Thursday, September 12, 2013

First Shots: YOJIMBO (1961)

In a recent post about the first shots of Leone's "Dollar" films I have hinted at his great indebtitude to YOJIMBO. As an addendum (and advertisement), here is the first shot of Kurosawa's great samurai farce.

YOJIMBO is photographed by Japan's greatest cinematographer Kazuo Miyagawa and it certainly ranks among Kurosawa's strongest widescreen efforts. Although mostly obscured by white title characters, the single two and a half minute shot that opens the film draws us into the world of the samurai with no name (he only adopts "Sanjuro (thirty) Kuwabatake (mulberry field)" when he sees a mulberry field outside the window) so memorably played by Toshiro Mifune.
The shot opens on a mountain landscape that is largely obscured when Mifune enters the frame from the right. One could say that he blocks the camera's view and we only see his back for much of the shot. His standing in our way is a nice way of preparing us for a story that is entirely told from his point of view.

It is no secret that Kurosawa was inspired by American westerns, especially those by John Ford and George Stevens. So it comes as no surprise that Mifune is entering the frame in a similar way to the protagonist of SHANE (1953):

At about 12 seconds in, the samurai's mannerisms are introduced: he often arranges his shoulders and scratches his stubbled chin and unkempt hair. And even from behind we can tell that he keeps his hands under his clothes.

When he starts to walk to the left at 21 seconds, the camera follows his every move, keeping him tightly framed within the scope frame which in this film emphasizes narrowness instead of opening up the screen. We do not really see Mifune's face yet because it is still turned towards the mountains.

We follow the silhouette of his head until the camera pans down at 1:40 until we only see his feet and the ground he walks on (passing a few stone idols). 20 seconds later, a camera pan up his body ends up in a horizontal composition not unlike the first one with Mifune still walking until he reaches the visual center and is visible from head to toe. He then throws up a stick to figure out which way to go.

The last minute up until he picks up the stick are paraphrased by Leone in the first shot of FISTFUL OF DOLLARS (1964). Moreover, his unexpected opening of THE GOOD, THE BAD AND THE UGLY (1966) could be traced to the opening of the shot. In both cases we first see a distant mountain landscape. In both cases a character moves into the frame at very close range. Leone, however, makes sure that Al Mulloch's face is imprinted on our minds while Kurosawa draws the attention towards the character's behavioral pattern.

Screening Advertisement
On the 23rd of September I am introducing trigon-film's digitally restored print of YOJIMBO at the cinema Gotthard in Zug (Switzerland). The screening will be followed by a 20 minute lecture on how Sergio Leone transformed Kurosawa's masterpiece into his first catholic Italian western.
Mirror images: Mifune enters from the right (top) as Eastwood enters from the left (below).

There is certainly more to Leone's adaptation than re-arranged widescreen compositions.

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