Controlled Testimonies: Cinema, the State, and Nationalism

Hey there! Here is my final piece for the Japanese Cinema Blogathon. I hope that you have enjoyed these pieces and perhaps donated a little money along with the your time spent reading them. I appreciate and so do the people of Japan. Thanks again to Japancinema.net and Cinema-Fanatic.com for putting this blogathon together so quickly. Great work, guys!

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The historical relationship between cinema, the state, and nationalism is as complicated as it is far reaching. In reality, these things have always been intertwined; although, for reasons that will be made clear, this fact has not always had the greatest outcome. As the state governs the finances of any given country, and many countries’ film industries are at least partially sponsored by those monies, many a country has seen economic state involvement in their filmmaking. Film is essentially a cultural product and, as Benedict Anderson states, the cultural products of a country have always shown immense dedication to a sense of national spirit or pride[1]. Following this logic, whatever involvement the state might have had with film has also been an involvement with a strong sense of nationalism. Amongst the many examples of this, the two most explicit examples of the historical involvement of politics and national identity in cinema can be seen in the cinemas of Italy and Japan.

According to Paolo Cherci Usai, Italian film production began fairly late compared with the rest of Europe. However, after 1905, the “rate of production increased dramatically in Italy, so that for the four years preceding the First World War it took its place as one of the major powers in world cinema.”[2] From this point up until Mussolini came into power and the talkies began, the Italian national cinema was fairly free and successful, barring the periods of hefty competition that it suffered from other nations such as the US and Germany. When Mussolini and fascism got involved, the entire industry and its product altered dramatically.

As sound was being introduced, the national cinema that had previously ranged from historically-based films (such as Alberini’s La Presa di Roma, 20 Settembre 1870/The Capture of Rome, September 20, 1870 or Pastrone’s Cabiria)

Cabiria (Giovanni Pastrone, 1914)

to socially concerned literary adaptations (like Ambrosio’s Cenere/Ash, based on a book by Grazia Deledda) shifted its content as a result of being under complete state control. Although the “official sanctioning” of censorship passed in 1923 and was “honed and perfected” throughout the next few years, the committed involvement of the Fascist regime was, as Morando Morandini notes, late in arrival.[3] However, once they got involved, they effected harsh and quick changes to the entire Italian cinema culture. While previous Italian films had definitely promoted a sense of nationalism, the fascist state sought to gear Italian cinema toward its own concept of national identity, through censorship and other means.

As far as the silver screen was concerned, Mussolini’s slogan, paraphrasing Lenin, and mirroring the sentiment of the German Minister of Propaganda, Joseph Goebbels, was “For us, cinema is the strongest weapon.” He advocated a strong censorship code as well as economically facilitating a complete restructuring of the Italian film industry. In 1935, the Direzione Generale per le Cinematografia was established to “co-ordinate film industry affairs.” As Ephraim Katz relates, by the onset of World War II,

The government had taken firm control of the film industry…an ingenious scheme made it illegal to show foreign films in their original language versions or subtitled: they had to be completely dubbed into Italian, a process that made it easy to substitute whole sections of dialogue, thus purging the films of any “harmful” ingredients.[4]

The vast quantity of Italian films during this era belonged to (primarily) one of two categories. The first category was the telefoni bianchi films or “white telephone” films, known as such because of the continual presence of shiny, white telephones.

"White Telephone" movies

These movies were primarily made up of  “glossy” escapist comedies or dramas, emphasizing upper class values and glamour. The second category was the propaganda film, which Morandini divides up into four types: patriotic and/or military films, films about Italy’s “African mission,” costume dramas that were a “parade of precursors of the ‘Duce,’” and anti-Bolshevik/anti-Soviet films.[5] All of the propaganda films concentrated heavily on a nationalistic spirit, proving the “superiority” of Italy and Italian culture through cinematic representation.

Whether a propaganda film or a telefoni bianchi film, it is clear that Mussolini’s influence altered cinematic product. Within these genres that either emphasized complete negation of contemporary realities or centered solely on the government’s definition of national identity, the incestuous relationship that had been forged between government, nationalism, and cultural product was obviously at the forefront. Mussolini’s censorship laws and dubbing laws made it impossible for any outside product to enter the country without being tampered with, not to mention the fact that any and all films with “questionable” content were considered illegal and therefore not allowed to be made. There was even a law that stated that for every three foreign films shown (which were “fixed”, censorship-wise), an Italian film (also “fixed” due to national cinema-creation laws) must be projected, reiterating the nationalism that Mussolini wanted to instill in his subjects. The state maintained complete control over what the Italian public was exposed to. It is not surprising then, that shortly after this period, the Neo-Realist movement came along to try to break free from governmentally imposed ideologies of national identity.

Italy, however, was not alone in being affected by the relations between cinema and state. The Japanese cinema culture had been dealing in national identity since it began, and, at approximately the same time that the Italian Neo-Realists moved in to try to shatter the hold that Fascism had on their cinematically developed national identity, a group of directors in Japan attempted to do the same thing.

Audie Bock identifies the Japanese cinema as having three significant periods: the “first golden age” in the 1930’s, the generation that “emerged from the moral chaos after the war,” and what she calls the “new mood” in the 1960’s, that spawned a “new wave.”[6] Within the first two periods, the three most common genres in the Japanese cinema were jidai-geki (period dramas),

Hibari Misora, famous Japanese Enka singer who starred in many jidai-geki.

gendai-geki (modern dramas), and, the lesser known, shomin-geki (films mainly portraying the daily life of the lower-middle class). After the war, the United States occupied Japan, outlawing any film that seemed to possess nationalistic rhetoric, thus the jidai-geki, seen as supporting the feudal system and celebrating Japanese historical events, were made illegal.

The imperialistic action taken by the US in banning the jidai-geki was not only one of the catalysts towards the creation of the Japanese New Wave, it also serves as an example of how governmental incursions (even from foreign governments) can have a serious effect on a given cultural product and its influence on national identity. The removal of the jidai-geki was a huge blow to Japan’s national image. Censoring or outlawing this genre was one of the ways that the US was able to humiliate Japan, and maintain power. Like Mussolini, by controlling the images, the US was attempting to control national identity, as well.

Not everyone took too kindly to being occupied by the US. In fact, a cadre of filmmakers objected to it and its impact on Japan with fervor, and displayed that in a set of films made in the 1960’s. In his incisive work on Japanese New Wave cinema, David Desser defines the New Wave as a movement “concerned with creating a film content and form capable of revealing the contradictions within Japanese society and with isolating the culture’s increasingly materialist values and its imperialist alliances.”[7]

Japanese poster for Ko Nakahira's film, Crazed Fruit (1956). This film is widely considered to be one of the first films in the Japanese New Wave movement.

Annette Michelson historicizes this movement for us in a very insightful manner. She addresses the political events and resultant student protests that sparked the hearts, minds, and cameras of these New Wave filmmakers into action, stating

It was in the struggle of 1959-60, against ratification and implementation of the U.S.-Japan Security Treaty, in both its original and revised versions, that the movement reached its culmination. Ending in defeat, the struggle, which left its mark on the Japanese polity- and upon its artistic practices-must be seen as linked to the more general movement of opposition to the United States’ Cold War policy. [8]

By identifying the movement as being located within the confines of this protest against imperialism and political policy, Michelson catalogues the location of this film movement. In doing so, we are shown the development of a new Japanese national identity, based not on past oppressions, but upon breaking free of those bonds.

Ironically, most of the Japanese New Wave filmmakers were not independent. Like the US, the Japanese film industry had a system that involved not only vertical integration, but contracted directors. Thus, most of the films that are considered “New Wave” were actually studio films! Directors like Shohei Imamura, Seijun Suzuki, and Nagisa Oshima all subverted the system from the inside out, although eventually leaving the big studios like Shochiku, to search of a more autonomous creative environment.

Shohei Imamura's Pigs and Battleships (1961) directly confronted issues having to do with the US military and the Japanese class system.

Out of all the New Wave directors, the one who exemplifies and reveals the most in regards to the movement is Nagisa Oshima. Not unlike Sergei Eisenstein, or many of the young men at Cahiers du Cinema, Oshima was not only a skilled director, but he was a frequent contributor to many film publications. Throughout his career he wrote extensively, not only about his own work and films he enjoyed, but also about the state of Japanese cinema and its relation to politics and history. His film, Night and Fog in Japan (1960), is an exquisite example, not just of a New Wave film, but also of the relationship that Japanese cinema and its “studio system” had to the political situation at the time.

Night and Fog in Japan (Nagisa Oshima, 1960)

David Desser describes Night and Fog in Japan as

One of the paradigmatic films of the Japanese New Wave Cinema…The film is explicitly about the political protests surrounding the renewal of the Security Pact and about the politics that characterized the immediate postwar era. As if to insist on the difference between the generation of the 1960s and its immediate predecessor in the postwar era, Oshima’s film juxtaposes two groups of student radicals- student Communists in 1952 and student protestors in 1960.[9]

Four days after the film was released, Shochiku, the studio Oshima was under contract to at the time, pulled Night and Fog, claiming “poor box office.” Oshima was livid. He knew that it was not the box office that was the problem. After four days? It wasn’t even given a fighting chance! In a highly passionate article in Film Criticism, Oshima addresses Shochiku, directing his protest to their “executive offices.” With “unrelenting anger,” Oshima writes,

This massacre is clearly political oppression. This is demonstrated by the film’s having been withdrawn in spite of the fact that its box-office figures were only slightly lower than usual, and by the sudden way it was withdrawn. If this isn’t political oppression, let even one theater, one independent screening group, give it one opportunity to be shown! Lend it out!…If this isn’t political oppression, what is it?[10]

Oshima continues, stating that Shochiku has “succumbed to political oppression” and that Night and Fog is a crucial film if for no other reason than the Japanese audiences have been given “foolish movies” for too long. Oshima ends the article on a determined note. He grimly states that he is not about to give up, because he believes “in the potential of the audience- that is to say, of the people. I believe they can change…I will continue to make work like this.”[11] The fortitude that Oshima shows, as well as his populist stance, exhibits a sense of strong national identity against the workings of the state. In addition, this article shows Oshima’s immense dedication to the cinema, even within a system of politics that was seeking to undo him, and disassemble the power of a movement designed specifically to stimulate a new kind of nationalism for the Japanese people.

Within the cinematic histories of Japan and Italy we can see two explicit examples of the relationships that are formed between cinema, nationalism and the state. Viewed in a larger perspective, there is a relationship between the two countries based on time period and global history. Italy was not alone in its experience. Many countries previous to and during World War II experienced periods of forced artistic submission, creating feelings of oppression that built up and exploded onto the creative world in the 1960s. Even the United States film industry was a victim of the state, dealing with the Production Code Administration and its censorship techniques. The Japanese New Wave demonstrates the next stage in this process, showing the ultimate effects of a country’s subjugation to an unwanted authoritative power.


[1] Anderson, Benedict. Imagined Communities. New York: Verso, 1983.

[2] Usai, Paolo Cherci. “Italy: Spectacle and Melodrama.” The Oxford History of World Cinema. Ed. Geoffrey Nowell-Smith. Oxford: Oxford University Press, 1996.

[3] Morandini, Morando. “Italy From Fascism to Neo-Realism.” The Oxford History of World Cinema. Ed. Geoffrey Nowell-Smith. Oxford: Oxford University Press, 1996.

[4] Katz, Ephraim. “Italy.” The Film Encyclopedia, 4th ed. New York: HarperCollins Publishers, 2001.

[5] Morandini, ibid.

[6] Bock, Audie. Japanese Film Directors. Tokyo: Kodansha, 1978.

[7] Desser, David. Eros Plus Massacre: An Introduction to the Japanese New Wave Cinema. Bloomington: Indiana University Press, 1988.

[8] Michelson, Annette. “Introduction.” Cinema, Censorship, and the State: The Writings of Nagisa Oshima, 1956-1978. Ed. Annette Michelson. Cambridge: Massachusetts Institute of Technology Press, 1992.

[9] Desser, ibid.

[10] Oshima, Nagisa. Cinema, Censorship, and the State: The Writings of Nagisa Oshima, 1956-1978. Ed. Annette Michelson. Cambridge: Massachusetts Institute of Technology Press, 1992.

[11] Oshima, ibid.

Eastern Ways in Western Dress: Cultural Hybridity and Subversion in Yojimbo

This post is for the Japanese Cinema Blogathon.  It was started to help assist in the earthquake & tsunami relief. If you like my post/hate my post/are bored to tears by my post, or just enjoy the damn pictures, PLEASE help. Living, as I do, in an earthquake-prone locale (Southern California), earthquakes are quite frightening, and I would like to do my part. Since I am broke as hell, all I can realistically do is what I do best: write. And so I will write for Japan, and hope that someone makes a donation off of what I’ve written or just makes a donation, period. Japan has given us some of the most incredible cinema in the entire world and will continue to do so. Let’s help out a little in appreciation, shall we?

The standard assumption about modern Japanese culture is that because it contains elements familiar in the west, perhaps even born in the west, it has become, in effect, entirely Westernized. Looking closer at Japanese culture, however, we can see that this assumption is about as ridiculous as saying that the United States has become more Chinese because a good many people prefer that cuisine. It is only an example of the kind of binary thinking that revisionist histories and neo-colonial thinking have created within the world that would necessitate this kind of compartmentalization.

Within this essay, I will be looking at an example of Japanese cinema that expresses not only the Japanese-ness noted previously, but also certain aspects of cultural hybridity and significance within Japanese culture. In order to explicate my argument, I will be using a variety of texts varying from discussions of cultural hybridity and Japanese history to Hamid Naficy’s work on accented cinema. What I hope to show in this work is the remarkable ability of one culture (Japan) to reappropriate and “poach” different themes and iconographies from another culture (United States) and feed them through their own, culturally specific machinations in order to create something wholly new and different.

The film I have chosen, Yojimbo (Akira Kurosawa, 1961) illustrates the ways in which cultural identity is asserted through the conscious blurring of boundaries and intentionally fluid interpretations of genre. By re-placing the American Western within historically important samurai contexts, Japanese cinema can be seen to be making its own cinematic space.

Yojimbo (1961), Akira Kurosawa

This claiming of cinematic environment and demand for a location of cultural expression places modern Japanese cinema squarely within the definitions of Third Cinema. As defined, Third Cinema is “an alternative cinema…a cinema of decolonization and for liberation.”[1] By retaining individual signifiers and insisting upon their own generic interpretations, these films reject cultural depreciation and celebrate ethnic identity, and expound the tenets of the Third Cinema in a very localized fashion.

In order to truly understand Japanese cinema, it is crucial to know the history of the country itself. As Teshome Gabriel writes,

Lacking this historical perspective, the film critic or theorist can only reflect on the ways in which this cinema undermines and innovates traditional practices of representation, but he/she will lose sight of the context in which the cinema operates. An equally significant component of the critical perspective that must be adopted is the recognition of the TEXT that pre-exists each new text and that binds the filmmaker to a set of values, mores, traditions and behaviors- in a word, “culture”—which is at all moments the obligatory point of departure.[2]

Thus, in order to not fall into the “trap of auteurist fallacies and ‘aesthetic’ evaluative stances,”[3] I shall give a brief historical and cultural outline of Japan. Although by no means exhaustive, I will cover the primary events that many historians feel to be the most essential and transformative, as well as those occurrences that have singular importance to my argument.

Although there was clearly a great deal that went before, the Heian period, which lasted from 794 a.d. to about 1185 a.d., is where we will begin. During this era, there was a “flowering of classical Japanese culture in new capital of Heian-kyo (Kyoto). Court aristocracy, especially women, produced a great body of literature–poetry, diaries, the novel The Tale of Genji–and made refined aesthetic sensibility their society’s hallmark.”[4]

image from the illustrated scroll, "The Tale of Genji (Genji monogatari)" - a narrative novel authored by Lady Murasaki; painted by Takayoshi in the 12th century

The cultural product that resulted from this period was significant and vital, being reproduced continually even today, within Japanese painting, cinema and television. However, although the creative vitality still existed, the relative peace was not to remain, as the Kamakura Period (1185-1333) ushered in the beginning of military rule. The significance of this was vast, as it replaced noble rulers with the samurai (warrior). Although there is recognition of artistic development during this time, the primary feature for over a century is civil war, and until approximately 1600, Japan is immersed in Sengoku Jidai (Era of the Country at War). There is no unified Japan, only a series of warlords fighting with each other. Intriguingly, this is also the period during which the Portuguese enter the Japanese islands and introduce firearms and attempt missionary work to convert the Japanese to Christianity. The Portuguese fail in their religious mission, however, and are punished severely for attempting to dilute the national culture.

In 1568, a man named Oda Nobunaga starts the process of reunifying Japan. Followed by Toyotomi Hideyoshi, the foundation of modern Japan is laid. However, although these men laid down the base, it was up to another man to change the course of Japanese history forever. After he brutally beat Hideyoshi (and a few years later forced Hideyoshi’s legitimate heir to commit seppuku, ritual suicide), a man named Tokugawa Ieyasu became the Shogun, and ruled with a strict, isolationist sensibility. He cut off exchange with all countries except China and the Netherlands, expelled Portuguese missionaries and essentially shut the doors of the country for 200 years. Michael Cooper, the former editor of Monumenta Nipponica, an interdisciplinary journal on Japanese culture and society, states quite simply that, “Tokugawa wanted to clear the board of all these foreign influences which were just muddying the waters, making life more complicated.”[5] And clear the board he did. Not only was trade extremely limited, but also foreign books were outlawed, travel abroad was forbidden. For 200 years Japan was kept away from the rest of the world, and the rest of the world was kept out of Japan.

Tokugawa Ieyasu

During this period, however, the Japanese had ample time to refine and hone its multitude of cultural assets, without any infiltration or any disturbance from anyone. Literature, ritual customs, art, and theater all prospered in this period. However, this could only last for so long. Finally, around 1867, the Tokogawa shogunate was ended and this started the Meiji Period.

The Meiji Restoration (called this because power was restored to the Emperor Meiji) began the colonization of Japan by the west. It is noted that during this period, the Japanese, “like other subjugated Asian nations…were forced to sign unequal treaties with Western powers. These treaties granted the Westerners one-sided economical and legal advantages in Japan.”[6] Beyond this, significant modernization and Westernization occurred. Compulsory education, now reformed to resemble French and later German systems was implemented, as well as a European-style constitution in 1889.

1686- the Meiji emperor of Japan moves from the old capital, Kyoto, to the new capital, Tokyo

After being closed off from the rest of the world for so long, its seemed to the Japanese that they needed to hurry and “catch up,” so they sent scholars away to different countries to attempt to get what they needed in a more condensed fashion. However, after a certain period of time, and successfully winning two wars, all of this Westernization became repugnant to the Japanese, and there was a significant rise in nationalism again.

Western forms of modernity proved to be like a virus- once they entered the Japanese system they stayed. The symptoms were treatable, but the virus would always be there. On the other hand, the more this virus showed itself, the more nationalistic the country got. The West continued to colonize Japan until the end of World War II, when Japan was physically occupied by the US, and forced to alter everything from cultural specifics (such as what they could and could not put in cinematic or literary texts) to political structures (religion and state were now entirely separated). After two hundred years of relative peace and cultural unity, it took less than half that time for the West to rope Japan in, and force it into what they saw as submission.

While the historical evidence does show the “conquer” of Japan, and its subsequent punishment and demonization within much of Western culture (especially the US), what occurred within the cultural borders of Japan was something very different. With the sudden influx (initially desired, consequently abhorred) of so many different cultures after the Tokugawa period, it is difficult to conceive of Japanese culture not having been influenced in some way. However, the consolidation of nationalistic identity was so strong before the ports opened that even the influences that had become present were now filtered through a Japanese lens.

The three phases that Frantz Fanon discusses in the progression towards cultural decolonization are defined by Teshome Gabriel as

(a) The unqualified assimilation phase where the inspiration comes from without and hence results in an uncritical imitation of the colonialist culture; (b) the return to the source or the remembrance phase, a stage which marks the nostalgic lapse to childhood, to the heroic past, where legends and folklore abound; and (c) the fighting or combative phase, a stage that signifies maturation and where emancipatory self-determinism becomes an act of violence.[7]

If you follow Japanese history from the end of the Tokugawa Period forward, it seems that Fanon’s text is accurate and appropriate. Certainly the Japanese were fascinated by the outside culture that they had not experienced for over 200 years, but when that outside force sought to dominate their carefully nurtured autochthonous culture, the Japanese bristled. In fact, according to Donald Ritchie and Joseph I. Anderson, the Japanese reaction to new innovations in early cinema followed Fanon’s structure as well. In the beginning, the Japanese audiences “embraced the novelty of the moving picture with at least as much enthusiasm as other nations” but they did not, however, embrace the new cinematic methods, and neither did the directors. Now whether this was due to culturally bound aesthetic preference or not is still up for debate, but Ritchie and Anderson do note that in this aesthetic decision, the audience was “following what has become recognized as a peculiarly Japanese pattern of behavior: first the enthusiastic acceptance of a new idea, then a period of reaction against it, and finally the complete assimilation and transformation of the idea to Japanese patterns.”[8] If this is indeed the case, the Japanese have been in the process of decolonialization in the cinema for almost as long as the cinema has been around.

The cinema in Japan, though initially full of foreign product, soon began to create its own, complete with genres that celebrated nationalism and cultural history. Fernando Solanas and Octavio Getino write that “real alternatives differing from those offered by the System are only possible if one of two requirements is fulfilled: making films that the System cannot assimilate and which are foreign to its needs, or making films that are directly and explicitly set out to fight the system.”[9] What if, in the presentation of these highly ethnocentric and history-centric pieces, Japan was able to do both? I maintain that Japan’s early genre cinema was not only a way of recuperating feelings of nationalism and pride in cultural identity, but also a way to fight the virus of colonialism that had already swept through the country.

Two of the most popular genres in Japanese cinema (up until they were occupied and forced to change cinematic content) were jidai-geki (historical dramas) and gendai-geki (modern dramas). Stories such as Chushingura (the tale of the forty-seven Ako ronin), which was set in the Tokugawa period and based on historical incidents, were incredibly popular. In fact, that particular story was made into a film over eighty times between the years 1907-1962![10]

Chushingura (1962)

But stories like Chushingura would not have been assimilable to an outside culture, let alone the System that Solanas and Gitano mention. And the jidai-geki made up close to half of the feature films in Japan from 1910 onwards![11] The very structure of Japanese Cinema, from its origination, prohibited its cooptation and cultural dilution. By utilizing their history and cultural signifiers within the cinematic texts, they not only denied the System but also outright thumbed their nose at it.

Donald Ritchie discusses the theory that it was Japanese theater conventions that helped teleologically maintain the cultural identity of the Japanese cinema. It is a distinct possibility that theatrical features like the benshi (a live interpreter for the silent films), or the use of men acting in women’s roles did help in the cultural preservation. However, I feel that Ritchie’s own analysis is far more perceptive. He states that though these theatrical attributes might have “somehow served to preserve the ‘Japaneseness’ of this cinema, protecting it from rapacious Hollywood, [this theory] fails to take into account the fact that…any Hollywood ‘takeover’ was a highly selective and invitational affair. If anything, it was Japanese companies that took over the ways of the California studios. It is probably safe to say that Japan has never assimilated anything that it did not want to.”(italics mine)[12] While it is of utmost consequence to recognize the agency that Ritchie mentions, it is also appropriate here to mention the concept of cultural hybridity. The nature of Japanese cinema is not one of assimilation but of translation. While Japan was a colonized nation, considerably flooded with Western ideology, they managed to hybridize the west with the east, and filter it through their own cinematic language. In their own way, they did what Francisco X. Camplis was suggesting when he connected Raza cinema to Third Cinema, stating that, for decolonization, Chicano cinema needed to “explore and discover our own sense of aesthetics. Our own language.”[13]

Japan, while maintaining sovereignty over their cultural product, also enunciates their voice through the hybridization of colonial product. This technique of cultural hybridity is a highly subversive act of decolonialization, according to Robert Stam. He writes, “these aesthetics share the jujitsu trait of turning strategic weakness into tactical strength. By appropriating an existing discourse for their own ends, they deploy the force of the dominated against the dominant.”[14]Thus, when films such as Akira Kurosawa’s Yojimbo (1961) re-place the Western within a samurai context, it is actually creating a site of resistance.

Although Kurosawa has been called the “most Western” of all Japanese filmmakers,[15] he himself stated that he made Western films for “today’s young Japanese.”[16] While these statements might appear to have similar meaning, it is crucially significant that Kurosawa designates who his audience is. While Western critics may be able to see familiar narrative patterns or generic properties, Kurosawa’s work is a multi-layered text that, although seeming familiar to them, is still a foreign film. A.O. Scott writes that “filmed images do not require translation; we know what we see. Narratives, of course, are another story; even when they seem to be transparent, they come encrusted with local meanings, idioms and references, some of which will inevitably be lost as they move from one audience to another.”[17] Although immediately recognizable as an example of the Western genre, Yojimbo is a perfect example one of those films that, as Scott notes, is “encrusted” with its own set of culturally-bound signifiers.Toshiro Mifune as Sanjuro Kuwabatake/ The Samurai

The story of Yojimbo takes place just after the end of the Tokugawa period. A ronin (masterless samurai) who was “once a dedicated warrior in the employ of Royalty, now finds himself with no master to serve other than his own will to survive…and no devices other than his wit and his sword”[18] Traveling in solitude, he comes upon a village and is fascinated to learn that it is in the middle of a turf war between two extremely morally corrupt clans. The ronin, Sanjuro, takes it upon himself to rid the town of these evil clans and their warlike ways by pitting them against each other, and letting them do the damage. In the end, the two clans do destroy each other, but the irony is that when they do, the town is left empty- a literal ghost town.

The two clans do battle

In his book, An Accented Cinema: Exilic and Diasporic Filmmaking, Hamid Naficy writes,

Accented films embody the constructedness of identity by inscribing characters who are partial, double, or split, or who perform their identities by means of the strategies already mentioned. By so engaging in the politics and poetics of identity, they cover up or manipulate their essential incompletion, fragmentation, and instability.[19]

In Yojimbo, Sanjuro’s constant changes in affiliation between the two fighting clans underscore his fractured character. Sanjuro is a wanderer. He is a man with no allegiances and no home. He has arrived in a town that is already split in two, and now, in order to unite the town (and perhaps his own identity), he must fracture himself even further by playing both sides. To go even further, whatever side he is playing is also instable because it’s a lie. David Desser describes Kurosawa as a “dialectical” filmmaker. He describes Kurosawa’s films as cinematically split, noting that Kurosawa “offers enjoyment to the audience seeking escapism and the audience seeking substance; he speaks to the Japanese and to the West. More importantly, through a dialectical combination of the two, he speaks to both about each other.”[20] If this is indeed the case, then Sanjuro’s split identification is standing in for Kurosawa’s, a self-reflexive position that, Naficy notes, is also not unusual for accented film.

Sanjuro (Toshiro Mifune) and director Akira Kurasawa

In accented cinema “neither the home-seeking journey nor the homecoming journey is fully meliorating. The wandering quests, too, are often tempered by their failure to produce self-discovery or salvation.”[21] Kurosawa’s deliberately open-ended yet dark and ironic close to Yojimbo attests to that theory. After all the effort that Sanjuro put into saving the town, the only people who are left alive at the end are the coffin-maker and the tavern keeper. Sanjuro looks at them, says, “Now it’ll be quiet in this town,” turns his back and walks away, clearly continuing on with his journey. It is clear that, although he has saved the town, there was really nothing there to save. Although nihilistic, this scenario further explores Kurosawa’s identity as an accented and hybridic filmmaker and reaffirms Sanjuro’s identity as his cinematic double. With this ending, Kurosawa clearly demonstrates his own border consciousness, which “like exilic liminality, is theoretically against binarism and duality and for a third optique, which is multiperspectival and tolerant of ambiguity, ambivalence, and chaos.”[22]

Yojimbo possessed many of the standard features of the Western genre, yet also ended up revolutionizing it. I contend that Desser’s theory of Kurosawa as a dialectical filmmaker should be widened to include his position as a dialogical filmmaker as well. Yojimbo did not remain contained within Japanese borders. In 1966, director Sergio Leone remade it in Almeria, Spain. The film starred Clint Eastwood, and was released under the title Fistful of Dollars. Jim Miller writes,

Although the storyline remained much the same in Fistful as it did in Yojimbo, a man alone playing both sides against each other, the end result of Clint Eastwood’s role brought about a whole new look at the Western hero as a lone wolf, anti-hero that was totally different from characters John Wayne had played. The anti-hero had been done before and been well received…but…[this] was a Western anti-hero who had not been viewed by American moviegoers, and that made the character and the actor who played him a different kind of Western hero.[23]

While Fistful of Dollars became the first in what would be a series of films starring Clint Eastwood as Sanjuro’s American surrogate, the Man With No Name, it is integral to recognize that the American translation of Kurosawa’s work introduced a new archetype. My position is that Japanese films (even Yojimbo, which David Desser admits is “dependent on Western [genre] structures”[24]) subvert Western colonial narrative structures through their cultural filtration system. This is further proven by Miller’s discussion of the reception of Clint Eastwood’s character.

The three central roles in the Western genre are “the townspeople or agents of civilization, the savages or outlaws who threaten this first group, and the heroes who are above all ‘men in the middle,’ that is, they possess many qualities and skills of the savages, but are fundamentally committed to the townspeople.”[25] Kurosawa’s conflation of archetypes is vital and entirely intentional. By creating a climate in which the townspeople are the savages and the hero is committed to the destruction of the townspeople, he is forcing the spectator to reflect on “a world of uncertainty.”[26] In many ways, this film can be seen as analogous to the confusion brought on by Westernization. The main villain, Unosuke (the son of one of the clans), is in possession of a gun, and waves it around like a cowboy. The rest of the men are armed only with swords. The presence of this weapon, and Unosuke’s ultimate defeat, signifies that even though the Western world might have invaded Japan historically, forcing change and cultural infiltration, the basic structures of Japanese identity are strong enough to withstand that change. Essentially, Sanjuro’s abrupt but confident departure from the town signifies the triumph of the samurai, symbol of loyalty and honor, and Japanese history, over the attempt by the West to conquer the East.

In the introduction to Donald Ritchie’s book on Japanese cinema, he traces the hypothetical life of a 50-year-old man in each period of early Japanese cinematic history. From the man in 1896, who “would have been born into a feudal world where the shogun, daimyo, and samurai ruled” to the man who “would have witnessed the forced adoption of the Gregorian calendar, the emergence of a nationwide public school system, the inauguration of telephone services…and the construction of railways,” Ritchie briefly looks at what a Japanese man might have experienced. But, Ritchie says, “through it all, he…would have been told to somehow hold on to his Japaneseness. [A] slogan indicated the way: ‘Japanese Spirit and Western Culture’ (Wakon Yosai)- in that order…[and] In this manner, it was hoped, Japan might avail itself of the ways of the modern West and, at the same time, retain its ‘national entity.’”[27] Teshome Gabriel says that Third Cinema “must above all be recognized as a cinema of subversion.”[28] By working through the ideas of Wakon Yosai, the Japanese cinema is a proud and active part of Third Cinema. Through the jujitsu model of hybridity and a refusal to dilute their national identity, Japanese cinema has, and is continuing to have, the best of worlds. They truly have subverted the dominant paradigm and are only richer as a result.


[1] Gabriel, Teshome. Third Cinema in the Third World: The Aesthetics of Liberation. Ann Arbor: University of Michigan Research Press, 1982.

[2] Gabriel, ibid.

[3] Gabriel, ibid.

[4]Heinrich, Amy Vladeck.  Ask Asia, a K-12 Resource of the Asia Society, History of Japan, 1994. available at http://www.askasia.org/image/maps/timejape.html, Internet; accessed 16 March 2011.

[5] Michael Cooper, interviewed in “Japan: Memoirs of a Secret Empire.” Empires, narr. Richard Chamberlain, PBS, 26 May. 2004.

[6] Meiji Period (1868-1912), Periods of Japanese History, Japan Guide, 2 June 1996. available at http://www.japan-guide.com/e/e2130.html, Internet; accessed 20 November, 2004.

[7] Gabriel, ibid.

[8] Anderson, Joseph I. and Donald Ritchie. The Japanese Film: Art and Industry. Princeton: Princeton University Press, 1982.

[9] Solanas, Fernando and Octavio Getino. “Towards a Third Cinema: Notes and Experiences for the Development of a Cinema of Liberation in the Third World.”

[10] Barrett, Gregory. Archetypes in Japanese Film: The Sociopolitical and Religious Significance of the Principal Heroes and Heroines. Cranbury: Associated University Presses, Inc, 1989.

[11] Ibid.

[12] Ritchie, Donald. A Hundred Years of Japanese Film. Tokyo: Kodansha International, 2001.

[13] Camplis, Francisco X. “Towards the Development of a Raza Cinema (1975)”. Chicanos and Film: Representation and Resistance. Ed. Chon Noriega. Minneapolis: University of Minnesota Press, 1992.

[14] Stam, Robert. “Beyond Third Cinema: the Aesthetics of Hybridity.” Rethinking Third Cinema. Ed. Anthony Guneratne and Wimal Dissanayake. New York: Routledge, 2003.

[15] Desser, David. The Samurai Films of Akira Kurosawa. Ann Arbor: UMI Research Press, 1981.

[16] Ritchie, Donald. The Films of Kurosawa. Los Angeles: University of California Press, 1965.

[17] Scott, A.O. “Us & Them: What is a Foreign Movie Now?” NewYork Times Magazine, 14 November 2004, 79.

[18] Yojimbo, dir. Akira Kurosawa, perf. Toshiro Mifune, Tatsuya Nakadai, DVD, Criterion Collection, 1999.

[19] Naficy, Hamid. An Accented Cinema: Exilic and Diasporic Filmmaking. Princeton: Princeton University Press, 2001.

[20] Desser, Ibid.

[21] Naficy, Ibid.

[22] Naficy, ibid.

[23] Miller, Jim. “Clint Eastwood: A Different Kind of Hero.” Shooting Stars: Heroes and Heroines of Western Film. Ed. Archie P. McDonald. Bloomington: Indiana University Press, 1987.

[24] Desser, ibid.

[25] Kitses, Jim. “The Western: Ideology and Archetype.” Focus on the Western.Ed. Jack Nachbar. Eaglewood Cliffs: Prentice-Hall, Inc, 1974.

[26] Desser, ibid.

[27]Ritchie, Donald. A Hundred Years of Japanese Film. Tokyo: Kodansha International, 2001.

[28] Gabriel, ibid.