Editor Roundtable: Yojimbo

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It’s East meets Western this week as the Roundtable team crosses the Pacific and the decades to look at Akira Kurosawa’s 1960 samurai classic,Yojimbo.

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The Story

Here’s a synopsis adapted from Wikipedia.

In 1860 a samurai, named Sanjuro, wanders through a desolate Japanese countryside. He sees the son of an elderly farm couple run off to join the exciting life of gangs and gambling in a nearby town, and decides to investigate.

The town’s tavern keeper advises Sanjuro to leave. The town is under violent control by two rival gangs, who are each recruiting criminals from the countryside, and have each co-opted a wealthy town leader. Seibei, a weak man with a strong wife, owns the silk merchant’s allegiance, and Ushitora has bought the sake brewer’s allegiance. After hearing the tavern-keeper’s story, Sanjuro decides to stay, saying he thinks the town would be better off with both sides dead.

By effortlessly killing three members of the stronger Ushitora gang, he convinces the weaker Seibei to hire him as a bodyguard.

Seibei now thinks the time is right to fight the stronger gang. But in a conspiratorial conversation that Sanjuro overhears, Seibei’s strong, greedy wife orders their son to kill Sanjuro as soon as the raid is done. This way, they won’t have to pay him anything.

Accordingly, Sanjuro leads Seibei’s men into attack formation with the other gang, but then quits. Before the two gangs can come to blows in the street, a government investigator from the capital arrives, forcing both sides to make a bloodless retreat. This official law-and-order presence shuts down all gang activity for days, and costs the gang leaders a fortune in bribes.

Meanwhile, Ushitora’s youngest brother, the handsome and ruthless Unosuke, comes back to town and he’s got a gun; the only gang member to have one.

In a complicated series of moves tensions between the gangs escalate. Ushitora kidnaps Seibei’s son and Seibei counters by kidnaping Ushitora’s woman. The prisoners are exchanged and the woman is borne away in front of her crying child.

When Sanjuro learns that the woman is actually the wife of a farmer he discovers where she’s being held, kills the guards and reunites her with her family. He gives them money and tells them to leave town, then convinces Ushitora that it was Seibei’s men who took her.

The gang war reaches a peak when Ushitora’s men burn down the silk-merchant’s warehouse in retaliation for the loss of the woman, and Seibei’s men destroy the sake brewery in retaliation for the fire. Unosuke discovers Sanjuro’s double cross, and has him severely beaten and imprisoned.

With the tavern keeper’s help, Sanjuro manages to escape the town. As he leaves, he witnesses the brutal end to Seibei and his gang. Ushitora eventually nabs the tavern keeper for his role in the samurai’s escape, so once recovered, Sanjuro returns to free his ally.

Sanjuro then kills Ushitora and all his men, including the gun-toting brother. He spares only one terrified young man; that’s the farmer’s son he encountered on his way into the town at the beginning of the story. As Sanjuro surveys the damage, the silk merchant (who is Seibei’s only remaining ally) kills the sake brewer (who is Ushitora’s only remaining ally). Sanjuro frees the tavern-keeper, then walks away from the town he has liberated, saying, “See you around.”

The Editor’s Six Core Questions

Want to learn more about the Editor’s Six Core Questions? Check out our Story Grid 101 episode.

1.What’s the Global Genre? Western – Kim

The western story is a combination of crime/society/action in which the individual is both condemned and exalted by society. A subtextual Jesus/savior myth lies underneath the gunfighting.

Combination: Action, Crime, Society

Core Values: Freedom / Subjugation

Gas Gauge Tank: Security

Core Emotion – Freedom (but also intrigue and excitement)

Core Event: Big Showdown

Subgenres: Classic, Vengeance, Transition, Professional

Yojimbo: Western-Vengeance – a stranger comes to town to right a wrong

Uncompromising individual sacrifices for good of all – This could be a case of me bringing my own inner genre to the table (or what I aspire my inner genre to be), but this is the way I pictured Sanjuro: a moral character playing on the subtext.

Of the three subgenres that make up Western, one often will rise to the top (like Thriller). Action rose to the top for me: Action / Duel / Machiavellian

2. What are the Conventions and Obligatory Scenes of the Western story?

Conventions – Leslie

Harsh, hostile, wide-open landscape is a “character”: Sanjuro travels through desolate country to a tiny frontier town in feudal Japan. The terrain and atmosphere are reminiscent of the Old West.

Hero, Victim, Villain: These three roles must be clearly defined throughout the story:  Sanjuro, a masterless rōnin, is the hero. The victims are, generally, the innocent people of the town and surrounding countryside, but more specifically the boy from the countryside and his family, the pub owner, and the woman enslaved to satisfy her husband’s gambling debts. The villains are the two rival gangs.  

Sidekicks (could be a mascot/kid, sex worker, the saloon keeper, or love interest): The pub keeper.

The Hero’s object of desire is to stop the villain and save the victim: Sanjuro has no purpose for getting involved in the turf war other than to save the victims by defeating the villains. He appears to be seeking money, but he gives the money he makes to the women who had been enslaved when he helps them escape.

Hero operates outside the law (selectively or as a matter of course): Sanjuro operates outside the law as a matter of course. Feudal Japan was a police state with samurai for law enforcement, but Sanjuro was an independent warrior.  

The power divide between the hero and the villain is very large. The Villain is far more powerful than the Hero: Sanjuro is strong and clever and possesses masterful weapons skills, but he’s outnumbered on both sides. Ushitora’s brother owns the only pistol in town.

Making it personal: Sanjuro’s behavior becomes deeply personal when Ushitora’s gang discovers that Sanjuro released the woman who had been enslaved and helped her family escape.

Speech in Praise of the Villain: The pub keeper tells Sanjuro that the Gamblers are cold-blooded and greedy, and two such criminal bosses with a personal dispute is a disaster. Now they both gather new recruits (drifters and criminals) to wage a war in the town streets while the local authorities (constable and mayor) do nothing. The casket maker can’t produce his product fast enough to keep up with demand. Honorable mention: the dog running down the main street with a human hand in its mouth.

Clock. There is a limited time for the protagonist/s or villain/s to act. Not a literal clock, but it’s only a matter of time before the gangs get wise to the way Sanjuro is playing them against each other.

Sub-Genre specific conventions for Spaghetti or Eurowestern: This film set up a sub-genre or category of western films when Italian directors imitated the style and conventions of Kurosawa’s film. Sometimes this imitation has been characterized as wholesale copying and sometimes, homage. Either way, the conventions for this category, and for more than 600 films made between 1960 and 1978, were established here. A key combination is the cunning of the hero and pathos for the innocent victims.

  • Hero enters town ruled by two outlaw gangs
  • Innocent town inhabitants are terrorized and can’t conduct business.
  • The hero pretends to work for each of the gangs in exchange for money, but in reality he’s working for himself and betraying both gangs.
  • The hero is cunning and has extraordinary skills with a weapon.
  • The hero is exposed and severely beaten, but he escapes and defeats the remaining gang.  

Additional Comments

Jarie: Toshiro Mifune (Sanjuro) is the perfect flawed bad ass. He has that icon look. The schowel that it looks like Eastwood ripped off perfectly.

Anne: A question I asked was how did Sanjuro become a nameless ronin? Samurai either lost their master to death or were dismissed for some kind of misbehavior, and in either case were traditionally expected to die by suicide. Even this late in the Tokugawa Shogunate, there seems to be a kind of built in dishonor associated with the ronin—they weren’t so much independent as “masterless.” So the unspoken mystery at the heart of the movie is, “What’s Sanjuro’s story?” I’m not sure how much more apparent  this would have been to a Japanese audience in the early 1960s than to us in the west today.

Obligatory Scenes – Anne

An Inciting Attack by the Villain or Environment – This could be the dog running past with the severed human hand in its jaws. If so, it would be an attack by the environment–the corrupted, chaotic and violent nature of the town. Or it could be a bit later, when Ushitora’s gang comes out of the inn and goads Sanjuro, insulting him by calling him a stray dog. This is also the next obligatory scene. Neither moment is especially violent, but both contain a heavy subtext of violence.

Hero sidesteps responsibility to take action – After hearing the deal offered by the town constable to become a bodyguard for one gang or the other, Sanjuro walks right past the Ushitora gang, disregarding their challenges and insults, refusing to become involved.

Forced to leave ordinary world, Hero lashes out – Once Sanjuro gets the idea in his head to save the town from itself, he goes right out and kills three men in a particularly lashing-out way, cold and swift.

Discovering and understanding the MacGuffin (the Villain’s object of desire) – Sanjuro figures out right away that Seibei, the weaker gang leader, wants status and power through beating the other gang. It’s not long before he learns that Seibei’s greedy wife is even more ruthless in pursuit of prestige and power. And Ushitori is proud and jealous of his more powerful position. All the villains want to run the town.

Hero’s initial strategy to outmaneuver Villain fails – I think this obligatory scene comes at 32 minutes in, when the arrival of a government inspector curtails the melee that Sanjuro was pretty sure was going decimate both gangs. It changes everything, giving the villains time to regroup, and leading to bigger and bigger crimes.

Hero, realizing they must change their approach to salvage some form of victory, reaches an All Is Lost moment – When Unosuke the gunman figures out that Sanjuro freed the woman hostage, he has him beaten almost to death and stripped of his sword. Sanjuro escapes the final beating that would have killed him by hiding in a box, then in a coffin, and being carried off to a cemetery, symbolic of the death of any honor or hope he had left.

The Showdown, where the Hero and the Villain face off:  the central event of the Western story and what the reader is waiting for. It’s the moment when the Hero’s gift is expressed – In the final seven minutes of the film, Sanjuro returns from his sojourn in the cemetery and confronts Ushitora’s gang, led by the gunman brother Unosuke. “Don’t come any closer!” Unosuke shouts, and Sanjuro swings into real samurai action. He disables Unosuke’s gun arm with by throwing a dagger and quickly dispatches everyone else. But I don’t think his “gift” is just swift killing. It’s mercy. He lets the one kid, who still has a chance to be decent, run away back to his mommy and daddy. “You’re a nice guy,” Unosuke says, as he lies bleeding out on the ground. In a second act of mercy, he Sanjuro gives him back his gun, and trust him to be unable to fire it one last time.

The Hero’s Sacrifice is Rewarded – He leaves the town, still a free agent, a masterless ronin. It’s not much of a reward, but it’s remarkably satisfying to the viewer.

3. What is the POV? What is the Narrative device? – Kim

POV: 3rd person

4. What are the Objects of Desire, AKA wants and needs? – Kim

Wants:  kill the gang leaders and free the town

Needs:  Because this is a purely external story, the wants and needs are the same — Sanjuro wants/needs to be his uncompromising self that fights to restore justice and freedom.

5. What is the Controlling Idea / Theme? – Kim

Justice prevails when the uncompromising individual sacrifices himself for the good of all.

6. What’s the Beginning Hook, the Middle Build, and the Ending Payoff? –  Jarie

Beginning Hook – Sanjuro, who is a ronin, wanders into a town divided by a gang war. The streets are abandoned. He walks into a restaurant and learns that the town has a lot of people that need killing. He then shows the town what he is worth by killing three members of Ushitora’s gang. He then goes back to negotiate with Seibei, who is the weaker gang leader. Seibei pays Sanjuro 50 ryo (dollars) but overhears them plotting to kill him after he defeats Ushitora (the stronger gang). At the fight, Sanjuro quits and tells Ushitora that he is no longer with Seibei. The two sides square off but before they fight, a horseman rides in telling them that an inspector is on the way. They all need to pretend everything’s okay.

  1. Inciting incident: Ronin proves his worth by quickly killing and maiming some gamblers.
  2. Progressive Complication/Turning Point: Seibei hires Ronin but then plots to kill him after he defeats Ushitora.
  3. Crisis Question: Should Sanjur) fight for Seibei given that he wants him dead?
  4. Climax: The big battle between Seibei and Ushitora face off. Sanjuro tells Ushitora that Seibei offended him and is no longer working for him. The two sides square off.
  5. Resolution: A horseman rides into town letting them know the inspector is coming. The two sides call a truce.

Middle Build – Sanjuro waits for either side to come make him an offer as the town puts on an act for the inspector. Ushitora comes when he know that the inspector will leave the next day and makes Sanjuro an offer that he refuses. Both parties call a truce which puts Sanjuro in a bind. Sanjuro captures the assassins and sells them to Seibei. Nui, Ushitora’s girl is kidnapped and they offer an exchange for Seibei’s son. Nui is held in a safehouse that Sanjuro finds out about. He goes, kills her guards, and let her go. Ushitora finds out and beats up Sanjuro.

  1. Inciting incident: The inspector is leaving town. The battle can begin.
  2. Progressive Complication/Turning Point: Seibei and Ushitora are going to make a truce. Ushitora’s son, Unosuke, returns and has a gun.
  3. Midpoint Shift: Ushitora kidnaps Seibei’s son, whom he offers in exchange for the two assassins. Ushitora double crosses Seibei at the swap when his brother, Unosuke, shoots the assassins with a pistol. But Seibei anticipated this so he kidnapped Ushitora’s woman, Nui. She escapes with the help of Sanjuro.
  4. Crisis Question: Ushitora confronts Sanjuro. Will Sanjuro admit that he freed Nui?
  5. Climax: Ushitora questions Sanjuro and starts to put it together. Ushitora finds the note.
  6. Resolution: Ushitora reads the note and knows that Sanjuro freed her. Sanjuro gets beat up. Sanjuro wakes up in the brewery and gets beaten up for not telling them where Nui is.

Ending Payoff – Sanjuro escapes his captures and makes his way to the restaurant where he hatches a plan to escape. He makes it to a shrine where he recovers with the help of Gonji. He then finds out that Gonji has been captured and goes back to the town to rescue him. Sanjuro kills everyone, lets Gonji go and then leaves town and says “see you around.”

  1. Inciting incident: Sanjuro escapes
  2. Progressive Complication/Turning Point: Seibei surrenders but then Ushitora shoots him and his son. Sanjuro sees this all. The casket maker runs away so Sanjuro can’t escape that way.
  3. Crisis Question: Does Sanjuro go back to the town to save Gonji?
  4. Climax: Sanjuro goes back to the town to save Gonji. He confronts Ushitora’s men.
  5. Resolution: Sanjuro kills everyone and then departs the town, having accomplished his mission.

7. Additional Story-Related Observations

Valerie: I think this is the perfect time to talk about why we select films that are off the beaten path. As writers, we need to know the genre we’re writing in backwards and forwards. When we study movies or books that are not mainstream it gives us a chance to see different approaches to story structure; for example, new ways of presenting the obligatory scenes and conventions.

Jarie: Mifune’s character became the model for John Belushi’s Samurai Futaba character on Saturday Night Live.

The inspiration for the movie was either Red Harvest or The Glass Key, both by Dashiell Hammett. The Glass Key is a film noir classic, similar to Double Indemnity. So interesting that noir crime can inspire a Japanese “western.”

Love the intro music. Just like all those Spaghetti Westerns. It’s great music plays during every scene transition. The random throw the stick in the air and then walk. Sanjuro drinks a lot of sake. The “see you around” ending is just awesome.

Anne: This film’s dialogue is heavily weighted towards exposition. The characters say very little except when explaining something to Sanjuro which both Sanjuro and the audience need to understand. I don’t know if anything like this would stand today–probably not. But plunging the audience into the middle of a gang war from the POV of the outsider is practically a convention of the Western, and the only other choice would have been flashbacks, a prologue, or extended scenes in someone else’s POV. When you’re Akira Kurosawa and you have Toshiro Mifune, you carry it off.

Sounds in this film do a lot of storytelling work. The steady clack-clack of the farm woman’s loom in the opening scene speaks volumes about the strict socioeconomic basis of the story’s world, where the woman can’t even raise her eyes from her weaving because the family depends on it so heavily. Similarly, the coffin-maker’s hammering and the silk-merchant’s prayer-drumming. Writers, whose work is technically silent, could get a lot of ideas from this film about which sounds to bother mentioning not only for vivid scene-setting, but to advance the story. Writers can think, too, about the rhythmic use of language itself.

Join us again next time, when we lasso the Action genre with Wonder Woman. Why not give it a look during the week, and follow along with us?

Your Roundtable Story Grid Editors are Jarie Bolander, Valerie Francis, Anne Hawley, Kim Kessler, and Leslie Watts.

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Leslie Watts

Leslie Watts is a certified Story Grid editor, writer, and podcaster. She’s been writing for as long as she can remember: from her sixth-grade magazine about cats to writing practice while drafting opinions for an appellate court judge. When the dust settled after her children were born, she launched Writership.com to help writers unearth the treasure in their manuscripts. She believes writers become better storytellers through practice, and that editors owe a duty of care to help writers with specific and supportive guidance to meet reader expectations and express their unique gifts in the world.