Masculinity in Shane and Yojimbo

I've been going through some of my notes from a film genre class I took in graduate school. One week, we watched *Shane* and *Yojimbo* as cross-cultural examples of the western, which historically commingled with the samurai film in Japan.

An image from the film Yojimbo of Toshiro Mifune stroking his beard, looking away, as a villager tries to speak to him.
Toshiro Mifune rules.

In grad school, I took a course on film genre that introduced me to film scholarship. I enjoyed the class, but I wish I'd engaged with it more. At the time, it felt a bit more like an "elective," unrelated to my archival research of LGBTQ social movement rhetoric that I explored in my dissertation.

This was a mistake. In my view, it's a common one. I'm not sure if its something specific to my field, and it's almost certainly tied to the current academic job market, but I've noticed that graduate students these days over-professionalize and over-specialize, often extremely early in their Ph.D. If you're a graduate student reading this, please know that I'm not trying to be mean. I know that there are reasons graduate students are encouraged to "brand" themselves early on. But academia is a tough business. It might hurt to hear it, but you'll likely look back on grad school, especially the first few years, as a time you wished you were more open and exploratory with your thinking. I do, at least.

Rant aside, I've been going through some of my notes from that film genre class. It was well-designed: each week, we watched two or three films from a particular genre and read a bit of genre theory to help understand them. Often, the films crossed nations or other sorts of borders, showing just how complicated film genre can be.

One week, we watched Shane and Yojimbo as cross-cultural examples of the western, which is tied to the history of the samurai film in Japan. Both films are titled based on the names of their protagonists and, in each case, the narrative focuses on a male figure entering a town on a “frontier.” Barry Langford offers an interesting comment about the frontier trope, noting that within the western genre it is often used to depict a a sort of between-ness, "not a clear boundary but . . . uncertain and shifting" (63). This is apparent in both Shane and Yojimbo, each film narrating a solitary man entering a transforming social environment as a way of mediating between the "old" and the "new."

The "man" of it all is important. Both films rely on a return--or at least an echo--of a supposedly "authentic” masculinity. The first battle between Seibei and Ushitora is illustrative of this: Yojimbo sits on a tower laughing as the two gangs scare each other but are unable to actually fight. Alternatively, Shane explains to Joey that a real gunfighter only needs one pistol (setting himself apart from the “Black hat” villain who uses two) and later relates to Marion that guns are mere tools to be used by good or bad men. Yojimbo takes a similar stance, one step removed: the sword wielded by the good man is juxtaposed against the villain with the pistol.

There are, of course, important contextual differences in these films' representations of masculinity. As Randy P. Schiff wrote, Yojimbo is invested in Japanese class identity and in “a credit economy that has advanced nearly to the point where it will destroy the social role of the samurai itself” (66). By contrast, the social struggle in Shane is marked more heavily by ideologies of land and private property. Each hero, then, embodies ideological features of their respective country, mediating changing historical contexts and relations.

Works Cited

  • Langford, Barry. Film Genre: Hollywood and Beyond. Edinburgh UP, 2005.
  • Schiff, Randy P. 2007. “Samurai on Shifting Ground: Negotiating the Medieval and the Modern in Seven Samurai and Yojimbo.” In Race, Class, and Gender in “Medieval” Cinema  New York: Palgrave Macmillan. 59-72.

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