai ichi, dai man, dai kichi” (roughly translated as “one for all, all for one, everyone happy”) is written on his family crest and who declares: “I want to change the unjust world.” Recalling that Mitsunari once sent back a hostage (18), Maeda Toshiie (19) comments: “You go all the way for what you care. That is also your weakness. You assume that the object of your affection will reciprocate. You may be too pure to become a general of generals”.
However, as the simplicity of his costumes suggests, Mitsunari is presented as an austere figure not interested in the brawling of the other Toyotomi allies – his stern attitude being perhaps a further aspect of his character which distinguishes him from the other daimyō. As Shima Sakon puts it: “You are hard on your allies and soft on your enemies.” Mitsunari’s moral standards and intransigent nature create hostility towards him as Sakon realizes when he reminds him of an incident with Ieyasu, a man Mitsunari mistrusts. When Ieyasu picked up a stick that Mitsunari had dropped and gave it back to him, Mitsunari failed to make even the simplest gesture of acknowledgement. The film suggests that these traits of his personality – his loyalty and moral behaviour close to stubbornness – may have contributed to his defeat at Sekigahara and the defection of over the third of his forces (20). He clings to his battle plan, unable to adapt to new conditions, and right up to the last moment he expects Kobayakawa Hideaki to remain loyal (21). Following historical sources, the film presents the Toyotomi allies as a “disjointed and quarrelsome coalition of rival lords” (22) who pursued their own goals instead of fighting for Hideyoshi’s young heir.
The traditional view of Mitsunari is as a mediocre military leader and magistrate, but Harada sees him as a loyal servant of the Toyotomi family. The focus is on Mitsunari as an altruistic human being rather than on his political achievements. Shima Sakon is depicted as the perfect samurai, who is courageous and selfless, and Mitsunari, critical of himself, says of Sakon: “I retained a samurai who has all the qualities I lack”. Sakon chooses a spectacular death by explosives, killing not only himself and his loyal soldiers but also many of his enemies. It is Shima Sakon who persuades his friend Mitsunari to flee after the battle. In doing so, Mitsunari does not act like the conventional samurai, but far from representing him as a coward, the film implies that he surrenders in order to save the life of the peasant who gave him shelter. Moreover, he stoically endures the humiliations and beatings while he is Ieyasu’s captive, and in the final shots, on his way to the execution site, he is shown as a man who faces death with pride and serenity. He explains to Kobayakawa Hideaki that he decided not to kill himself because he wanted to live a little longer to see what became of the people he cared about. On the way to his execution, he sees Hatsume, whom he believed dead, for one last time. The young woman repeats her master’s credo “Dai ichi…” when he passes by, expressing the hope that Mitsunari’s ideals will survive. Hatsume is one of the people Mitsunari cares about, treating this ninja as a human being and not as a dog, which is how she regards herself. His empathy makes him more understandable for contemporary audiences, but the modernity of his character lies mainly in the way he expresses self-doubt and inner contradictions, and here, Mitsunari’s inner torment is marvellously expressed by Okada’s restrained and sensitive acting.
These characteristics of Mitsunari’s stand out very clearly as they contrast with those of Ieyasu, depicted as an arch-manipulator but also as a pragmatist and a brilliant strategist who has the self-confidence and authority his opponent lacks. Lord Tokugawa is the opposite of the austere Mitsunari and a man who enjoys life – an energetic, pleasure-loving and sensual man played by Yakusho in a most vivid and original way. His Ieyasu is an elemental force, shouting and laughing, and he celebrates a victory by behaving like a football fan in a stadium. He can also behave like a child, when, wearing a hōrō (24) on his back, he cavorts round his room, imitating a galloping and neighing horse. However, when he learns that Mitsunari has left his quarters, he immediately stops his playful activity and returns to his main concern: the quest for power.

Past and present
There is one sequence which breaks with the film’s historical setting, and it shows Shiba Ryōtarō as a child, resting and drinking tea in the same temple in which Mitsunari first met Hideyoshi. From the off, the voice of the adult Shiba explains how close he felt to Mitsunari at that moment. Harada also has an affinity with his main character: “I feel like Ishida Mitsunari is a totally misunderstood character, like how I am misunderstood by some of the Japanese. We fought the same kind of battle, a mental battle against society, and so I sympathize with his character.” (24) Connecting the story of the Battle of Sekigahara and Mitsunari with contemporary Japan, the filmmaker explains his intentions: “Well, actually, most of the Japanese youth, they don’t know what the Battle of Sekigahara was all about. And they certainly have no idea who Ishida Mitsunari was. So, I wanted to do some kind of justice about what Lord Ishida contributed, and what if he won the battle? The Japanese could have been different. Or what if we have a politician with Ishida’s mind? Japan would be much, much better today.” (25) Whatever the answer may be, Harada re-creates a highly significant moment in Japanese history in a most memorable film.

NOTES

(1) Mino, one of the historical provinces, is today part of Gifu Prefecture.

(2) See Anthony J. Bryant, Sekigahara 1600: The Final Struggle for Power, Oxford, Osprey Publishing, 1995.

(3) This term designates Japan’s magnates and lords in a feudal system that existed from the 10th century until 1868.

(4) Oda Nobunaga (1534-1582) was the first unifier of Japan. He was succeeded by his general Hideyoshi. Tokugawa Ieyasu completed the process of unification.

(5) The numerous historical novels written by Shiba include books about Hideyoshi (Shinshi Taikōki, 1968) and Ieyasu (Haō no ie, 1973).

(6) Bryant, op. cit., p. 17. However, views on Mitsunari are contradictory. Stephen Turnbull calls him “a fine general in his own right but one who lacked the political skills needed to bind the alliance in a genuine commitment to the cause of Hideyori.” (Tokugawa Ieyasu, Oxford, Osprey Publishing, 2012, p. 17). In recent years, more attention has been given to Mitsunari as the loser of the battle who had apparently often been neglected by both historians and writers of popular novels in Japan.

(7) Published in 1956.

(8) Published in 1962.

(9) Ishida Mitsunari, also known as Ishida Kazushige, was the inspiration for Ishido Kazunari, the arch-villain in James Cavell’s novel Shogun (1975).   

(10) The historical province Ōmi comprises today’s Shiba Prefecture. A monument  commemorating the first meeting between Hideyoshi and young Ishida Mitsunari stands in front of Nagahama train station. 

(11) The 15-year-old Koma was not even officially recognized as Hidetsugu’s concubine when she was executed together with all the members of his family. 

(12) Among the many figures in the film, there are also strong female characters, especially the Iga ninja Hatsume, who wins Mitsunari’s heart, and Shima Sakon’s wife Hanano (Nakagashi Noriko), who runs a frontline hospital near the battlefield. In an interview, Harada explains that the information about Hanano was the result of his research on the battle and its historical background. See “Sekigahara director Harada Masato on filming history through a modern eye”, an interview conducted by Diva Vélez at the New York Asian Film Festival, 15 July 2018. https://screenanarchy.com/2018/07/new-york-asian-2018-interview-sekigahara-director-harada-masato-on-filming-history-through-a-modern.html

(13) Stephen Turnbull, op. cit., p. 40.

(14) Bryant, op. cit, p. 72.

(15) The representation of the battle is inspired by a variety of battle scenes in film history, including a combat scene in Sergei Eisenstein’s Alexander Nevsky (USSR, 1938). Another important reference is to the great battle scene at the end of Kurosawa Akira’s Shichinin no samurai (Seven Samurai, Japan, 1954). See “Sekigahara director Harada Masato…”, op. cit. The soldiers moving in the background of one shot, framed as mere silhouettes against the horizon, are reminiscent of the first shots in Kurosawa’s masterpiece.

(16) In Japan, a Jizō is a highly venerated bodhisattva – any person who is on the path to enlightenment –  mainly as a protector of the souls of children. There is a link here between the scenes with the jizō statue and the idea of protection that permeates the whole film.

(17) “Sekigahara director Harada Masato…”, op. cit.

(18) At that time, it was common practice among the daimyō in Japan to give hostages as a means of guarantee used to secure treaties or wartime commitments.

(19) Maeda Toshiie (1538-1599) was a daimyō and a member of the go-tairō, the council of regents. In the film he is played by Nishioka Tokuma.

(20) Bryant, op. cit., p. 84.

(21) Lord Kobayakawa, often represented as a mere traitor, is depicted as a more complex character who is forced by Ieyasu’s men to abandon Mitsunari, and at the end of the film he says to Mitsunari, with tears in his eyes,: “I failed to requite your good faith. (…) I succumbed to injustice.”

(22) Bryant, op. cit., p. 84.

(23) A hōrō is a cloak or garment put over a framework (oikago) of wicker (as in the film), bamboo or whalebone which was attached to the back of the armour of a samurai and had a protective function. As Ieyasu explains in the film, the term means “mother’s covering” and is modelled on the placenta.

(24) “Sekigahara tells the forgotten stories of the battle”, an interview with Harada Masato at the Toronto Japanese Film Festival, 16 June 2018, http://nikkeivoice.ca/sekigahara-tells-the-forgotten-stories-of-the-battle/

(25) “Sekigahara director Harada Masato…”, op. cit.

by Andrea Grunert

Ginrei no hate (Snow Trail aka To the End of the Silver Mountain, 1947) is a film rarely shown but one that deserves more attention – not only because of its importance in film history as it marks Mifune Toshirō’s screen debut but also because of some of its dramatic and aesthetic aspects, to which Mifune’s amazing performance makes a significant contribution. It is also the first full-length feature film directed by Taniguchi Senkichi, with whom Mifune continued working, making ten films altogether (1). Like his friend Kurosawa Akira, Taniguchi started working in the Japanese film industry as an assistant of Yamamoto Kajirō, who also became a kind of mentor to the young actor Mifune (2). The script was co-written and allegedly also co-edited by Kurosawa. Ginrei no hate is a thriller revolving around the flight of three bank robbers into a remote mountain region in the Japanese Alps. Nojiri (Shimura Takashi), Eijima (Mifune) and Takasuji (Kosugi Yoshio) become trapped in a snowbound mountain pass. The police are hard on their heels and the elderly Takasuji is killed by an avalanche, but his two accomplices find refuge in a ski lodge run by Harukō, an adolescent girl (Wakayama Setsukō), and her grandfather (Kōdō Kokuten). Taniguchi makes use of the hard-boiled thriller to explore human attitudes and universal values, and the wintry landscape (3), an unusual setting for the genre, takes on a variety of dramatic and symbolic functions. 

The ideal of home

Nojiri is introduced as leader of the gang, someone who does not hesitate to impose his authority with a gun. The sunglasses he wears at the lodge where the robbers stay at the beginning of their flight contribute to the aura of danger that emanates from him. His self-control and authority contrasts with Eijima’s aggressiveness and agitation and with Takasuji’s nervousness and fearfulness. Takasuji’s death early in the film leaves the focus on Nojiri and Eijima. From the very beginning, Eijima is represented as evil, casting angry glances at the waitress who refuses to give him the bottles of sake he requires. At gunpoint he forces the experienced mountaineer Honda (Kōno Akitake) to lead him and Nojiri over the snowy mountain. Honda, a friend of Harukō and her grandfather and a guest at their lodge, saves Eijima’s life during their attempt to climb the mountain. A series of alternate shots show Eijima hanging helplessly on his rope and the exhausted Honda – whose arm is broken – with Eijima shouting furiously: “Hey, stop being lazy. Pull me up!” A little later and despite this rescue, the young bank robber is prepared to leave Honda behind. And suspecting possible betrayal, he secretly kills Harukō’s beloved carrier pigeon. His cold comment when the dead bird is buried by the tearful girl is: “What a waste! It should have been roasted and eaten.”

Unlike the ruthless Eijima, Nojiri is capable of empathy. And unlike Eijima, he cares about their older accomplice Takasuji when the latter is unable to keep up with them as they leave their temporary refuge in a hut. Nojiri is also genuinely saddened by Takasuji’s death whereas Eijima’s only regret is the loss of Takasuji’s share of the booty. Nojiri gives Harukō and her grandfather a helping hand in the lodge whereas Eijima is disrespectful and constantly complains, on one occasion remarking: “Hey, do the guests have to bathe after the family in this house?” It is Nojiri who, at the end of the film, carries the helpless Honda back to the lodge, where the police are already waiting. Nojiri accepts his fate, giving priority to the life of another person over his own freedom. 

The bank robbers’ flight into the forbidding mountain region is depicted as an inner journey for Nojiri whose humanity emerges through his contact with the three friendly people in the ski lodge and its homely atmosphere. Eijima is incapable of change and dies fighting Nojiri, who is trying to protect Honda. Nojiri is deeply affected by the hospitality offered by the people at the lodge and he enjoys the peaceful atmosphere there. This harmony is reflected in the theme music associated with the lodge, written by composer Ifukube Akira. The film starts with a series of very brief shots that include shadowy human silhouettes robbing a bank safe, the police setting out on their hunt for the criminals and a train passing through an empty landscape. Ifukube’s haunting music, anticipating his score for Gojira (Godzilla, 1954, Honda Ishirō), matches at this point the dynamism of the sequence and its inherent violence. Menacing, hammering sounds accompany the departure of Honda, Nojiri and Eijima on their doomed journey over the mountain, and when Eijima dies off-screen, the music rises to a crescendo. A slower and low-register variation of the tender melody associated with the small lodge returns at the end of the film when a shot of the mountains and a close-up of Nojiri, looking at them from the train which is taking him to prison, overlap in a dissolve. Nojiri was part of the violence but has turned from tough guy into responsible human being, the music commenting on his transformation. Music also plays a significant role in the sequence in which Nojiri shares moments of happiness with his hosts and Honda, listening to a record of “My Old Kentucky Home”. For him, the song is the link to the lodge where he found harmony and inner peace, and it is heard again when he is led away by the police, where it suggests hope at a moment of despair.

The tiny ski lodge, half buried in the snow, symbolizes home and is a place which is real as well as symbolic. It is tinged with melancholy as it apparently evokes what Nojiri’s present life lacks. However, he must serve his sentence before he can return to and enjoy a peaceful life. Ginrei no hate is a film about the possibility of redemption, expressed in a series of shots of Nojiri’s illuminated face when he listens, his head lowered, to the American song. Unlike Eijima, he becomes part of the small community in the lodge, and when he returns, the semi-conscious Honda on his back, his face reveals an inner struggle before he finally throws away his revolver – a significant gesture on his path to redemption – and continues walking towards the ski lodge.

The only information given in the film about Nojiri’s previous life is the mention of his daughter, who died when she was of Harukō’s age and who is for him a haunting absence-presence. Harukō is still a child, mourning the death of her pigeon and welcoming the two robbers with a cheerful “Yoo-hoo!”. Nojiri’s encounter with the girl, who reminds him of his own daughter, is also a reminder of long-forgotten human relations and a harbinger of hope. She represents joy and purity, the purity Nojiri and Eijima have lost. 

On a visual level, it is the whiteness of the snow that is a reference to purity. In Buddhism, white is also associated with self-mastery and redemption, topics that are addressed in the film through the characters and their actions. Snow symbolizes the fragility of human life and its evanescence, an important Buddhist motif that permeates Japanese culture and in particular film culture. According to Buddhist cyclical thinking, evanescence also embraces hope. In the film, the idea of rebirth and renewal is expressed verbally by the characters looking forward to the upcoming spring and by the motif of the “Rosenmorgen” (4) mentioned by Honda – that moment at sunrise when the snow takes on a pink tinge. The film is shot in black-and-white, so it is up to the viewer to imagine the shades of colour. However, the landscape shots convey perfectly an impression of great beauty. “Views of Honda, filmed against daylight, recall paintings by Caspar David Friedrich. Not unlike the works of this German artist of the Romantic period, the cinematography transforms the landscape into an emotive subject, capturing man’s reunion with his spiritual self while contemplating nature.” (5) 

The human condition

Eijima, unable to understand Honda’s feelings, mocks them, spitting his words out scornfully. While the others are enjoying a moment of leisure, he is busy counting his share of the booty – money is the only thing he is interested in – and he is constantly on his guard. The swift and sudden movements in Mifune’s acting are a perfect expression of Eijima’s changing mood. Much is in the gaze – suspicion, indifference, boredom as well as contempt for his hosts and Honda, but also for Nojiri, whose sudden tender feelings he cannot share or understand (“It seems that you have got senile since yesterday”). He rejects all the values cherished and shared by the others in the lodge, his face expressing his disdain for everything around him there. In the communal bedroom with its bunks, he says angrily: “This is like a prison cell in a foreign movie”. His meandering gaze, his energetic body language and his glowing eyes reveal Eijima’s almost constant agitation. In one shot, he walks back and forth in the bedroom, reminiscent of a caged animal. 

Cynical and irritable, Eijima is the typical young man in rebellion – a rebellion against Nojiri – a kind of surrogate father – against family and, implicitly, against the new order imported from the United States. Home, as represented by the ski lodge, is linked via the American song to the values of the occupying forces in Japan (6). Ginrei no hate presents a family, but one that is dysfunctional, namely a young girl living with her grandfather. The fate of the absent parents is not mentioned, but the viewer can presume that the family was separated by the war and/or that Harukō’s parents are dead, and that Nojiri’s daughter was also a victim of the war. The film mentions neither the war nor the occupation but contains enough allusions to connect its characters with Japan’s recent past (7). 

Values of family, group solidarity and harmony are part of Japanese culture and were instrumentalized by the wartime military government. In Taniguchi’s film, the vision of home as a haven of peace has a more sentimental dimension that is reminiscent of Hollywood productions (8). However, this sentimentalism is still far from kitsch and it cleverly supports the film’s message of humanity. Nojiri is surprised that Honda saved his life in the mountains, but Honda explains: “That’s the rule of the mountain. You never cut the rope under any circumstances. The rope that ties humans can never be cut for any reason. I just followed that rule.” (9). The film associates this mountaineers’ code of conduct with universal topics and reflections on the human condition. The breathtaking beauty of the snow-covered landscape, shown in a great number of general shots, and also the danger that lurks in this natural environment, exposes the pettiness of Eijima’s moaning and quarreling.

The human being is at the core of this film, an aspect supported by the frequent close-ups of faces and their great variety of expressions. Ginrei no hate deals with individual responsibility, a key topic in the intellectual discourse in Japan after the war. It points to the need for healing – both for the individual and for society. The film underwent censorship and was apparently acceptable in the eyes of the Allied censors, who in general wanted positive endings with the punishment of the culprits and a positive representation of the police. However, the desire for harmony and peace was not only something imposed by the victors but was presumably genuine and also shared by many viewers at that time. In this film, the ideal of harmony is extended to include the occupiers, with music becoming a unifying force and “My Old Kentucky Home” moving Nojiri deeply. After Honda has explained the significance of Kentucky and the content of the song (“The song is about a place dear to someone’s heart”), Nojiri says: “I see. There is no difference in human feelings between the West and Japan.”

Rebellion

A highly suggestive shot/reverse shot sequence juxtaposes the lodge’s homely interior with Eijima lying in his bunk in the bedroom, his gaze and body language showing his growing irritation. The idyll in the main room of the lodge is destroyed by the sudden appearance of the wild-looking Eijima, who emerges from the shadows and angrily demands that the music stop. A feeling of fear and danger emanates from this sombre figure who darts angry glances at the others and from the expressionist lighting, which matches his dark character perfectly. In feeling provoked by the song, Eijima’s implicitly rejects the American values. His rebellion targets the ideal of home, of harmony and also of solidarity, even rejecting the film’s message of humanity. His egoism is a form of individualism opposed to the individual responsibility that the film advocates. 

Eijima embodies evil but is also a lost soul. His constant mistrust excludes him from the human warmth of the group. He is jealous of the happiness of the others, a feeling that he does not seem to know or at least has not experienced for a long time (10). His materialism hints at the loss of humanity in post-war Japan, but Eijima is also the representative of a betrayed young generation, sacrificed by the military regime during the war years. The prototype of a disoriented youth, this character in the film provokes to reflections on masculinity. In the sequence in which he leaves the bathroom in the first lodge, Eijima, wearing only a fundoshi (11) struts like a peacock, showing off his muscular body. However, this kind of manliness is questioned in Ginrei no hate, which shows that it relies on the power of the gun. Eijima’s arrogance is a mask behind which he hides feelings of insecurity and also the fear of emasculation that many Japanese men had to come to terms with after defeat in the war.  

Mifune plays the brutish Eijima with an intensity which was unusual in Japanese cinema (12). Eijima is a somewhat one-dimensional character, but Mifune’s acting gives it considerable depth. In his performance, he skillfully reveals and explores this character’s potential and its many facets (13). His Eijima is defiant, arrogant, and unbending, but also possesses an indomitable hunger for life. This energetic approach to the role reveals how much acting contributes to the message of a film, in this case also making the character attractive to the audience in post-war Japan. Eijima expressed what “many in the audience yearned to show the world but didn’t dare” (14).

NOTES

1 – These films include Jakoman to Tetsu (Jakoman and Tetsu, 1949), Fukeyo haru kaze (Blow! Spring Wind aka My Wonderful Yellow Car, 1953), Kunisada Chūji (Chuji, The Gambler, 1960) and Kiganjō no bōken (The Adventure at Kigan Castle, 1966). 

2 – See Kurosawa, Akira. Something Like an Autobiography, New York, Vintage Books, 1983, p. 160-161.

3 – Although set in the Japanese Alps, the film was shot on the island of Hokkaido

4 – The film makes use of the German term “Rosenmorgen”, which can be translated as “rose morning”.

5 – See also Grunert, Andrea. “An Inner Journey in a Wintry Landscape (Snow Trail, 1947)”, http://www.thebigpicturemagzine.com, 29 November 2016. The landscape shots evoke films by German mountain film pioneer Arnold Fanck (1889-1974), known for Die weiße Hölle von Pitz Palü (White Hell of Pitz Palu, USA, 1929, co-directed by G.W. Pabst) or Stürme über dem Mont Blanc (Storm over Mont Blanc, Germany, 1930). Fanck directed the first German-Japanese co-production Atarashiki tsuchi (The Daughter of the Samurai, 1937). 

6 – The Allied occupation of Japan after World War II was led by the United States of America. It ended on 28 April 1952.

7 – This absence of the war topic can be explained by the strict censorship of the Allies, which was not lifted until 1949.  

8 – Hollywood’s influence on Japanese cinema started long before the occupation, having inspired Japanese filmmakers since the 1920s. 

9 – The fact that Taniguchi himself was a mountaineer explains the setting of Ginrei no hate in which the director describes a milieu he was familiar with. 

10 – The homecoming soldiers were often rejected, treated as stray dogs by their fellow Japanese. Seaton, Philip A. Japan’s Contested War Memories: The “Memory Rifts” in Historical Consciousness of World War II, London/New York, Routledge, 2007 and Igarashi, Yoshikuni. Homecomings: The Belated Return of Japan’s Lost Soldiers, New York, Columbia University Press, 2016. 

11 – A fundoshi is a traditional Japanese undergarment for male adults, a loincloth made from a length of cotton which covers the private parts but leaves the buttocks exposed. It was more and more replaced by western style men’s underwear after 1945.

12 – See Kurosawa, op. cit., p. 161.

13 – Mifune presumably drew on his wartime experience. In several interviews he referred to the war, recalling how much his rebellious behaviour and his wilfulness caused problems with his superiors, who already felt offended by his deep voice. The challenge to authority is a key theme in many films with Mifune in which he played rebels and outsiders, for example in his third film, Yoidore tenshi (Drunken Angel, 1948, Kurosawa Akira). 

14 – Satō, Tadao. Kurosawa Akira no sekai (Tokyo, 1970, p. 121) quoted in Keiko I McDonald. Reading a Japanese Film: Cinema in Context, Honolulu, University of Hawai’i Press, 2006, p. 263, note 6.