Brothers in Arms

A 14-film retrospective charts the turbulent partnership of Akira Kurosawa and his warrior muse

Kurosawa's bluntest critique of hidebound Japanese society is certainly 1960's The Bad Sleep Well (March 19 and 20). Based on Hamlet--though loosely and fitfully--the film features Mifune as a mousy secretary who marries into a corrupt, overwhelmingly powerful business family. In a bravura opening sequence that mirrors the Mousetrap scene in Shakespeare's play, we see the wedding grind to a farcical halt as police arrive to arrest the corrupt executives. Something is rotten in Denmark, indeed.

Kurosawa himself admitted that The Bad Sleep Well never lived up to the promise of its opening scene--less because it becomes rather convoluted plot-wise than because it doesn't indict business corruption with enough conviction. Yet the film does give Mifune one of his most idiosyncratic roles: His secretary is, by design, almost a nonentity--someone who has sold his very name to pursue revenge for his murdered father. In so doing, though, he has remade himself in the image of the faceless, cowardly bureaucrats he opposes--as though Hamlet had decided to lay low and play the loyal courtier. And, its flaws notwithstanding, The Bad Sleep Well does engage a basic moral question: Under what conditions are immoral means justifiable by noble ends?

Likewise, in 1963's High and Low (March 10 and 11), based on a police potboiler and released at the zenith of the Kurosawa-Mifune partnership, Mifune's harried shoe-company executive is faced with an impossible choice: Pay ransom for a kidnapped child and lose his life's fortune, or forfeit his humanity. Mifune bears the film's moral weight on his broad shoulders, and he has never been better: When he's betrayed by an assistant, we see, from behind, his shoulders first slacken and then slump in defeat.

From gangster to master: Toshiro Mifune in Akira Kurosawa's 'Red Beard'
Cowboy Pictures
From gangster to master: Toshiro Mifune in Akira Kurosawa's 'Red Beard'

High and Low relies heavily on noir convention--including the rather questionable (to modern eyes) use of off-duty African-American sailors and American jazz as shorthand for seductive sleaze. But Kurosawa's theme is almost Miltonian (an association explicit in the original title, Heaven and Hell). As Milton's Satan is taunted by heaven, the kidnapper is spurred to hatred by the sight of the Mifune character's posh mansion high above the sweltering city. The film's haunting final shot, in which the executive and his nemesis are revealed as mirror reflections of one another, suggests the complexity of Kurosawa's moralism: Good and evil are, after all, distinguishable only through individual choice.

Two years after High and Low, Kurosawa and Mifune made the unequivocal bookend to their careers together. Indeed, Red Beard (March 12 and 13) is nearly a revisiting of their first collaboration, Drunken Angel, with Mifune now playing the part of the grizzled, dedicated slum doctor opposite Yugo Kayama's headstrong acolyte. Kayama, then a rising Toho star, is the center of the picture, though, and Kurosawa uses Mifune mostly for his majestic physical presence--the very embodiment of virtue and virility. Which is to say that Red Beard is hardly a star vehicle: With its vignette-driven structure, it's closer to the expressionism of late-period works such as Akira Kurosawa's Dreams.

After 1965, Kurosawa and Mifune never worked together again, and the following decades plotted a course of sad decline: for Mifune, a series of disastrous business decisions, personal scandals, and cut-rate program pictures that traded cheaply on his fame; and for Kurosawa, a failed attempt to co-direct the international flop Tora! Tora! Tora! in 1970, a suicide attempt in 1971, and, perhaps worst of all, rejection by Japanese audiences that saw his work as hopelessly outdated. In fact, it's hard not to read an uncharacteristically bitter rebuke into Kurosawa's Ran, in which a Lear-like king is left to rot by his disloyal sons.

Whatever the particulars of their estrangement in life, though, the actor and director were reunited in death, less than a year apart, in 1997 and 1998, respectively. Reflecting on their collaboration long after it had ended, one Toho colleague even posited that Kurosawa's heart had somehow wound up in Mifune's body. That seems an apt description of a partnership so tempestuous and fertile that it could only have been true love.

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