Yojimbo

So, I watched Akira Kurosawa’s Yojimbo recently. Decades have passed since the last time I’d seen it. And really, I’ve only seen it one time through. It’s not like I spent a long-ago summer watching and re-watching it. Though I might correct that mistake this summer. Thanks to Amazon, I now own a digital Criterion Collection version.

Two things stayed with me, from that single viewing years ago. One–the theme. It’s this fascinating mix of sounds. Opens with amazing percussion, then horns, and strings. And the second thing is the way Toshiro Mifune fights. It’s cemented in my memory as this mind-boggling run-run-stab-stab dance. No, not so much a dance, as an obstacle course. Like American Ninja Warrior, but with a lone Samurai killing machine.

Actually, it was modern-day killing machine John Wick that inspired me to revisit Yojimbo. The first John Wick was playing on TV, and something about the scene in the night club, where John Wick is going after the bad guy who murdered his puppy, made me think of Toshiro Mifune. Except with Keanu Reeves, it was more of a run-run-shoot-shoot kind of movement.

There’s so much I could write about Yojimbo. There are so many more masterly details I picked up on. But I’ll try to be succinct, and I’ll start with the two items that have stayed with me through the years. They’re both pretty elemental, and they didn’t disappoint.

  • The theme: in the beginning, Sanjuro (Toshiro Mifune) is wandering, and encounters a couple at a home on the outskirts of the town. The woman is inside at a silk loom, and the sound of it is very pronounced: two beats, a lull in between, two beats, all in an even rhythm. The theme mimics the sound of the loom–those same two beats, done via horns, thread through the music of the film. Subtle yet phenomenal.
  • Toshiro Mifune: it’s not just the way he fights, it’s the way he inhabits the character of Sanjuro. He’s shot from behind quite a bit, so the viewer sees right over his shoulder. You see the way he adjusts his shoulders in his kimono right before he fights. And sometimes after. He’s pretty badass.
  • Yojimbo as inspiration: I think its pretty widely known that Sergio Leone’s A Fistful of Dollars and Walter Hill’s Last Man Standing are retellings of Yojimbo’s story. But maybe less well-known is that my favorite comic book of all time, Stan Sakai’s Usagi Yojimbo, was inspired by it. Usagi is this awesome bunny, a masterless samurai who wanders through feudal Japan, helping the helpless along the way. If memory serves, his long-gone lord whom he could no longer serve (because he was dead) was named Mifune. Usagi was the reason I first checked out the movie Yojimbo so long ago.
  • And one last bit of trivia: Yojimbo is distributed by Toho Co., Ltd., one of the big film studios in Japan. The main reason I know Toho? One word; one big, green, word: Godzilla. So I was pretty thrilled when I received the production schedule for the cover art and layout for my next novel, The Trouble on Highway One. The designer had abbreviated the title on the schedule. Wait for it, it ties together, I promise. My new novel’s abbreviated title? TOHO. (Yes!!)

Hall of Mirrors

The view when I look left from my writing desk

I saw Skyscraper this past weekend, the latest movie starring Dwayne Johnson (a.k.a. The Rock). The movie ticked all the right boxes for me–wildly implausible but enjoyable. If there’s one thing I can say about the Rock, he sells the wildly implausible like no one else. He makes a bad movie better, and a good movie great.

Don’t think I’m spoiling anything by talking about the ending scene…it takes place in a hall of mirrors. A super-updated, high-tech hall of mirrors that viewers are introduced to in the first third of the movie. A not-so-subtle telegraphing of “you know the thrilling conclusion is going to take place here.”

Hall-of-mirrors fight scenes are pretty memorable, when done well. Watching Skyscraper’s version, I recalled the most recent one I’ve seen. It was in John Wick: Chapter 2, and it was Ruby Rose stealing the show there.

But given Skyscraper’s Hong Kong setting, and the visual element of the dragon used throughout the movie, I have to think that the mirrors were a nod to the ORIGINAL mirror fight scene in 1973’s Enter the Dragon.

It had been a while since I’d seen this seminal bit of cinema, and it’s been a pleasure watching it again and again on YouTube. If you’ve never seen Bruce Lee in action, don’t wait, and don’t finish reading this post. Skip straight to YouTube and check him out.

If the mirror scene in Enter the Dragon was an homage to some pre-cursor movie, I don’t know it. And given that it was Lee’s final film, it’s okay by me to let the movie claim “we did it first.”  Bruce Lee was another bright star that left too soon.

Personally, I encounter mirrors all the time, but I’ve never had a mirror fight scene. Don’t really want one. I’m not the most coordinated person around, and I don’t think I’d fare well in a fight. But I think there’s a way to take the elements of the scene and apply them to the skill I do possess–writing.

Bruce Lee’s character in Enter the Dragon (the character’s name is also Lee) hears the words of the Shaolin Abbott during the mirror scene:

“The enemy has only images and illusions behind which he hides his true motives. Destroy the image and you will break the enemy.”

While that quote definitely works for the scene, it’s kind of tough to extrapolate meaning to apply specifically to my writing. But digging a little further, here are Lee’s words that precede that quote:

A good fight should be like a small play, but played seriously. A good martial artist does not become tense, but ready. Not thinking, yet not dreaming. Ready for whatever may come. When the opponent expands, I contract. When he contracts, I expand. And when there is an opportunity, I do not hit. It hits all by itself.

Substitute story for fight and opponent, and writer for martial artist and I, and there are some seeds of wisdom I can get behind.

Logan and John Wick

I realize today is International Women’s Day. And I will get to that in a bit, I promise. But first, an introduction: in determining a topic for this week’s post, it occurred to me that I just saw the new Wolverine movie, Logan, two nights ago. And prior to that, the last movie I saw in the theater was John Wick: Chapter 2. There are certain similarities to the two films, so that seemed as good a thing as any to write about.

The biggest similarity that comes to mind is the ultra violence. According to the Internet, the total body count in John Wick: Chapter 2 is 128. I think that’s like a 50% increase in kills from the first John Wick. I couldn’t find a total body count for Logan, maybe because the crafty Internet denizens who spend their time counting such things haven’t gotten around to it yet. Suffice it to say, it felt pretty high. And with an “R” rating and an extra set of adamantium claws in the movie, it gets really bloody.

There is always some part of me that feels I need to apologize for my love of action movies. To those folks who feel action movies glorify violence, or only reinforce certain gender stereotypes. Since my affinity for action movies has not diminished over time, my justification is pretty much the same as it’s ever been: it’s the stories that I love, not the violence or the macho-ness for their own sake. When it’s a great story, the actions of the characters serve the plot. Sometimes those actions can include lots of killing and questionable choices.

And I might be able to offer an argument against the gender-stereotyping claim. Today being International Women’s Day, I’d like to focus on the females in these two movies. To be sure, there aren’t many, but they are crucial to the story of each, especially Logan.

But first, John Wick: Chapter 2. The most memorable female role (to me) was assassination target Gianna D’Antonio, played by Claudia Gerini. She was a powerful woman who showed no fear, who appeared to live as she died—by her own rules. The other main female role was one of John Wick’s chief adversaries, Ares, played by Ruby Rose. She never uttered any great memorable lines because she never spoke—she communicated via sign language.

And as I recall, many of the contract killers who go after John Wick (there are a lot of them) are female. I can’t go so far as to say John Wick: Chapter 2 takes great steps to further the cause of equality; but as far as the story goes, it was very enjoyable. It took itself even less seriously than the first, and played up its arch elements to utmost effect. (I love the whole concept of the criminal underworld’s Continental hotel chain, which allows no “business”—read killings—on the premises).

Logan was also enjoyable, but in a more heart-breaking way. And I definitely could make a case for how equality is at the very heart of the entire X-Men series—of comic books and movies. So I feel there is less need of a defense on that claim. In Logan, for female roles, there is Gabriela, a nurse played very effectively by Elizabeth Rodriguez, who seeks out Logan and sets the whole story in motion.

But finally, there is the character of Laura. Dafne Keen plays her to indelible effect. There would be no story without Laura, and it would be a very different movie with a different actor in the role. It feels condescending to say Dafne Keen is “one to watch,” so instead I’ll just say I was consistently amazed by her portrayal.

In a very short span of story time, and with no words spoken, I was totally convinced of the connection she forged with Charles Xavier. (I could go on about how phenomenal Patrick Stewart is in this movie, but since today isn’t International British Knight Day, I won’t). And Laura’s relationship with Logan is immediately intense, and complex, and I don’t think I’m spoiling anything by calling it heartbreaking.

I’m getting long-winded, so I’ll wrap this up. Some final similarities between Logan and John Wick: Chapter 2—I think each improved upon preceding films in the series. And neither did anything to lessen my love for action movies.