Written by: Ron Cotton on July 4th, 2004
Sergio Leone was so riveted by Akira Kurosawa’s Yojimbo in 1961 that he began his own production based on the material A Fistful of Dollars which released in 1964. A Fistful of Dollars became one of the most successful spaghetti westerns to date. Leone would later supplement “The Man with No Name”, to subsequent movies. Yojimbo’s story wasn’t entirely Kurosawa’s, demonstrating that nothing (including movies) is created in a vacuum.
Yojimbo itself was adapted by the book Red Harvest by Samuel Dashiell Hammett, an American author of film noir detective novels. Obviously, the story of the lone protagonist using two rival gangs to his advantage has seen its face around many genres. However, Yojimbo and other films have given Kurosawa an international notoriety and his works have been progressively duplicated over the years without permission. George Lucas was the exception, paying royalties for Kurosawa’s The Hidden Fortress, elements of which became the science fiction blockbuster: Star Wars.
Leone should be given his due, as A Fistful of Dollars created the insurgence of what became the spaghetti western genre. This genre birthed over 200 films in its wake. A Fistful of Dollars was a stepping stone to what became a worthwhile trilogy. Leone also brought such acting hopefuls as Clint Eastwood and Lee Van Cleef into the limelight. Both actors created a legacy of memorable films in cinema. One must note that Kurosawa also had an acting alter ego; Toshirô Mifune was cast in Kurosawa’s greatest works.
Some say that most of Leone’s cinematography comes directly from Kurosawa. I, however, feel there are strong differences between the two. Any cameraman would contend that Leone pioneered the extreme close-up. Proof of this shows itself in Clint’s trademark squint and toothy clinch of a cigar. Leone has characters create strong, distinctive lines which lead the focus.
Kurosawa’s foreground/background shots are much stronger that Leone’s attempt to do the same. When Mifune on looks the hasty battle between the two fractions, or when Mifune is in the bar peering out, the shots are impressive Also juxtaposing opposing elements next to each other is much more powerful than Leone’s. One example of this is when Mifune is injured on the ground as two uninjured guards play cards.
Yojimbo has more straightforward humor that can be seen directly as A Fistful of Dollars dark humor comes from the audience’s participation. In comparison, Leone’s work comes out more serious. Another of Leone’s trademarks is his lengthy Mexican stand offs as two focus at each other for long intervals in a calm before the wake. Instead, Kurosawa’s actions and consequences happen all at once. Kurosawa’s sensitivity comes out in this movie as it does in others. At times, Kurosawa seems to be the Steven Spielberg of the east.
The two films are one in the same, but Leone make changes to the tale. Kurosawa demonstrated that the story was distinctly about Yojimbo, so for most of the credits, you became Mifune’s shadow. Leone began with a sub-story of the separation between the mother and her son. This was more effective than the father/son story that begins in Yojimbo.
The Endings are much different; however the outcomes are the same. In both Sanjuro and The Man with No Name Trilogy, comes a blessing from the main characters perseverance of analyzing their major adversary. When comparing the two, Leone is more effective at foreshadowing in the movie. He concentrated the major story of Yojimbo and skimmed the crème from the top. Between the two, Leone crafted his tale better, but improvements are mostly hindsight.
Even though Leone’s craft is top notch, Kurosawa’s movie is a bit stronger. Black and White film doesn’t clutter the film with distracting color. The story itself is film noir. Yojimbo’s quirkiness, like the dog loping down the street with a dismembered hand in it’s mouth, give it a character unlike A Fistful of Dollars. Keep in mind that my outcome is somewhat slanted. Yojimbo was the movie that I’ve seen first before A Fistful of Dollars. Asking others opinion between the two is seemingly dependent upon which is seen first, then the feels like it’s treading the same ground. I must admit, both movies are enjoyable for face value, and neither director could have been replaced with the other.