During a lag in the filming of Akira Kurosawa's Rashomon (1950), the director and his star, Toshiro Mifune, decided to kill an evening watching 16mm shorts. "One of them was a Martin Johnson jungle film in which there was a shot of a lion roaming around," Kurosawa later recalled. "I noticed it and told Mifune that was just what I wanted him to be." Thus was born the character Mifune would repeat in Kurosawa costume epics such as Seven Samurai and Yojimbo: the shaggy, glowering ronin who, whether inhabiting feudal Japan or the slums of postwar Tokyo, is never less than king of whatever jungle he happens to stalk.
From gangster to master: Toshiro Mifune in Akira Kurosawa's 'Red Beard'
Mifune's bandit in Rashomon, with his half-mad cackle and vulpine glint, is, of course, easily parodied--not least by John Belushi on Saturday Night Live. And his scowling antihero gave rise to any number of lesser imitators: You could say that Mifune begat Clint Eastwood, who begat Steven Seagal, who begat Vin Diesel. But there's also a throwaway moment in Rashomon that confirms Mifune as an essentially inimitable screen presence: During a desperate, almost comically prolonged duel, Mifune's bandit actually stops to swat a fly on the back of his neck.
Picking out such grace notes is one of the prime pleasures of a current 14-film retrospective at Oak Street Cinema that tracks the Kurosawa-Mifune collaboration from 1948's Drunken Angel to 1965's Red Beard. During this period--roughly corresponding to the Golden Age of Japanese cinema--Kurosawa and Mifune made 10 films together, a partnership among the most prolific in film history. And, as with other such symbiotic relationships--De Niro and Scorsese, for instance, or Hitchcock and Jimmy Stewart--it's now nearly impossible to untangle the two of them: Mifune became the embodiment of Kurosawa's often sardonic, always humanist worldview. It seems particularly telling in retrospect that, with the possible exception of Kurosawa's camp-apocalyptic Ran (1985), neither man made a significant film after their estrangement in the late '60s.
That Kurosawa and Mifune developed such an easy rapport is especially remarkable given their radically different personalities. Kurosawa was a driven, obsessive autocrat who could come off as arrogant and intimidating. In The Emperor and the Wolf, Stuart Galbraith IV's excellent, exhaustive study of the Kurosawa-Mifune partnership, the neophyte actor Yoshio Tsuchiya recalls driving with the director to Toho, the studio at which both Kurosawa and Mifune began their careers: "When we passed the gates of the studio, people would bow toward the car. It was interesting to me and I waved to the people just like a member of the Imperial family. Mr. Kurosawa said, 'Don't be arrogant. They're bowing at me, not you.' I said, 'But I feel like the emperor,' and waved my hand again. And he said, 'I am the emperor.'" Indeed, Kurosawa was nicknamed tenno (emperor)--and not with entirely endearing intention.
Nevertheless, Kurosawa inspired extraordinary loyalty among his regular crew. Though a product of Toho's prewar assembly-line studio system, the director carefully built a stock company of actors, including Mifune, Takashi Shimura, and Minoru Chiaki. (He was notably less committed to his female performers; more than one actress recalls asking Kurosawa for advice, only to be told, "I don't know anything about women.") Kurosawa's closest Hollywood cousin might be John Ford, who likewise exercised unquestioned patriarchal command while holding court with his cast.
Mifune, by contrast, was a modest, gentle man, almost painfully reserved unless drunk (which, rumor has it, he often was when filming particularly emotional scenes). Yet the actor was also fiercely independent--one possible reason for his eventual split with Kurosawa--and contemptuous of overborne authority. According to one story, Mifune, while an aerial photographer in the Imperial Army, observed a superior officer abusing a cadet; Mifune promptly challenged the man to remove his stripes and settle the matter outside. Added to this generally intransigent temperament was the fact that Mifune never felt wholly comfortable as a movie idol. After his discharge from the military, he'd come to Toho looking for work as a cameraman. Quite by chance, he found himself in an open audition, and threw such a fit--"anger" was the emotion he was told to convey--that the studio's talent scouts thought him disrespectful, or perhaps even mentally unhinged.
Yet it was this same rawness--a fatalistic, self-immolating rage, no doubt reflective of Japan's postwar mood--that prompted Kurosawa to cast Mifune as the dying yakuza in Drunken Angel (screening March 3 and 4). At the film's start, Mifune's Matsunaga seems a standard gangster: lean, hungry, and murderously sexy, with a sweaty forelock hanging over gleaming, predatory eyes. Only after he learns from a dissipated slum doctor (Takashi Shimura) that he has TB does Matsunaga's cool façade reveal itself as self-delusion.
Although Matsunaga is essentially a foil for Shimura's obstinate, good-hearted doctor--a pattern the two actors would repeat, in parallel with Kurosawa and Mifune's own evolving teacher-student relationship--Mifune's performance is by far the showier of the two. As Matsunaga's illness progresses, dark circles form under Mifune's piercing eyes, and even his once-taut body seems to slacken and collapse inside his suit. Mifune's physical transformation so dominates Drunken Angel, in fact, that it's easy to miss that the title refers not to his character, but to Shimura's. Mifune is, in all the best ways, too big for the picture.