Sanjuro as an Independent Intellectual (How Not to Collaborate with Monarchy of Money/Power)

“The idea of ‘Yojimbo’ is about rivalry when both sides are equally bad…and it is impossible to choose between evils. Myself, I’ve always wanted to somehow stop these senseless battles of bad against bad, but we’re all more or less weak – I’ve never been able to. And that’s why the hero of this picture is different from us. He is able to stand squarely in the middle, and stop the fight. And it is this – him – that I thought of first. That was the beginning of the film in my mind.”
Akira Kurosawa
Donald Richie, “The films of Akira Kurosawa”, Univ. of California Pr., 1996, p. 147

Kids these days are all mad. It’s not just the kids. Everyone wants easy money. It’s all thanks to gambling. A roll of the dice and you are rich.
From the dialogues in “Yojimbo”

Gamblers are so cold-blooded and greedy. All this trouble started when Seibei decided to give all his territory to his son. His right-hand man wouldn’t stand for it… He left Seibei to start a rival gang, taking half of Seibei’s men with him. Only swords can settle things now. They’re both fuming, rounding up drifters and criminals for their gangs. They’re buying thugs.
From the dialogues in “Yojimbo”


This shot represents Kurosawa’s ironic iconicity of family pedagogy of social success as ultimate value. Look at father’s gaze at his son – father expects from him the proofs that he is capable of multiplying father’s assets and success. Father’s demanding gaze of a strict father-god is expected to make the son a hero of achievements. The role of the mother is to explain the logic and wisdom of father’s position. Father’s gaze (father-gaze), mother’s voice (mother-voice) and son’s obedient muteness (son-muteness) are Kurosawa’s parody on religious and family values.


Lack of education in majority of people is the basis of a social system ruled by greed for money and power. Those who control and manipulate human life need naive and stupid followers and supporters whom they corrupt by providing them the chance to be servants and guards of the wealthy and powerful. Idols need guards, and guards need idols – this is a tautological existential formula by which the majority still lives by. Here we see Inokichi (in the center) counting on fingers which side is ahead in killing – his or the other. This counting in a context of who is stronger – we or the enemy, is an essential feature of military psychology – a reservoir of our belief in our power or (if we have lost more than we killed) origin of our hateful desire to revenge.


How good it could be if two rivaling Evils (two greedy wills, two power-worshipping systems, two belligerent groups and two arrogant powers) could destroy each other and leave all of us in peace. But in real life it’s not happening like this. Competing powers very often perversely use one another to solidify their power over their own populations (Stalin and Hitler, Bush and Osama bin Laden, rivaling Islamic and Christian fundamentalists, etc.)


That’s what happens to those who disagree with leaders – they are considered to be allies of the enemy.


Sanjuro Kuwabatake’s idealistic fight is a goal in itself (a matter of principle) – no rewards and no glory are waiting for him…


…only dangers and violent death


For a spiritual person to think strategically and tactically and be oriented on fighting to win is the most unpleasant thing in the world. To try to outmaneuver and out-smart the opponent is, according to Sanjuro, intellectual vice and cognitive sin. He steps into this mud and dirt only because of his compassion for the victims of power and wealth, without the prospect of any gains/advantages for himself.


To intervene in a clash between two Evils – to punish both sides for their cruelty (instead of joining one side against the other) is the way of existential intellectual. While regular people “take sides”, the public intellectual fights both competing powers.


This film is not about a hero against a legion – the army of two monarchs (The Lord Power and The Lord Money). It is about the human intelligence against the pluralism of vices plus the compulsion to survive and succeed by any price.


The confrontation of…


… humanity …


… with power


The clash of humanity …


… with advanced weapon


Facing superior force is spiritual victory.

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In the sixties for many “intelligent” people (nurtured by liberal arts and a common prosperity) in Europe and US it was unpleasant to see “Yojimbo”’s “naturalistic” moments, the spectacles of cruelties (beating, torture, “meaningless” murders – without any gloss making the unbearable impressions “photogenic”), details slowing down the “story”, or to hear over-emotional and “illustrative” music. Still, the film was somehow impressive and deserved attention. It was dumped on the crude entertainment audience – people who either use violent action on the screen as a stimulating drug, or, as children and teenagers – for cathartic release. In comparison with “Sanjuro” (1962) “Yojimbo” is indeed awkward and disproportional, with too many types of characters and too many names, with sometimes uncomfortable and often “boring” minutia and with “exaggerated” representation of human debasement. The elegance of “Sanjuro”’s semantic structure is like a model of the solar system in comparison with “Yojimbo’s” rawness and shagginess.

The reason Kurosawa in “Yojimbo” overburdens the narrative with information is that he wants his film to represent the unpleasant and the unbearable truths about today’s life – behind the swords, the handgun and faces-masks of human sins and vices we easily recognize the Western democracy enveloped in ideological pomposity of self-glorifying slogans.

I couldn’t notice obvious signs of my admiration for “Yojimbo” until the beginning of the new century when in the middle of sorry stories and nascent noises of Iraq war and endless military and financial errors and irrational cruelties on the part of our American leadership and the militaries, I started to grasp to what a degree the terror of human condition Kurosawa describes – is all around us and inside us. Not without the “assistance” of conservative government in US (from 2001 – 2008), that I became amazed with this film’s analysis of the truth about democracy that lies under its superficial glamour.

Through hints and allusions the film pays tribute to “Casablanca” (1942). The tavern Sanjuro Kuwabatake lounges is visually located as if in the center of a city, like Rick’s restaurant is “in the center of the world”. Kurosawa makes the sake seller (de-glamorized Humphrey Bogart) a sharp observer of the public life of the city. Instead of being something like an aggrandized mask of American democracy implyingly superior to the two fighting sides in “Casablanca” (fascist and anti-fascist – Bogart is smarter than the Nazi officer and more noble than the anti-fascist fighter Victor Laszlo) the “owner of the mini-pub” Gonji provides Sanjuro with essential information about the social fabric of the place. By characterizing Sanjuro in the context of analogy with “Casablanca” Kurosawa makes a point about the American film’s drastic deficit – the absence of a real hero: the one who can represent a genuine alternative to the existing ways of life and feeling (Rick is not such a hero: his tremendousness completely belongs to the area of private life).

The social structure of the city where the action takes place is topped by the local business entrepreneurs – silk merchant and sake brewer (the both with political ambitions). They are encircled not just by private bodyguards but mercenaries who themselves have business interests (like today’s American private armies/corporations like “Black Water”). Seibei supporting the silk merchant is also the owner of a whore house while Ushitora backing the sake merchant is himself a gangster with long hands. These people are the decision-makers in the name of the city (like today in US the corporate bosses through their politicians make decisions in the name of the whole country). “Yojimbo” also depicts centralized – “federal” hierarchy represented by inspectors who are happy to be bribed by both local entrepreneurs, and the small business people who can express their criticism of the financial big shots only by privately complaining about them to one another. The city police force is represented by a little birdie-like man serving the big bosses.

Sanjuro represents the intellectual who always live in a three-faceted world (competing human groups and moral truth as such), not a two-faceted world like regular people (“we” and “them”: “our” rivals and enemies). Intellectual cannot choose between two sides because he is dedicated to moral truth that is incompatible with any social organization growing on principles of direct power and the power of wealth. But Kurosawa is not making his hero an exceptional personality – it could be Hollywood kind of trivialization through romantization of the protagonist. Sanjuro is a typical public intellectual of Western culture, the person belonging to the tradition of European and American writers and progressive political activists of 19th and early 20th centuries. Sanjuro cannot trade his convictions and is not straitjacketed by the necessities of personal success. He is dedicated to his disinterestedness with modesty and humility of a spiritual person when spirituality is completely inside life yet outside the dominant values.

“Yojimbo” depicts the vices of a formally democratic system (hidden under its humane ideological façade), in clusters of scenes emphasizing its proclivity for rivalry/fights/wars, for illegal and legal bribery of public officials, for dishonest ways of gaining advantage (torture, tactical and strategic lying, blackmailing, injecting money into love: buying private relationships, shameful financial promiscuity and irresponsibility and a lack of existential spirituality). While watching the film we unexpectedly discover in a provincial Japanese city of 19th century our own predatory life under the layers of cheap makeup of megalomaniacal ideology and mass-cultural bombast.

The film is sewn on by the theme of “pathetic people” as Sanjuro calls those innocent, humiliated and moralistically masochistic human beings who instead of pursuing the systemic understanding of the reality blame themselves for their petty moral laps. We, Americans with a democratic sensibility, have a lot from Kurosawa’s “pathetic people” – we didn’t foresee and didn’t recognize, on time, the danger of neo-conservatism’s assault on democracy and human rights. For “pathetic people”, according to Kurosawa, the human life consists of private relations. By ignoring the social determination of human behavior these people are dangerous (first of all, to themselves). By introducing these people in the film Kurosawa explains how dangerous (for the prospect of real liberation) is the traditional mentality of man in dyad with his/her dogmatic idealistic norms of personal behavior who ignores the role of social factors which have a tremendous power to corrupt human soul.

Sanjuro is without any “moralistic” dogmas. His moral values are modestly inside him. He doesn’t serve moral ideals. He is just not participating in a corrupt system. He doesn’t belong to it. This position opens the alternative to revolutionary way to the future – the fallen system can be suffocated through mass non-participation in its rituals.

Posted on 8 Oct 2014 –   “Yojimbo” (1961) by Akira Kurosawa  by Acting-Out Politics