How Kurosawa’s ‘Yojimbo’ Became Leone’s ‘Fistful of Dollars’

His name might not mean much to Joe Moviegoer, but among a certain kind of cinephile, Stephen Prince is a legend. Others may know their Kurosawa, but Prince wrote a brilliant deep-dive on the great Japanese director’s films (The Warrior’s Camera: The Cinema of Akira Kurosawa), although his movie-geek street cred is mostly due to his Criterion Collection audio commentaries, which appear on the DVDs and Blu-rays for pretty much every Kurosawa film they’ve released–including Yojimbo, which was the one that brought us together. Last weekend, I had the honor of talking to Prince about Yojimbo at the Tallgrass Film Festival in Wichita, Kansas (one of our favorite under-the-radar film fests). Specifically, we discussed the link between that film and its unofficial remake, A Fistful of Dollars (which also screened at the fest).

“Sergio Leone had seen (Yojimbo) and thought very highly of it,” he told me at a post-screening Q&A, “and studied it on a Moviola. So Fistful is a very close, almost scene-for-scene remake. What’s kind of interesting about that is that Kurosawa was, at this time, an internationally famous director, and it’d gotten to the point where he started his own production company, was putting his own money into these movies, and he had established his film style… By contrast, when you’re looking at Fistful of Dollars, you’re seeing a filmmaker who’s really starting out, and with each subsequent film, the visual rhetoric that Leone involves becomes more and more elaborate, and more and more insistent.”

Leone was, as Prince noted, “very struck by the Western parallels in Yojimbo, and adapted that to a European framework. But it’s not the Western by way of Hollywood, it’s the Western by way of Japan, and then filtered through Leone’s perception of America that had come to him in the late ’40s, with the Occupation and the war.”

Film historian Stephen Prince and Flavorwire film editor Jason Bailey talk Kurosawa at the Tallgrass Film Festival. Photo credit: Tallgrass Film Festival.
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.”