both yojimbo and unforgiven feature several shots that are blocked by obstacles, whether they be window panes, vehicle windows, or jail cell bars. fair enough, but what of it? they’re both westerns – though yojimbo is definitely period, it has heavy western elements. they’re both about hired assassins, and they both use obstacles through their cinematography. they have different stories, and take place in different time periods. however, i’m willing to argue that they both use a plethora of obstacles throughout, but the metaphors they highlight are substantially different. this paper is to demonstrate the use of vision obstruction in unforgiven primarily for obstructed truth and personality, and primarily for voyeurism and gossip in yojimbo.
the similarities on a surface level are very easy to notice. both of these films are about experienced killers who
m are now unaffiliated, or have become distanced from their careers. bill munny hasn’t shot anyone in years, and a change of societal landscape has made the self-described sanjuro into a mercenary. they both live in the wilderness, with freedom to do as they please. they both take place – mostly – in small towns. this is where the similarities end.
when we’re introduced to bill munny in unforgiven, we see that he’s working on a pig farm, something unfitting a gunslinger. looking closer, we notice the use of obstacles in one of the shots he’s standing behind a large wooden fence. he likely feels imprisoned by the new life he leads, as he doesn’t seem all too happy about the way things are now, underscored by the small house he lives in, and the dirty exterior.
on the contrary, we see a few shots of sanjuro walking a nondescript trail after expressing his freedom by tossing a stick up in the air, then walking around it, with one foot on each side to foreshadow his capability of moving between factions. though this may not count as an obstacle, it’s a non-narrative way that the mise en scène expresses their levels of personal freedom. this is likely one of the few similarities, where vision obscurity (or lack thereof) is used to express the same theme: personal freedom.
after these introduction scenes, the meaning conveyed by this technique is drastically different. vision obscuring is used in yojimbo to demonstrate voyeurism, or bystander effect at the very least, but what can the poor townsfolk do? sanjuro walks into town with all the locals hidden in their buildings, looking at him through wooden bars. however, these bars could easily represent jail cells, the people of this village are caught in the middle of a gang war between two opposing factions, and they have no power to stop it. a lot of these “prisoners” are women, most of whom are traded back and forth like property. by contrast, sanjuro continues to walk around unbarred.
obstruction is heavily used as a medium for voyeurism and gossip. gonji the tavern keeper brings sanjuro to his slit windows to demonstrate to him how corrupt their town has become; even telling him about the noisy prayer next door, and how lousy the last town mayor was. the camera’s perspective is kept obscured to give us their perspective into the happenings; this perspective does give sanjuro as a hired warrior a more objective idea of who to side with, but it proves to serve the townsfolk as gossip. orin and her seibei comrades gossip and talk behind sanjuro’s back, debating on whether or not to pay him or kill him, exemplified by a close up of the three of them. sanjuro himself even gets in on the observation, sometimes subtle and other time very blatant. we can see sanjuro looking through small cracks, but also sitting on the top of a high tower as his potential employers engage in a battle of nerves.
obstruction is used much differently in unforgiven; the cinematography better reflects separation on a personal level than a social one. we notice bill munny is obstructed by a fence when he’s managing his pigs, but when the schofield kid shows up and calls him out as an assassin, he’s no longer covered. in this film, characters who aren’t true to themselves or others are covered by obstacles, but revealed – or proven to be themselves - when they expose themselves. some characters hide who they are or allow blown up legends to spread. there’s a shot where skinny is having a conversation with little bill – who
m is obscured by a ladder - while a pillar of wood keeps them separated in the shot, demonstrating that bill hasn’t fully integrated into civilization as much he would like to be. the obstructions are clearly seen during the jail scene; we see both little bill and english bob through the bars. the camera could have stayed at one perspective, never showing little bill from the jail’s perspective, but this doesn’t happen. this is significant as english bob’s character is obstructed by his legends, and little bill is obstructing his success at integrating into civilization.
interestingly, we don’t see munny obscured in a particular negative way; his introduction at the hog farm demonstrates the conflict between assassin and farmer. in contrast to the jail scene with little bill this may show that he could still have criminal behaviour lingering
beneath his lawful façade. on this note, no one is obscured in the final bar scene when billy munny shoots everyone in sight, including an easily visible little bill, who we’ve seen obscured quite a few times.this must have happened since these two characters have come to grips with who they are by this point. munny picks up his weapons and embarks to give ned vengeance, reverting to the ruthless killer that he once was; he even admits at the bar that he killed “women and children” little bill, who several scenes ago was shown whipping ned, has now revealed his ruthless behaviour better expected from bandits. in the bar he behaves malicious and doesn’t hesitate to order his henchmen to blast munny.
both these movies have their fair share of similarities, they could both be classified as westerns, both feature the conflict between civilization and independence, and both main characters find themselves walking into a town in relative disarray. there doesn’t seem to be a lot to compare except for the way that they use objects blocking the camera. the only clearly visible example is the voyeurism motif, but that isn`t common in unforgiven, at least though objects. yojimbo uses it to perpetuate the gossip
, voyeurism and unforgiven uses it as a metaphor for the cloudiness of the inner workings of these characters. in summation, both these movies are great on their own merits, especially in the way they cleverly use obstacles to convey a theme, whether it be the changing of characters, or with something as simple as gossip and talking behind the backs of other people.