Monday, May 25, 2009

Kurosawa's _Yojimbo_ and Dashiell Hammett's _The Red Harvest_

This commentary is the result of not following one of the most elementary rules for discussing books or films or art or any of a variety of subjects. That rule is that one should always go to the primary source whenever possible--the primary source being the item under discussion. I didn't, and so here's another commentary.

Some time ago, I briefly discussed some of the sources for Akira Kurosawa's films. One of the films was Yojimbo, the story of a lone samurai who comes to a small town, which is slowly being destroyed as two gangs struggle to determine which one will control the town. He decides to help the townspeople and adopts the strategy of "let's you and him fight." He will work to provoke the two gangs into open warfare. Then, the "winner" would be so weakened by the struggle that it too can then be destroyed.

I had come across several comments indicating that the source for this film was Dashiell Hammett's The Red Harvest, a novel about a detective who comes into a town in which two rival gangs of bootleggers were fighting for control of the distribution of alcohol. This was during Prohibition. The detective then employs the strategy mentioned above to solve the problem.

Without having read Hammett's novel, I accepted this interpretation. Recently, while poking through my stack of unread books, I discovered that I had a volume which contained Hammett's five novels, including Red Harvest (RH). So, I immediately dusted it off and read it, curious to see what similarities I can find between it and Yojimbo (Y). My conclusion? Well, judge for yourself. What do you think?

I could find only two similarities between the two works: the main character is a stranger who has just arrived in the town that is the battleground for criminal elements struggling for control, and he decides his best strategy would be to provoke the combatants into open warfare--"let's you and him fight"--in other words.

These two similarities, frankly, are not very convincing because I don't see them as being so unique that Kurosawa could only have gotten them from RH. Kurosawa was known to have to be a fan of US westerns and even borrowed elements from them--in one of his films, he had the enemy army suddenly appear on the top of a long ridge, first one, then several others, then by tens and twenties, all posed against the skyline--how many westerns include that same shot?--Clearly this is something he borrowed from the western. I won't bother to guess the number of westerns that begin with a lone rider coming into town from the wilderness.

Moreover, the strategy of provoking one's enemies into fighting among themselves is not unique to Hammett either. It goes back, I suspect, thousands of years. In fact, Tolkien employs it in both The Hobbit and The Lord of the Rings.

The two stories are, aside from the two points just mentioned, completely different. Sanjuro, Kurosawa's samurai, is a ronin, an unattached samurai who is looking for a job. Hammett's unnamed operative is employed by the Continental Detective Agency. He has been sent here by the Agency to work with its client, the editor of a local newspaper who is engaged in publishing a series of articles on corruption in the city. However, the editor is shot to death before they have a chance to meet. The operative then contacts the editor's father who employs him to clean up the town and identify his son's killer(s) as well.

To me anyway, this is considerably different than Kurosawa's story, in which a lone samurai wanders accidentally into town and discovers the gang warfare going on and decides to do something about it. Moreover, Kurosawa's plot is comparatively straightforward: we get almost no back story about the history of the conflict, or at least none that I can remember. It's a given that the two gangs are simply struggling to eliminate each other.

Hammett, on the other hand, provides an ironic history to the conflict. The editor's father had controlled the town, the mayor, the council, a few representatives, and the governor. The IWW, the International Workers of the World, had attempted to unionize one of his companies. The father brought in a bunch of goons and told them to do whatever was necessary to break the strike. The strike was broken, but the goons refused to leave town. There were no local organized crime groups/gangs in town, and the police department was handicapped by a corrupt police chief and a number of corrupt police officers--this is gang heaven, in other words. The father wasn't strong enough to remove the gangs by himself, so he hired the Continental Op to clean up the town after his son was killed.

The editor's son had been out of town for a number of years and had just returned to take control of his father's newspaper. He hadn't been in town long enough to discover his father's role in the town's problems.

Instead of two gangs, the Op discovered there were actually three criminal gangs, while the police chief and part of the dept. made a fourth group. He then goes to work to disturb the already uneasy and shaky truce that existed among them. After the Continental Op initiates his campaign, the four groups coalesce into two groups. The winning coalition, no doubt, would then split and try to eliminate each other.

I can find no similarities between the two, other than the main character being a stranger in town and working with the various gangs in order to provoke open warfare between them. The main character's plan in RH doesn't go awry, as it does in Yojimbo, with the result that Sanjuro is captured and badly beaten by one of the gangs. The Continental Op maintains his freedom throughout the novel. Moreover, the Continental Op is able to contact his Agency and several operatives are sent to assist him, so that he is no longer working alone at the end. Sanjuro, aside from one of the townspeople who helps him after he escapes from his captors, essentially works alone.

Could RH be a significant source for Yojimbo? It seems clear to me that this is not a situation in which Kurosawa adapted Hammett's novel for film. The differences are too many and too significant. One might think about a possible influence on the film, if one limits the significant elements to the two discussed above. But, the two elements are not unique to Hammett, and the basic plot element--the stranger who comes into town and decides to help the decent folk fight the criminal element--is actually found in numerous westerns. Could Shane or any of numerous westerns also be considered a significant source?

Without other supporting information, comments by Kurosawa himself, for example, I can't say now that Red Harvest is a significant source for Yojimbo.

Any thoughts?

Overall Rating: read the story and watch the film. Both are excellent, regardless of any linkage, or lack thereof.


  1. I find it interesting that people think that Kurosawa "borrowed" from others when so many Hollywood films have retold Kurosawa's films.

    The first example that comes to mind is the Bruce Willis film Last Man Standing which was a re-work of Yojimbo.

    I am also not ashamed to say that I was a big fan of Last Man Standing. There aren't many of us out there. :-)

  2. Scott,

    I did like the Bruce Willis version, but I liked the Clint Eastwood remake more. CE came across as being closer as a character to Sanjuro than BW did.

    By the way, in an earlier post, I discussed both the sources for a number of Kurosawa's works and also the films that were remakes of his. _Yojimbo_ was one of the ones I discussed.