Film historian Stephen Prince and Flavorwire film editor Jason Bailey talk Kurosawa at the Tallgrass Film Festival. Photo credit: Tallgrass Film Festival.
And just as Leone was struck by the parallels in Kurosawa’s film, Kurosawa was struck by the parallels in Leone’s. “Y’know, Kurosawa did see Fistful,” Prince said, “and he liked it, just like he liked The Magnificent Seven. But in the case of Fistful, it was an infringement. So Toho (Kurosawa’s studio) sued Leone, and Kurosawa sent a letter, and Leone was very pleased to get it; the letter said, ‘I’ve seen your movie. It’s a very good movie. Unfortunately, it’s my movie.'”
Aside from Fistful, Yojimbo was also reworked in 1996 by director Walter Hill, who adapted it into an American bootlegger story with Bruce Willis called Last Man Standing — and those are just the most obvious children of Yojimbo (in his book, Prince writes convincingly that Bring Me the Head of Alfredo Garcia was Peckinpah’s take on the material). I asked Prince what it is about this story, about this character, that is so “adaptable” to different cultures and time periods.
“It’s an archetypal story,” he explained. “On one level, it’s a revenge tale, very stripped-down–the fact that there’s no backstory surrounding the character of Sanjuro, who is the first Man with No Name, it’s a nonsense name. It’s a character familiar to American audiences from the Western; we watch a film like Shane, the character there has no backstory. So, when you do that, you can create a mythic aura around a character, and that can be very enjoyable to watch onscreen.”