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Abstract Akira Kurosawa’s Yojimbo (1961) has long been recognized as a quasi-adaptation of Dashiell Hammett’s Red Harvest (1929), even if it relates much more closely to Hammett’s short story ‘Corkscrew’ (1925). Yojimbo was remade as the Italian Western Fistful of Dollars (1964) by Sergio Leone. The material finally ‘came home’ when Walter Hill adapted it as Last Man Standing (1996) that returns to the 1920s American desert town setting of the original story. This contribution seeks to examine the inflections of the individual incarnations that the material has undergone on its journey through various cultural contexts. The main argument is that the story of the outsider infiltrating a corrupt town and ‘cleansing’ it by playing off two gangs against each other has lent itself to commentary on transnational cultural exchange and mobility. ‘Corkscrew’ expresses anxiety over the integrity of cultural boundaries, Red Harvest expresses the inherent corruption of a ‘hermetic’ culture, Yojimbo uses the story to highlight the uneasy relation between tradition and Westernization in Japan while simultaneously drawing attention to Kurosawa’s status as ‘Western’ director and embraces a guarded cultural mobility, Fistful of Dollars empties the signs, icons, and narratives that make up the expressions of culture of any essentialist meanings and so stages cultural mobility as the shifting play of signifiers, endlessly transgressing acquired meanings and cultural boundaries, and Last Man Standing, finally, in reclaiming the Americanness of the story simultaneously forgoes any cultural specificity by reducing it to an excessive pastiche of prior elements. Dashiell Hammett, Red Harvest, Corkscrew, cultural mobility, Akira Kurosawa, Yojimbo, Sergio Leone, Fistful of Dollars, Walter Hill, Last Man Standing INTRODUCTION This contribution seeks to analyze the crosscultural journey that Dashiell Hammett’s American short story ‘Corkscrew’ (1925) has taken through various incarnations, starting with Hammett’s own adaptation of the story into his hardboiled detective novel Red Harvest (1929), Akira Kurosawa’s Japanese samurai film Yojimbo (1961), Sergio Leone’s Italian Western A Fistful of Dollars (1964), and Walter Hill’s ‘homecoming’ neo-Noir/Western Last Man Standing (1996). With the exception of Last Man Standing, none of these incarnations are adaptations in Linda Hutcheon’s influential definition of being ‘extended, deliberate, announced revisitiation[s] of a particular work’ (170). Kurosawa never expressed familiarity with Red Harvest, and Leone even had to legally reject accusations of plagiarizing Kurosawa’s film. The ‘anxiety of influence’ that emanates from these rejections is connected to a more general argument I want to pursue. As a preliminary, I follow the argumentation of some scholars who emphasize that the spectator is decisive in creating an adaptive relationship between two works in the process of reception regardless of their creator’s stated or unstated or even rejected intentionality (Cutchins/Meeks 302, Geraghty 3). I also follow, or rather appropriate, Sanders’s definition of ‘appropriation’ for my purposes: ‘a more decisive journey away from the informing source into a wholly new cultural product and domain’, but which crucially benefits from the ‘intellectual juxtaposition’ (26) of the texts in question. The journey metaphor is apt at this point because my general argument is that in the juxtaposition of these texts we cannot only appreciate an instance of what Stephen Greenblatt calls ‘cultural mobility’, as one core story travels from one cultural context to another, but also a series of complex commentaries on cultural mobility. These commentaries are linked to the connecting core story, which can be broken down into the following structure: a stranger enters a corrupt town and plays two rivaling gangs against each other, ending in an apocalyptic annihilation or ‘cleansing’ of the town. In my reading, the stranger becomes a stand-in for the writer/director and the story itself, both of which assume the position of outsider who enters a ‘corrupt’ culture in order to cleanse it of its corruption. In this way, the individual adaptations use the core story to dramatize a variety of implications of crosscultural interactions. Hammett’s original story ‘Corkscrew’ reflects what Greenblatt calls ‘the anxious, defensive, and on occasion violent policing of the boundaries’ between cultures (7), as the stranger becomes the fighter against the town’s corruption by criminal border crossings and helps maintaining its hermetic cultural integrity. In Red Harvest, this hermetic condition is identified as the cause for corruption, as the stranger uncovers the internal decay of a culture that resists interaction with the outside world. Yojimbo ‘imports’ the American story into a Japanese environment to critically comment on the misguided Americanization of Japanese culture while embracing an astute integration of Western values, thereby employing cultural mobility for what O’Thomas calls ‘a calling into question of the Same […] [in] the encounter with the other’ (57). A Fistful of Dollars essentially performs Greenblatt’s conclusive argument about the dismantling of any cultural fixity (16) by having the stranger and the story empty seemingly culture-specific icons of their original meanings. The resulting cancelation of cultural specificity is then demonstrated by the final adaptation of Last Man Standing, which by bringing the story ‘home’ simultaneously enters a cultural no man’s land of bound(ary)less pastiche. Therefore, not only does the very nature of the core story lend itself to crosscultural adaptations because of its narrative of infiltration and annihilation of a corrupt culture by a cultural outsider, by looking at the journey of the core story through different cultures we can also appreciate an argument about the nature of crosscultural adaptation as therapeutically dismantling any notion of an original core of fixed meaning or identity of a culture and fostering the free circulation of cultural expressions as the adaptive principle that characterizes any culture as an interactive process rather than a isolated condition. ‘CORKSCREW’ Nominally, a detective story featuring Hammett’s recurrent protagonist, the nameless Continental Op of the Pinkerton detective agency, ‘Corkscrew’ equally partakes in the American Western tradition. The setting is a small Arizona desert town near the Mexican border. The Continental Op is the ambivalent stranger who comes to town in order to help along with the civilizing process by taming the ‘wild’ forces in and outside town by means of what Richard Slotkin has termed ‘regenerative violence’ (233). The villains in this constellation fall into two factions. Bardell owns a saloon as a front for an illegal immigration racket he operates together with Big Nacio, in which they regularly run ‘hard-looking gang[s] of cutthroats’ speaking a ‘medley of languages’ (Hammett 1989, 284) across the border. So their criminal activities are directly expressive of anxieties over a cultural mobility which disturbs the cultural and linguistic integrity of their community and are additionally characterized by opportunistic deception in entertaining the façade of a legal business. Thompson points out how ‘deception as a way of life’ is a central feature of the criminal worlds that Hammett constructs (28), which some scholars have made out as indicative of a greater epistemological uncertainty as the relations between signs and meaning are irredeemably skewed and produce ‘a zone of cognitive indeterminacy’ (Malmgren 375). The other villain Peery is a rancher involved in territorial disputes with Bardell, has ‘toughened up’ in the process, and embraces ruthless lynch law in combatting Bardell, by which he more classically represents a pre-civilizational wildness. This stance makes him also representative for Hammett’s depiction of the criminal world: ‘It is a world of universal warfare, the war of each against all, and of all against all’. (Marcus 326). If these are the villains, then the ‘good people’ of Corkscrew do not necessarily constitute the ideal of civilization. Represented by a reverend and a ‘false-toothed, sour-faced’ schoolteacher, they spew biblical anger, and advocate a strike against the ‘foul odor’ of sin and ‘low moral standards’ (255–6). Their evangelical fundamentalism bespeaks hypocrisy and intolerance, directed not just against the obvious criminals but everyone who does not adhere to superficial propriety. Both extremes are portrayed as corrupt conditions of humanity, and this is where the Continental Op comes in. The ambivalence of the Op, whose motives veer between a pragmatic work ethic (Thompson 29, 39, Marcus 328), a code and conscience bespeaking empathy and respect (Thompson 44, Marcus 327), a cynical, punitive attitude bordering on fascist misanthropy (Zumoff 2012, 92), and irrational fury fueled by personal revenge (Thompson 45–6), has been pointed out by many scholars. In the story, he is hired by the Orilla Colony Company to clean Corkscrew of lawlessness so as to attract customers who will settle on the land. Rather than presenting capitalist enterprise as the motor behind civilizational progress, however, the story aligns the Company with the kind of deceptive strategy of Bardell, as its interests are clearly identified as rooted in greed while pretending a ‘front’ of social care. In this way, crime is presented not as aberration but as representative of capitalism, whose endorsement of competitive greed spawns exactly the kind of deception and Hobbesian hostility that characterizes crime (Porter 416, Marcus 326). The Op maintains a resentful and cynical attitude toward his employer while remaining committed to the job (cf. Thompson 39, Panek 79, Pepper 336). Rather than representing the hypocrisies of capitalism, he strikes an uneasy alliance with it and cultivates professionalism in itself as a value (cf. Marcus 328). Not only does he distance himself from the capital enterprise he works for but also from the townspeople when he is ‘hoping to get away without much more talk’ after enduring their intolerant and intolerable slander of ‘petty misdemeanors’ (256). The radical individualism and professionalism of the Op is, however, not without a human component. His commitment to civilizing the town is expressed in his sympathy for the scrappy outcasts and victims of the ‘good people’ and the villains alike (cf. Panek 124). He hires the young Milk River as a deputy assistant, who has his own grievances with his former employer Peery, and he develops sympathy for Milk River’s girlfriend Clio, the melancholic hooker with a heart of gold. By saving the outsider couple the Op evinces the kind of tolerance and empathy that criminal, capitalist, and other civilizational institutions lack. The individual is shown to make ethical decisions by value of and not despite his independence from them. And yet, surrounded by ubiquitous corruption, the attitude of the Op carries an air of Sisyphusian cynicism, a doubt over the lasting effect of his actions (succinctly captured in the recurrent action of wiping the white grimy dust away that settles on everything in Corkscrew), which is countered by the stability that professionalism provides. If these ethical values set the Op apart from the rest, his methods are decidedly similar to those of the villains as he does not shy away from courting and using drastic violence to achieve his ends. The plot is set in motion when Slim, one of Peery’s men is found shot dead in the streets after a poker game with one of Bardell’s associates, the gambler Nisbet. As it turns out at the end of the story, Slim was killed by store owner Toad over not paying $1.10 for some food he bought there. This arrangement is typical for Hammett. The catalyst crime does not involve the designated villains of the story, it is a foil crime in a sense, in that it accentuates the enormity of corruption that is uncovered by it. Moreover, it suggests, in a disturbingly coherent fashion, that it takes a crime to uncover and combat a greater, systemic corruption, mirroring in essence the moral implications of the Op’s actions. The death of Slim is used by the villains (and eventually by the Op) to further their own ends. More particularly, Peery suspects Nisbet of having committed the murder and wants to hang him, thereby using the murder to make a move against Bardell. Even more perfidiously, Bardell has Nisbet killed and a rope planted near the scene so as to set up the Op against Peery only to strike at both with the help of Nacio and his men at the opportune time. He manipulates the clues to foster an interpretation that skews the playing field in his favor. And this is where the Op essentially copies Bardell by showing a superior manipulative and interpretive skill. Instead of arresting Peery he warns him of the threat to come and bides his time. He evens the playing field. As Milk River puts it: ‘A hombre might guess […] that you was playing the Circle H.A.R. against Bardell’s crew, encouraging each side to eat up the other and save you the trouble of making any strong play of your own’ (273). Instead of confronting evil head on, the Op sets it up to destroy itself. He is, in the oft repeated phrase ‘stirring things up’ (Thompson 50), creating chaos so that order can emerge. This chaos is frightening not only for its implications of uncontrollable escalation threatening to consume the town that is supposed to be saved but also for its implication of the moral culpability of the element sent to uphold moral standards, the Op. This threat and lure of moral breakdown is readily explored in the story. The Op props up corpses as if they are alive in the aftermath of the battle between Nacio’s and Peery’s men to gain an advantage on the arriving Nacio, which results in his death at the hands of Peery, and Peery’s death at the hands of Milk River, all in moments of opportune vengefulness (and self-defense). Later the Op tortures one of Bardell’s men by withholding drugs so that he confesses Bardell’s involvement in everything, which results in Bardell’s death at the hands of the Op in a moment of self-defense (and opportune vengefulness). Panek argues that ‘the Op doesn’t engage in gratuitous violence’ but simply provides the ‘push that propels evil to destroy itself’ (118). As these moments in the story show, however, if the violence is not gratuitous, it is far from morally sound. The regenerative quality of the Op’s instigated violence is confirmed by the couple’s and the town’s survival, cleaned up and tamed in line with Western mythology, but it is severely qualified by the Op’s methodological ruthlessness, barely controlled escalation, and the suggested hostility of the ‘good people’ who are now in charge, which prompts the Op to recommend to Milk River and Clio to leave for the city. The methods and skills of the Op are not just notable for their similarity to crime, they also evince, on a more abstract level, a similarity to those of a writer (cf. Thompson 16, Malmgren 380–1, Marcus 323–4). There are numerous instances in the story in which the Op is engaged in ‘reading’ his environment, in the sense of reestablishing the skewed relations between surface appearances and what they convey, be they characters or crime scenes. Regaining control over ‘epistemological uncertainty’ is the domain of detective and writer alike, both becoming agents of ordering and explaining a chaotic world. On the level of writing, the Op’s use of language as a narrator and as a character is notable for the laconic figurativeness with which he captures the world (for example when he speaks of guns ‘blossom[ing]’ in the hands of people (265) or describes the car ‘boiling like a coffeepot’ (247)). His use of tropes like simile and metaphor both illustrates the awareness of skewed relations between sign and signified and appropriates this rift for purposes of visual clarity amidst disorder, just as he plots against his enemies to achieve order. As Marcus puts it, ‘the work of the detective is itself a fiction-making activity, a discovery or creation by fabrication of something new in the world, or hidden, latent, potential or as yet undeveloped within it’ (323). The detective work of the Op is thus a metaphor for the writing work of Hammett himself, who not only understands this chaotic world but can uncover truth by paradoxically constructing fiction. In the story, the creation of order entails the establishment of epistemological certainty and the curtailment of cultural mobility, but it already illustrates how the integrity of a hermetic culture can breed its own corruption of hypocrisy, intolerance, and deception. RED HARVEST Panek recognizes ‘Corkscrew’ (and to a lesser extent the earlier story ‘Nightmare Town’) as the template for Hammett’s first novel Red Harvest, first published in installments in 1928 and 1929 (123). Reading Red Harvest as an adaptation of ‘Corkscrew’ reveals mutually enlightening parallels and differences which highlight a venture into more cynical territory, dismantling and subverting the basic implications of an American myth of civilizational renewal and regenerative violence that were still present in ‘Corkscrew’s’ already subversive treatment of it. Inverting the implications of ‘Corkscrew’ in terms of cultural mobility, the text suggests that the very lack of it in a hermetic culture guarding its own boundaries and internal structures leads to a state of decadent corruption that require a purge from outside forces. But even this punitive infiltration only yields limited success and eventually leaves the town in a state of fossilized decay, the only option being retreat. No longer are we dealing with a small town in a desert where civilization has not yet fully arrived, but with an industrial town where capitalism is firmly established and its corruptions have created the mess. The representative character of the place (Thompson speaks of an allegorical America, 27) is captured by its name: Personville, memorably pronounced ‘Poisonville’ in East coast parlance, whereby its all-Americanness is connected to its state of corruption. The Hobbesian world of warring factions is not only more populated and chaotic, with at least five gangs fighting over territorial control, it is also more directly linked to the effects of unfettered market liberalism (cf. Pepper 340). Elihu Wilsson is the boss of the dominant mining company in the town, and in an effort to squash the burgeoning labor movement among his workers he brings in assorted thugs who stay on and emancipate themselves from their employer after they have brought the union struggle to its knees. The chaos is thus a direct result of a capitalist powerplay gone awry. Where in ‘Corkscrew’, big business evinced an interest, however hypocritically, to instate peace and quiet, Red Harvest illustrates that chaos is the state that big business creates in its efforts to secure power by curbing the agency of its workers in dictatorial fashion. If big business is the villain in the story, its victims and adversaries are not necessarily portrayed heroically or even favorably. The union leader Bill Quint and police chief Noonan are either weak or corrupt, caring more for personal interests and benefits than for the principles of their respective jobs. Newspaper man Don Wilsson, son of Elihu and friend of the Op, returned from Europe and wrote muckraking pieces on his father’s criminal activities when he was killed (in another reversal of American mythology progressivism is associated with the ‘Old Country’). The world of Personville is thus one in which the American myth of progress and renewal has turned into its opposite in that children die so that aging fathers can continue to cling to power. The ‘soft’, internal reform that the media and the unions represent has failed, radical external measures are necessary, and this is where the Op comes in. The Op solves the case of his friend’s murder swiftly and without any institutional mandate or sanction, and the designated villain has little to do with it directly. Don was killed out of jealousy, and in fact, the various further prominent murders that happen in the course of the story can all be said to be crimes of passion connected to frustrated romantic desires for Dinah Brand. On the one hand, these crimes are once again foils and catalysts for the greater corruptions that they uncover. However, they also reflect a more general motivation that informs all the criminal energy of the town, its poison if you will. The men’s desire to possess Dinah, who eludes them again and again in order to maintain an independence and agency within a male-dominated world, is symptomatic of their greed for the unattainable and its according lack of fulfillment the motor for compensatory violence and the satisfaction of hurt, ‘incomplete’ egos. The relationship between capitalist interests and the Op’s activities are even more pointed than in ‘Corkscrew’. After the initial case is solved, Elihu hires the Op to keep the peace, but the Op emancipates himself from his employer in the following terms: ‘I’ll give you nothing except a good job of city-cleaning. That’s what you bargained for, and that’s what you’re going to get’ (43). Where in ‘Corkscrew’ villain and client were split between Bardell and the Orilla Colony Company, albeit with implied parallels, in Red Harvest they are one and the same. Elihu is both the cause of chaos and the employer paying for its removal. This constellation ‘turns the screw’, as it were, as it emphasizes the Op’s ambivalent status, being effectively the agent of a criminal while trying to combat crime. This ambivalence also receives a more pronounced illustration when it comes to the Op’s methods. ‘Stirring things up’ (57) produces a kind of moral and constellational chaos that he is in danger of losing his grip of, as his actions not only result in unnecessary victims, but also make himself vulnerable to victimization. He expresses this danger explicitly: ‘It’s this damned town. Poisonville is right. It’s poisoned me’ (104). What the book dramatizes is the precarious state of the individual emancipated from institutional ethics and surrendering an independently chosen ethical standard expressed in dispassionate professionalism to destructive, egotistical impulses of unchecked aggression, sadism, and vengefulness. In this way, Poisonville indeed becomes a critical metaphor for America, a country that prides itself on the absence of institutional restrictions in favor of individual enterprise, which is brought to its logical conclusion in the nonstate of Hobbesian anarchy. The loss of agency that such an environment entails is specifically captured by the Op’s involvement in the death of Dinah Brand, whom he kills accidentally in a drug-induced stupor set up by others. Instead of saving the girl as in ‘Corkscrew’, the Op kills her. Granted, Dinah is a much more complex and worldly character than the ingénue Clio, but her ‘brand’ of survival, collecting incriminating information about every man she interacts with so as to maintain a position of power, is not just undeserving of death at the hands of ‘the law’, it is also deeply ironic, because her actions constitute in effect the law’s best weapon, the value of truth, in keeping crime under control. Where the purge of Corkscrew is complete and effective, Red Harvest ends with the client and villain as the last man standing. Elihu Wilsson gets what he paid for, the sole power over Personville and the eradication of his enemies. The Op grants him power, but power under control. He blackmails Wilsson into suspending the local police and government and call in the National Guard to help clean up the town by threatening him with the publication of Dinah Brand’s incriminating information in the press. The return to the status quo ante of dictatorial capitalism goes counter to the promise of renewal and progress that ‘Corkscrew’ still seemed to trade in. Heise argues that the book shows how the radical reform and the drastic measures of the law that the Op’s methods represent only benefit the capitalist, all the while ‘policing working-class leisure and crushing industrial labor action’ (490). The Leviathan of the state that Hobbes envisions as the means to control anarchy is shown to bolster existing hierarchies and ‘safeguard the interests of particular elites’ (Pepper 348, cf. also Zumoff 2007, 130; Zumoff 2012, 92) and certainly does little to encourage the kind of ethical individualism that emerged in ‘Corkscrew’. Yet, Red Harvest does not vindicate the forces of industrial capitalism that emerge victorious from its narrative. Rather, the news that it brings to its reader is the extent to which industrial capitalism is undergirded by the law’s organized and systematic repression of the activities of working-class production and consumption. […] In disclosing this truth, Red Harvest erases the distinction between law and criminality that was vital to the legitimization of the moralistic bourgeois sociology of the 1920s and 1930s and that continues to be vital to the bourgeois accumulation that the law seeks to advance (Heise 507). So the novel does not champion a certain cause, it merely dismantles an existing mythology. It replaces progressivism with circularity, regeneration with persistent corruption, shows the limitations of law, collectivity, state institutions, and individual ethics. Even the writerly value of truth that the ending suggests, the detective’s accumulation of knowledge by reading his environment, his reestablishment of epistemological certainty, which is moreover directly connected to the medium of the press, is merely a threat, a potentiality, not an actuality. The writer/detective may hold the key to truth, but order appears to require deception, with chaos looming as a potential result of truth. A tenuous balance based on threat is the best we can hope for to stave off the chaos. So the detective/writer retreats from a hopelessly corrupt, hermetic culture in which law and crime coalesce and the individual is poisoned by his environment, and this is where cultural mobility comes in. YOJIMBO A lot of scholars have pointed out Kurosawa’s status as a ‘Western’ director within a traditionally hermetic Japanese film culture, not just on the basis of his adaptations of Western literature (ranging from Shakespeare to Ed McBain), but also more generally by specifying how his works, by his own admission, are influenced by a Western film style and Western values, particularly a valuation of the individual who maintains an integrity outside of potentially oppressive social structures (Prince 12–3, 17; Desser 6–7, 57–9; Hallermayer 120–4). As Prince writes, ‘Through his cinema, Kurosawa has attempted to establish the autonomous self as a positive value, but to do this he had to construct a model that was counter to dominant cultural practices. […] in this context [of the Allied Occupation], Western individualism furnished an ideological example’ (28–9). The Allied Occupation after the defeat in World War II was of course a tremendous turning point in Japanese history with wide-ranging consequences for its culture. Prince points out how a skepticism and tentativeness over Western influence and modernization has been a feature throughout Japan’s history, most recently before WWII in the transition from the Shogunate Tokugawa period to the Meiji restoration in the 1860s, the setting for Yojimbo (22; cf. Hallermayer 162–3, 170). The Occupation forced Westernization onto Japan, creating a particularly pointed ‘anxiety about whether Japan would cease to be Japan’ (Prince 22). The past of feudalist and self-sacrificial nationalism had been exposed as self-destructive and was forcibly abandoned, while the turn toward free market capitalism brought prosperity but also conservative fears of a ‘decadence’ manifested in organized crime and ‘un-Japanese’ hedonism. Yojimbo is not only a particularly poignant manifestation of this ambivalence, serving as a critique of Westernized Japan at the same time as it embraces Western individualism and rejects a feudal past, but also a commentary on Kurosawa himself who, as an artist/director, positions himself simultaneously as an agent of cultural mobility and as its analyst and guide. Yojimbo’s status as an adaptation of Red Harvest is generally recognized (Richie 150, Desser 101–2, Glaubitz 139, Hutchinson 175, Martinez 141–2, Nowell-Smith/Sullivan 80). While Yojimbo follows the basic structure of the plot of Red Harvest (and in fact even more closely the plot of ‘Corkscrew’), it differs considerably in the details. Regarding the sameness of source and adaptation, it is important to establish that Yojimbo adapts an American work that is critical of America and its mythologies. Both ‘Corkscrew’ and Red Harvest call into question the civilizational progress of capitalist enterprise that the country’s mainstream culture promotes. The critical stance that these works take toward the culture they are a part of is transplanted into a Japanese context by Kurosawa. This cultural mobility can be likened to the kind of invasion that takes place in the plot itself. In this reading, the text itself becomes the self-critical American outsider that enters a Japanese environment corrupted by a wrongheaded American influence in order to expose its deficiencies and ideally purge them. The text of ‘Corkscrew’/Red Harvest, thus, to state it slightly differently, not only functions as an exposé of the kind of corruption that Japan has experienced, but also, by exposing these corruptions, as a critique and correction regarding how this American influence can be channeled in more constructive ways. But not only the text can be likened to the outsider protagonist, also Kurosawa, who, as Japan’s ‘Western’ director, displays his knowledge of American culture in adapting the text not as a deficiency but as an asset in managing cultural mobility. There is thus a convergence of text, protagonist, and director, all of which become infiltrators of a culture corrupted by a misguided cultural mobility and proponents of a managed, ‘savvy’ cultural mobility as a solution. As already pointed out, Yojimbo takes place at the end of the Tokugawa period, just before the Meiji restoration, which tentatively opened up Japan to the West, a time of social upheaval, which metaphorically reflects the post-WWII situation in Japan. The film is often read as a satire of Western-style capitalism and its corrupting effects on society. It certainly connects corruption to the breakdown of established structures and the effects of capitalism, but it crucially does not indulge in nostalgia for bygone times or espouse conservative ideas, as some critics suggest (Richie 148–9, Prince 222, Desser 98, McDonald 189, Hallermeyer 213). The character of the innkeeper at one point in the film says that things used to be better when there was just one ruler in town, suggesting a preference for a feudal system, but the film undermines these very ideas. It does so in depicting the lot of three families within the present situation (cf. Martinez 144–6). We encounter the first family just outside the town, a poor farmer’s family, which laments their son’s departure on the grounds of his discontent with a life of eating gruel. He sees an opportunity of making it big by joining the gangsters ruling the town and resents the stoic humility of his parents. While this constellation provides a critical commentary on a perverted version of the American Dream, where selfish greed for social advancement without ‘honest work’ destroys family coherence and ‘filial piety’ (McDonald 189; Hallermeyer 176), it also provides an explanation for why traditional structures are crumbling in the first place. The meekness of the parents is almost comical in its stern and self-delusional acceptance of a low and unrewarding existence. The protagonist Sanjuro will tear the son from the clutches of crime at the end of the film and send him back to a life of eating gruel, suggesting not a triumph of family values but a similar kind of hopeless cyclicity that marks the end of Red Harvest. The second family is one of the crime families in town, the Seibei family, to whom Sanjuro offers his services as a bodyguard. Seibei used to rule the town in undisputed fashion, with Ushitora as his right hand man, but when he tried to install his weak son as his successor, Ushitora rebelled and formed his own syndicate, with the town in disarray as a result of hostilities between the two factions since then. Seibei’s plans thus mirror a feudal system of biological succession, and its deficiencies are exposed by pointing out the son’s incompetence, whereas Ushitora’s claim to power is just as destabilizing in creating a situation of competition, which is the essential state of free market capitalism. So a system of incompetent leadership (traditional Japanese feudalism) is replaced by one of open conflict (American style capitalism), both of which are destructive of social values. The pervasive greed that marks capitalism is apparent among the family members themselves. The meekness of the farmer’s wife finds its counterpart in the scheming deceptiveness of Seibei’s wife, who wants to cheat Sanjuro out of his money and who sees her son as nothing more than a trade asset. When the Seibei son is kidnapped by the Ushitora clan, he is traded for Ushitora’s mistress in a hostage exchange. In fact, we get to see a hostage exchange twice in short succession in the film, suggesting, along with the rampant prostitution in town, the reduction of people to mere commodities within capitalism and the perversion of interpersonal relationships into a myriad of exploitation (cf. Prince 228) and of families into ‘economic conglomerates’ (Desser 100; cf. also Richie 148). The victimization of people under such a system is expressed via the third family. Ushitora’s mistress came into captivity when her husband had to pay gambling debts and she sacrificed herself in order to protect her family, which also includes a young son. This self-sacrificial stance mirrors the farmer’s wife meekness in its opposition to the pervasive selfishness of society, a stance that is as incongruently virtuous as it is rigorously subjected to abuse (cf. Martinez 144–5). As in ‘Corkscrew’ and Red Harvest, the film emphasizes the hypocrisy of capitalism, its construction of surface respectability behind which corruption and greed flourish. This is conveyed visually in the film by its compositional use of frames and screen doors, behind which suspicious people lurk or are being spied on, enemies emerge or hide. Seibei and Ushitora both have their own fronts, the silk merchant Takuemon and the sake merchant Tazaemon respectively, who orchestrate the criminal activities from comfortable positions of silent partnership. And behind the veneer of an elaborate tea ceremony on display for all to see, a visiting Edo police official is bribed, suggesting the perversion of traditional rituals (cf. McDonald 192). The signs of cultural integrity are emptied of meaning, meant to blind people with suggestions of tradition while merely allowing corruption to flourish undisturbed. A conclusive point about the corruption of the society is the sadistic enjoyment of violence. This aspect is particularly associated with Ushitora’s brother Unosuke, who sports a six-gun revolver bought from a Western merchant in an explicit reference to the corrupting influence of Western culture. The gun is, of course, also an icon of the Western, and Unosuke’s impish delight in intimidating and torturing others a cynical commentary on the cult of violence inherent in the American genre par excellence. Unosuke, and the yakuza class he represents (cf. Martinez 146), is therefore a product of cultural mobility at its worst: technologically advanced and equipped with cocky sadism. The protagonist of the film, who goes by the name of Sanjuro, is simultaneously a product of this world in turmoil as a masterless samurai, a ronin, free from obligations to a lord, on the other hand by the same virtue an outsider, uncorrupted by clan allegiances and hypocrisy. This is a crucial difference to the Continental Op, who is not only an agent of a system but also bound by a however independent sense of professional dedication to a job. In contrast, Sanjuro seems to act initially purely out of whimsy and self-gratification. He gets himself paid by Seibei only to abandon his job before he even started it (albeit after overhearing that he will be set up for betrayal) and joyfully surveys the two sides set up against each other. His motivation at this point seems to suggest combatting boredom via sadistic glee, but it does take a more determined turn after seeing the elaborate bribe of the Edo police official and getting the confirmation of a systemic corruption at work. At that stage, Sanjuro makes the plan of cleansing the town by setting the two clans against each other, destroying what cannot be saved by bringing the corruption out in the open. This plan clearly mirrors the Continental Op. It also ties in effectively with the notion of Sanjuro reflecting Kurosawa himself. Just as Sanjuro is made free by the breakdown of traditions and sets out to uncover the corruption of a society hypocritically hiding behind the pretense of traditions, so Kurosawa, freely and honestly embracing the awareness of Western influence and thereby also critically reflecting it, sets out to unmask the hypocrisies of a society indulging in Western corruption but denying its pervasiveness by projecting it onto him. But there is also a clear difference to the Continental Op. The Op enters Personville as a principled professional who becomes successively poisoned by the climate of selfishness, sadism, and greed. In Yojimbo, the dynamic is reversed. Sanjuro enters the town being selfish and greedy, but within the climate of corruption appears to acquire a sense of moral obligation and selflessness (cf. Richie 150, Desser 104). This is a crucial change, as it points to the ability of the individual to set himself apart from the corruption that surrounds him, to develop a sense of ethics that is moral precisely by the virtue of detachment from the corrupting influence of the society surrounding him (cf. Nowell-Smith/Sullivan 85–8, McDonald 192, 196). The turn toward selfless and altruistic action is catalyzed by witnessing the lot of the third family. Sanjuro’s efforts of reuniting and saving the family are less concerned with the value of the family per se (of which we hardly learn anything), but with the display of empathy and self-sacrifice. Ushitora and his men torture him almost to death when they find out what he did. The figurative death signifies the individual’s ability to subjugate the self to a higher value. The ego needs to die to be reborn as a savior of others. Prince and others suggest that Sanjuro’s figurative death and resurrection, underlined by his escape from his torturers in a coffin-like cask and subsequent recovery in a cemetery along with his ghostly appearance, emphasize the wish-fulfillment fantasy of vanquishing capitalism by the samurai class, whose cult of the sword in actuality obviously succumbed to the mercilessness of technological progress iconized by the gun (Prince 223, 231, Richie 151). Sanjuro’s triumph over Unosuke in the showdown by throwing the knife in his gun hand is as incongruent with historical reality as it is satisfying. While this may be an attractive reading, there is certainly no nostalgia in this triumph and there may also be more significance to it than mere fantasy. The ending is decidedly apocalyptic, the town reduced to shambles after the two clans have raided and destroyed each other, evoking a Cold War escalation of mutually assured destruction and a post-nuclear wasteland. Takuemon and Tazaemon madly kill each other in the rubble of their former possessions. Where ‘Corkscrew’ suggested an initiation of a civilizing process and Red Harvest a cyclical continuation of corruption, Yojimbo presents apocalypse as solution. This of course has an eerie resonance given Japan’s recent past, with the nuclear holocaust of Hiroshima and Nagasaki indeed heralding a cleansing of sorts, a new beginning in a post-apocalyptic world. Sanjuro’s triumph over Unosuke can in this context be understood not so much as samurai tradition vanquishing Western technology but as reflected Western-influenced individualism trumping unreflected Western corruption, as hypocritical traditionalists destroy each other. As the old lies in ruins, the individual moves on, not looking back but forward. One final aspect about the individual needs to be pointed out. Just as Hammett invests the Continental Op with writerly qualities in his ability to read his environment and ‘write’ the scenario for his triumph over evil, so Kurosawa emphasizes ‘directorly’ qualities of Sanjuro. Critics have pointed out how the film uses frames within the frame to illustrate the perceptive view of Sanjuro, much like a director frames a picture to tell a story, how Sanjuro stages confrontations to watch them from a quasi-director’s chair above the action, and how he arranges the ‘set’ of his escape to divert attention (Glaubitz 150–3, Prince 224, 226, 232). Kurosawa thus finds equivalences to the Op’s writerly qualities by devising activities for Sanjuro that comprise seeing, staging, and arranging/blocking. Just as in Hammett’s case this incorporation essentially emphasizes a self-reflexive individualism, in which Kurosawa as a director, moreover a ‘Western’ director, possesses the faculties of recognizing and critically assessing the state of the world (in particular Westernized Japanese society) and dealing with the reality of cultural mobility by exerting control over the arrangement of the world, highlighting how cultural mobility is embraced when reflected and understood as a basis for altruism and moral action, but rejected and combatted when hypocritically serving to foster corruption and selfishness. A FISTFUL OF DOLLARS Sergio Leone’s debt to Yojimbo, which led to a lengthy legal battle that granted Kurosawa a sizable percentage of the film’s profits, and his awareness of Hammett as a source (as well as the less convincing argument about the common Italian source for all texts: Goldoni’s The Servant of Two Masters from 1746) are well established and documented (cf. Brizio-Skov 142, 144, 147; Hutchinson 174; Nowell-Smith/Sullivan 80; Frayling 2000, 14; Frayling 1981 147, 150; Hallermeyer 168–9, 292). As Kurosawa, Leone can be seen (and has been regarded) as a critic of Westernization under global capitalism at the same time as he embraces US popular culture as a medium to express criticism. But where Kurosawa appears to favor a guarded approach to cultural mobility and negotiates its anxieties, Leone’s take fully dismantles cultural boundaries and champions a free circulation of cultural signs, showing that these carry no essential meanings but acquire their meaning in a recombination and recontextualization with each other. In this way, the film expresses Greenblatt’s argument that interactive mobility rather than hermetic identity is the central feature of culture. Once again, the protagonist becomes the agent and representative of the cultural process that the film itself demonstrates, by which he also parallels the work of the director. At this stage, this process of infiltration and cleansing (of a town, of a cultural/aesthetic context) expresses not a managed cultural mobility but a cancelation of cultural stability and essentialism, emptying the seemingly culturally specific sign of meaning and leaving the cypher as a blank screen onto which meaning is deceptively projected. One can make the argument that Leone brings the story ‘home’, but not quite. He adapts the ‘original’ story via the Japanese adaptation to the American genre of the Western, as an Italian. With this intersectionality of cultures, it is already dubious to speak of ‘bringing the story home’, which is even further complicated when we consider that the film takes place entirely in Mexico. Still, by turning the story into a Western, it approaches the scenario of ‘Corkscrew’, but it dismantles that story’s already unstable notion of civilizational advancement. The hero may save another family, but as in Yojimbo and as opposed to ‘Corkscrew’ there is no town left anymore at the end in which civilization could flourish. There is no regenerative effect to the violence. The individual does not self-sacrificially ensure the survival of civilization against the wilderness, he eradicates civilization and with it its inherent corruptions of greed and deception only to survive alone and independent from social contexts. On that note, the film pushes the implications of Hammett’s stories further. Where the gangster genre suggests a corruption of capitalist America as a modern 20th-century phenomenon, the transplantation of the same story into a Western scenario suggests corruption not as aberration but as a condition inherent in the (mythological) inception of the country. The hero participates in this world, his moral actions of saving the family not suggesting a change of character but ultimately contributing to a rigorous persistence in an obscure, self-contained motivation. The other representatives of civilization are ‘amputated’ families, the widow-led Baxters, and the all-male Rojos suggesting a barren fertility, which is brought to conclusion with the eradication of the population at the end of the film, bar the coffinmaker and innkeeper, the one overrun with customers who cannot pay anymore, the other out of them for good, which not only spells out the effective death of capitalism (as a result of turning death into a business in the first place) but also the death of the mythology of the Western: the civilizing process has killed civilization, just as the film has emptied the genre’s mythological narrative of meaning. The transplantation of the story into the Western genre brings with it the theme of the frontier. The film takes place on the Mexican side of a border region whereby it reverses the situation of ‘Corkscrew’ and to an extent also its implications. Where in ‘Corkscrew’ the crime consists in border crossings into the States and the task of the hero is to secure the stability of (cultural) borders, in Fistful of Dollars it is the Americans who cross over into Mexico. The Anglo Baxters conduct an illegal arms and alcohol business on the Mexican side of the border where they can get hold of the goods for cheap and sell them for profit in the States (mostly to Indians) via illegal importation. Hence, the crime consists in the imperialist capitalist endeavor of the States (which was still rendered as the basis for civilization in ‘Corkscrew’) and the interaction with the frontier is not one of renewal but one of plain exploitation. In the context of postwar Europe of course, this depiction of American expansion has, just like in Yojimbo, overtones of a Marxist criticism of globalized capitalism. The Baxters’ rivals, the local Rojos, basically use the same strategy, only more perfidiously. The main villain, Ramon, is introduced when he comes riding across the Rio Grande into Mexico with his troop of men disguised as American soldiers where a Mexican army detachment is waiting for them to buy their weapons. Ramon mows them down with a Gatling gun and steals their gold. There are at least two noteworthy implications of this scene. First, the greater state apparatus on both sides of the border seems to be just as corrupt as the bandits. Arms deals between two armies appear to be a regular occurrence and testify to the corruptions of global capitalism as an endemic state. Rather than a frontier between civilization and wilderness, the border becomes the site of clandestine capitalist enterprise conducted in secrecy so as to hide personal enrichment beneath the veneer of officialdom. The mismatch between respectable front and criminal behavior thus characterizes the very guardians of cultural difference, the uniformed representatives of the different states, so that this very difference is exposed not only as a sham, the border as an artificial and arbitrary demarcation, but as an instigator for crime’s hypocrisy. Second, given Ramon’s actions, the frontier becomes the site of shifting and fluid identities, disguises that mark deceptive allegiances only to hide the desire for personal gain (cf. Hutchinson 184–5). Ramon’s assumption of an American uniform to massacre Mexican soldiers is as evocative a commentary on the deceptive and exploitative nature of American trade strategies as it is simultaneously an act of cancelation, emptying the sign of the uniform of its original meaning, using signification as deception, and this shiftiness of the sign brings me to the further implications of the film’s treatment of cultural mobility. Numerous scholars have pointed out how the film ‘Italianizes’ the story in diverse ways in the process of adaptation. Leone himself suggested that the film communicated ‘the disillusionment he and many Italians felt when the Americans who came to liberate them from Fascism in 1943–4 turned out not to be the comic-book heroes of legend’ (Nowell-Smith/Sullivan 84; cf. Hallermeyer 128, 300). In this reading, the hero takes the role of the American liberator who vanquishes the blonde invaders from the North (the Baxters assuming a German role) and the local bandits (the Rojos as Italian fascists), but his ‘liberation’ turns out to be almost a carbon copy of the personal enrichment experienced before and it essentially leaves a tabula rasa after he has reaped all the profits. Landy (41–2), Celli (passim), and Hunter (70, 75, 77) argue for an even more ‘local’ reading of the film. In their readings, the film evokes the North/South divide within Italy in the conflict between the ‘Northern’ Baxters and the ‘Southern’ Rojos. In this context, the Western becomes the genre signifying a Westernized Italy after World War II whose conflicted assumption of US capitalism is expressed in the Northern attempt to dominate the South economically and politically, the Baxters also claiming ‘the law’ in the icon of the sheriff star, while the South emerges as the corrupt promise of revolutionary resistance in a flirtation with communism (Rojos = the Reds) that turns out to be just as violent (the ‘terrorist’-like raid of the Mexican army as a Red Brigade assault) and profit driven as the thing it pretends to combat. As Landy suggests, this relocalization of the Western as expressive of non-American (but ‘Americanized’) cultures is significant in that it releases the genre of its cultural specificity (45–6), or, to put it more provocatively, the film empties the genre of its vested spectrum of meaning by expanding its signifying potential. The icons of the genre are no longer bound to its ‘original’ cultural context, but become freely floating signifiers that are filled with diverse meanings in diverse cultural contexts, thereby indicating the mobility of culture as such. Nowhere is this more apparent than in the film’s use of Catholic iconography. Frayling suggests that in the film ‘the iconography of Catholicism is superimposed on the iconography of the popular Western’ (1981, 189; cf. also Martinez 148–9; Hallermeyer 138–40, 353–64) with the result that both cancel each other out or are ‘profaned’, ironized. The sheriff star and the soldier uniform are exposed as ‘empty symbols of authority’ (187), while Catholic icons such as the church and the cemetery become associated with ‘greed, self-seeking and neo-feudalism’ (189, cf. also 191). The most poignant use of Catholic iconography in this respect are the diverse references to Christ and the holy family. The most explicit reference is the family that the stranger saves, consisting of Marisol, Julian, and little Jesus. In this constellation the stranger takes the role of the angel Gabriel as per Leone’s own suggestion (Frayling 1981, 183). But the stranger himself is depicted with Christian overtones as well. He arrives on a donkey, ‘resurrects’ the dead when he arranges the dead soldiers on the cemetery so as to provoke open conflict between the two families (which is also a direct link to ‘Corkscrew’), has his hands stigmatically broken when tortured almost to death, and spends three days in a cave only to rise from the dead and punish the evil. Additionally, there is a final supper when the stranger dines with the Rojos before he betrays them to liberate Marisol from captivity (Frayling 1981, 183). In this constellation, Ramon takes the role of Christ. If this multiple evocation sounds contradictory to the point of heresy (after all what kind of Jesus figure is a selfish, greedy killer?), then this is precisely the point. By investing the iconography of Christ with contradictory meanings and incarnations, it is consequently emptied of meaning and becomes another free-floating signifier. The hero is the epitome of what the film does to (cultural) signification. He is very much a cypher. Compared to the prior movie and texts, his motivation is much more obscure, even cryptic, when he tells Marisol upon her question why he is helping them that he ‘knew someone like you once. There was no one there to help’. Even more significant (or precisely without signification) is his visual appearance. His poncho is pure front, the surface that deceives by signifying nothing. In fact, the poncho becomes on numerous occasions the blank slate onto which the characters he interacts with project their own idea of him, such as when he confronts the Baxters at the beginning of the film. The arrogance and disdain they show toward him is ‘coming around’ to them once the poncho is drawn to the side and a gun emerges to punish them. Protagonist and poncho thus reflect back what is projected onto them while retaining a fundamental ‘meaninglessness’ in themselves. The showdown is particularly significant in this respect. In Yojimbo, Sanjuro defeats the villain because of his prior dedication to training his knife-throwing hand, suggesting metaphorically the value of commitment to individual integrity and mastery in a culturally unstable world. In Fistful of Dollars, this idea is to an extent reversed. What triumphs is deception. The stranger taunts Ramon to aim his rifle at the heart, something he practiced and proudly displayed on a knight’s armor earlier in the film. The stranger thus encourages Ramon to project his pride, skill, and defiance onto him only to get up every time he is hit (several resurrections in short order) and approach him within pistol range (cf. Frayling 1981, 185). Only then does he expose the steel plate he wears underneath, undermining what has been projected onto him. He kills Ramon and his men with the quickness of his pistol over the power and range of the rifle, subverting Ramon’s credo: ‘When the man with the pistol meets a man with a rifle, the man with the pistol is a dead man’. By dismantling this statement, the stranger embodies what Leone and the film pursue: emptying the signs, icons, and narratives that make up the expressions of culture of any essentialist meanings and so stage cultural mobility as the shifting play of signifiers, endlessly transgressing acquired meanings and cultural boundaries. LAST MAN STANDING Conclusively, we need to ask, what about Last Man Standing? Walter Hill’s film is the only one to openly acknowledge its debt to a prior work, referencing Kurosawa’s story in the credits. It is also the incarnation of the story that ostensibly ‘brings it home’, returning it to its American setting and cultural context of production where it originated. So does it reinstate a notion of cultural identity despite its nod to Kurosawa? It certainly takes over a lot of Hammett material: the historical and spatial setting of ‘Corkscrew’, the tough guy voiceover and overall hardboiled approach (at one point even stating that it seems like ‘outta some dime novel’), and the role of women as victims and survivors as well as gateways to the protagonist’s salvation with strong echoes of Clio and Dinah Brand. But there are plenty of echoes of Yojimbo as well: the moral development of the hero from selfish hired hand to righteous avenger via the quasi-death of torture after liberating the woman, the absence of a greater institutional structure that the hero is a part of in favor of his individualism, and various other plot points such as the hostage exchange and the apocalyptic ending. Fistful of Dollars is a notable template for the ethnic division of the gangs (here: Italian and Irish), the involvement of a corrupt Mexican army, the gunplay and the overall stylized approach to face-offs and shootouts, and the Christian iconography. In fact, nothing in the film sticks out as being particularly original or specific to this incarnation. If Fistful of Dollars was an exercise in emptying the story and the cultural icons and narratives emanating from it of their meaning, then Last Man Standing is an exercise in that very emptiness, a pastiche of those elements that have been reduced to nothing but surface. In fact, the very return of the story to its cultural origins results in a peculiar nonspecificity of the film. If anything, the film emphasizes an archetypal, mythical, culture-transcending quality of the story, something that is also the result of a vaguely supernatural emphasis (the hero appears after being prayed into existence by the woman) and the strongly gendered scenario suggesting a simplistic binary world complicated by the hero’s status and development (cf. Martinez 149, 151–4). So Last Man Standing completes the journey of the story toward myth, a myth that does not point to anything but itself. Just as the film ends how it began, the hero broke and on the run to nowhere, so the story ends its journey where it began only to arrive in a cultural no man’s land. By considering the journey that the story has taken, we can acknowledge not only its adeptness at manifesting incarnations of and attitudes toward cultural mobility but also its gradual movement toward mobility as the prime condition of culture. ‘Corkscrew’ expresses anxiety over the integrity of cultural boundaries, Red Harvest describes the inherent corruption of a culture, Yojimbo embraces a guarded cultural mobility, and Fistful of Dollars dismantles cultural boundaries and meanings altogether, which find their expression in a culturally nonspecific scenario of mythical pastiche in Last Man Standing. In this respect, it is useful to return back to Sanders’s reflections on appropriation. Sanders describes myths in the Barthesian sense as the ‘traditional narratives’ that make up the identity of a culture, and their reliance on ‘perpetual acts of reinterpretation in new contexts’ as ‘a process that embodies the very idea of appropriation’ (63). The structural simplicity of the core story and its adaptation in different contexts suggest this mythic quality of continuity in appropriation. The implications of its journey, however, are countermythic, in that rather than supporting cultural stability and identity, the crosscultural recontextualizations suggest their opposite. The journey of a narrative of annihilation through different cultural contexts dismantles the very concept of cultural identity. It makes the radical, self-reflexive point that the process of crosscultural adaptation has a destabilizing, even annihilating effect on cultural integrity, but one that is therapeutic because it opens up a culture in danger of fossilization and decay to a cleansing interaction with the outside. It mobilizes culture by demonstrating how mobility is its underlying principle. 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Adaptation – Oxford University Press
Published: Dec 24, 2021
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