Skip to main content

Yojimbo and Administration

“Everybody’s after easy money.  Gambling, throwing dice.  Can’t tell whose money is whose.  I hear the sake brewer’s become a silk trader.  Says he’ll pay more than the silk merchant.”

“But what’s the difference when the town is the way it is?  Who knows when the silk fair will open.”

“The smell of blood brings hungry dogs.”[1]

Franz Kafka once imagined Poseidon, not exhilarated by his divinity, but instead overwhelmed by paperwork and nagged by administrative duties:

The administration of all the waters gave him endless work. He could have had as many assistants as he wanted, and indeed he had quite a number, but since he took his job very seriously he insisted on going through all the accounts again himself, and so his assistants were of little help to him.  It cannot be said that he enjoyed the work; he carried it out simply because it was assigned to him; indeed he had frequently applied for what he called more cheerful work, but whenever various suggestions were put to him it turned out nothing suited him so well as his present employment.

One is not wrong to see in Kafka’s vision (or, indeed, in our age of endless lists and reports, to feel in it) many of the familiar ills inhering in administration as an activity.

In Akira Kurosawa’s Yojimbo, however, there is another vision—a more liberating vision of administration as a vital task requiring constant vigilance, competence, ethical discipline, and an ability to act in a way that simultaneously revolutionizes and participates in the system governing the status quo—especially when the status quo is aligned squarely (or merely obliquely) against human dignity.

Perhaps a different sort of administration, along the lines envisioned by Yojimbo, is better suited to the necessities of our age than is the old-fashioned practice of simply maintaining or optimizing the already existing—administration as an activity, in other words, that takes place in offices lit more by the lantern of Diogenes than the fluorescent bulbs of the blinkered and indifferent, if efficient, actuary.


Beset but not particularly bothered by fleas, the chance decision[2] that leads Yojimbo’s masterless, vagabond[3] samurai into a town divided between warring factions is not one he regrets.  Greeted on the main thoroughfare by a dog with a human hand dangling from its mouth, he gets the score from the food merchant he befriends: Seibei, who runs a brothel, wanted his son to inherit all of his territory, but his right-hand man, Ushitora, would not accept it.  Ushitora split off and became a boss. “Now only swords can settle things.  Both sides are out rounding up men.  Instead of a silk fair, it’s a corpse fair.”

The law has abdicated all responsibility.  Not only is the town official “a disgrace,” but the silk merchant and former town mayor Taezamon “started the mess.”

“He was the town mayor, but he screwed up.  He’d managed to survive by siding with Seibei.  But when Ushitora split from Seibei…then Tokuemon, the sake brewer, sided with Ushitora.  He already acts as if he’s the next head man.  He’s even getting into silk.  Now Tazaemon is a helpless fool.  He bangs his drum all day, hoping for Seibei to win.  See?  He’s started!”

On one side, the food merchant is harassed by the sound of Taezamon’s prayer drum; on the other, by the casket maker’s incessant hammering.

“Now do you see?  If you stay, you’ll get sucked in too.  Eat quickly, and then leave.”

“No more rice.  Give me some sake.  I like it here.  I’ll stay.”

“What?  Don’t you get it yet?”

“Yes, I do.  That’s why I’m staying.  Listen to me.  I’ll get paid for killing.  And this town is full of men who are better off dead.  Think about it.  Seibei, Ushitora, gamblers.  This place would be better off without them.”

“You couldn’t do it if you had nine lives!”

“Not alone.”

“How then?”

“Sake.  I’ll think while I drink.”

An effective administrator typically wades into the system he or she is charged with overseeing and seeks to maintain or improve upon its functioning.  The ends towards which the system itself are operating are rarely in question; the methods by which these ends are achieved, however, are a matter of constant scrutiny, refinement, and optimization.  There is no rest for the administrator—if the system is functioning optimally, it is a matter of ensuring that it continues to do so, and of ensuring that the means and methods used to measure the system’s effectiveness are themselves optimal.  We see this obsessive diligence in Kafka’s Poseidon.

Indeed, acute contingency and the unknown are simultaneously the bane and the inescapable elements of any administrator and administrative regime.

Donald Rumsfeld, an incompetent administrator who helped mar the first decade of the current century, nonetheless spoke with eloquent clarity on this point when he noted that:

“There are known knowns; there are things we know we know. We also know there are known unknowns; that is to say, we know there are some things we do not know. But there are also unknown unknowns—the ones we don’t know we don’t know.”

In another context, Joseph Biden put it this way: “If we do everything right, if we do it with absolute certainty, there’s still a thirty percent chance we’re going to get it wrong.”

What is most remarkable about Kurosawa’s samurai, however, is not the skill with which he handles all of the uncertainty and contingency in a system which he is given—but rather that he actually participates in the machinations of a system that he is simultaneously, and surreptitiously, administering against.

The samurai is thus an organizational revolutionary operating on two levels of contingency. He gains entry to the town, and access to its governing precepts, not as an administrator, but as a putative mercenary seeking mere personal gain from the system’s functioning. But precisely by adopting this pose, he gains an opportunity to set up and administer a shadow system (rooted in something approximating an objective moral standard—or at the very least, something transcending and precluding mere material personal gain) which cannibalizes the old one.

What is administered by the samurai is the elimination of overweening greed, scheming and retributive violence, the shirking of official responsibilities, and a cycle of warfare that attracts worse and worse elements to the town—elements that are exacerbated both by their sheer presence and by their seemingly endless supply.

What forces survive in the characters spared by the samurai? The old food merchant is honest and trustworthy. The casket maker is a reputable craftsman with a deeply human attachment to the food merchant. The prostitutes are subjugated innocents. The man, woman, and child genuinely love one another; true, they are victims of the man’s poor decisions in a savage system, but he himself is a model of contrition and devotion. The farmer’s son is naive and callow—and even if he is guilty of participating in warfare, the samurai repays the farmer’s kindness by sending him back his son. (The survival of the mad and ruined Taezamon is not much removed from death; the incidental survival of the town official is accompanied by glib instructions from the samurai that he go hang himself.)

In the course of his work, the samurai demonstrates competence, an ability to plan and delegate, agile and effective responses to unforeseen events, conservation of energy, clarity of purpose, knowledge of his field, and an ability to pose: the toolkit of an effective administrator.

It is noteworthy that the samurai takes no fee for his pains. The man who claimed to be interested in money when he first arrived (“I’ll get paid for killing. And there are a lot of men here who are better off dead.”), leaves, just as he entered, with none.[4]
“Now this town will be quiet.”

Here administration as an activity that places ethics and an ability to see a system’s impact, and imagine something else in its place, at its forefront.
Consider again Kafka’s Poseidon:

What annoyed him most—and this was the chief cause of discontent with his job—was to learn of the rumors that were circulating about him; for instance, that he was constantly cruising through the waves with his trident. Instead of which here he was sitting in the depths of the world’s ocean endlessly going over the accounts, an occasional journey to Jupiter being the only interruption of the monotony, a journey moreover from which he invariably returned in a furious temper. As a result he had hardly seen the oceans, save fleetingly during his ascent to Olympus, and had never really sailed upon them.[5]

But is this the necessary fate of the administrator and of the administrative? The mere maintenance and perpetuation of what already is with no time to consider what it is that already is? Or is there a burden we ought to assume, simultaneously ethical and exhilarating, capable of buoying us, trident in hand, upon the tides that connect us to every sea and its inhabitants?

To the extent that we find ourselves given power in any system grossly deleterious to our fellow man, in other words, are we not—like the samurai who, through deceptive use of the power given him, frees the woman from her guards and reunites her with her family—impelled by compunction to use that power to administer against the inhumane reverberations of our own participation in the very system that has given us that power?

Since we cannot sip seawater, we ought to drink sake.  And think while we drink.  One needn’t be a samurai with a swift sword to draw administrative lessons from Yojimbo.

+ posts

Leave a Reply