Mission NOT From God

The opening shot of Kurosawa's Yojimbo (you knew I was getting to Kurosawa eventually, didn't you?): distant mountains, snow-covered and majestic. And then Mifune walks into frame, massive and dark, dwarfing the mountains. This nameless samurai is bigger than the world he inhabits. The question for Yojimbo is, does he represent us or does he represent a force beyond what any of us can manifest? Are we bigger, can we be bigger, than the worlds we inhabit?

Soon after his arrival the samurai remarks that "This town is full of people who are better off dead." The casual assertion of moral judgement is a startling one, and one could be tempted into reading that this suggests the samurai is a super-human force of retribution. He's bigger than us. WE would never say this, or if we would, we'd certainly risk a hubris-based fall from grace. Deciding who is or isn't better off dead is a problem we prefer to leave to God.

Tolkien illustrates that point of view when he has Gandalf tell us that, "Even the very wise cannot see all ends." Tolkien's worldview requires a God who alone possesses the capacity for moral judgement, and to whose authority we all must submit. Kurosawa, ever the humanist, rejects this idea, as Yojimbo will ultimately show. The samurai is human. He is not God, and he is not bigger than us, even if we are the innkeeper, and his outrageous willingness to sit in judgement on his fellow man is only a more extreme version of the moral decision-making we are all faced with daily.

Every day, we make moral decisions. The young man at the beginning, desperate for an exciting life, his father, furious at what's happening to his town, and the mother, resigned to her fate -- all these people are making moral decisions. On what grounds do they make those decisions? From where do they receive their guidance?

Not from God, surely. Not in Kurosawa's world, anyway.

The only difference between the samurai and the innkeeper is the willingness (indeed, the eagerness) of the samurai to come to grips with the implications of his moral decisions. The innkeeper, at first horrified, comes to realise that his dour guest is actually the most rigourously, courageously moral character in the whole story. Only he recognizes that his moral choices are entirely his own responsibility.

Of course the samurai "succeeds" in the end because his skills are so spectacular. In this regard, he is not one of us, and the easy reading of Yojimbo is to suggest that he is allowed to make his moral judgements because he is clearly so much superior to all those around him. That the answer to our questions is that he does NOT represent us. He is beyond us. But that's too easy. Too easy for Kurosawa, and too easy for Mifune.

The bad guys are vanquished by his skills, to be sure, but the good guys are transformed by something else. By witnessing the samurai's willingness to endure the consequences of what he has wrought. Never asking to be judged sympathetically, he is recognized as a hero by the very act that dooms him to torture and suffering. And by going stoically to his doom, making no effort to sell out those who betrayed him, he demonstrates exactly the quality that inspires the innkeeper to risk himself for the cause of doing right.

And, in the very end, it is the innkeeper's stoicism and willingness to endure that inspires the cowardly cooper to take his first steps into serving something greater than himself.

The samurai is NOT bigger than us. Not in any meaningful way. Sure he's luckier, and sure he can hit a tumbling leaf with a thrown knife. But these are just decorations, just as much as those pretty mountains in the beginning. What really matters are people. We are bigger than the mountains.