Brothers in Arms

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

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.

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.

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'

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.

 

One advantage of seeing a film like Drunken Angel alongside Kurosawa's better-known samurai epics is that it helps to recalibrate the somewhat jaundiced consensus on the filmmaker--namely, that he was primarily an imitative artist who transposed American Westerns wholesale to the exotic East. Kurosawa's films, in this view, were the equivalent of knockoff Japanese versions of American cameras. Typically condescending is this 1956 Cue review of Seven Samurai: "The Japanese lately have been full of surprises. Having for some years watched Hollywood mystery films, they turned out a picture called 'Rasho-mon' [sic]. Now, having been treated to many U.S. gun-and-gallop Westerns, our Oriental cinema cousins have ground out a Far Eastern Western that may well turn out to be the daddy of them all."

True, the impression of Kurosawa one gets from Seven Samurai or Yojimbo is of a master technician, a dispassionate general moving pieces around a chess board. The former film in particular is almost pure spectacle, a brisk visual poem on violence--as though Kurosawa were making the world safe for Michael Bay. So, too, Kurosawa made liberal use of non-Japanese source material: Shakespeare for Throne of Blood and The Bad Sleep Well, Dostoyevsky for The Idiot, and an Ed McBain police procedural for High and Low. In some sense, Kurosawa seems to have presaged the synthesizing, globalist cinema of contemporary filmmakers such as Wong Kar-wai and Ang Lee.

But Kurosawa was far more influential than he was influenced. Proving that imitation is really just the sincerest form of theft, makers of Westerns churned out both sanctioned remakes of his films (e.g., John Sturges's The Magnificent Seven) and illicit ripoffs (e.g., Sergio Leone's A Fistful of Dollars). And the swift economy of Kurosawa's visual style left a far deeper impression on New Hollywood directors such as Scorsese and Spielberg than did the arty, arguably boring films of Japanese contemporaries such as Mizoguchi and Ozu. Indeed, The Hidden Fortress (March 5 and 6), in which Mifune winningly lampoons his haughty samurai persona, had its own Hollywood remake--a modest little picture called Star Wars. (Hence as well the use of Kurosawa's favorite editing technique--the horizontal wipe--and the inexplicable Meiji-era couture in the more recent installments of Lucas's samurai-in-space odyssey.)

Still, it's some of the lesser-known Kurosawa-Mifune collaborations that cast the most lasting spell. The 1949 neorealist noir Stray Dog (March 14 and 15), for instance, again places Mifune opposite Shimura as a rookie detective in the sweltering, lawless waste of postwar Tokyo. When the detective's gun is lifted by a pickpocket on a crowded train, he's sent on an increasingly desperate race to retrieve it. Simple enough. But Kurosawa adds a layer of moral shading--suggesting, as did Carol Reed in The Third Man, that hero and killer share a Janus identity. Indeed, the film's pivotal scene is set at a quiet dinner, during which the Mifune character and Shimura's veteran detective discuss the case. Mifune's young cop, a part of Japan's disillusioned war generation, admits sympathy for the killer; Shimura's older cop argues that good and evil are still matters of individual choice. But an ambivalent mist lingers: By the film's finale, when detective and criminal wrestle, exhausted and mud-caked, in a field, it's impossible to tell them apart.

Understandably, the war's ruinous aftermath cast a pall over Japanese films of the '50s. Though always a half-hearted nationalist, Kurosawa himself had been pressed into making quickie propaganda reels for the Imperial government; Mifune, for his part, had a lucrative second career playing Admiral Yamamoto in all-star war pictures. Yet it's in 1955's I Live in Fear (March 17 and 18) that Kurosawa and his star come closest to engaging the oppressive anxiety of the postwar years. Here Mifune is cast as a 70-year-old businessman who, obsessed with the possibility of nuclear attack, wants to move his family to South America. It's a tribute to Mifune's range that he plays the part without ostentatious makeup: Walking with a hip-shot gait and squinting through thick bifocals that hang on the very tip of his nose, Mifune suggests an ancient sea turtle perplexed to find himself stranded on land.

I Live in Fear (the original title, Record of a Living Being, is far more evocative of the film's universality) was released a mere year after Godzilla, which also starred Takashi Shimura. If rather more melodramatic than that film, I Live in Fear shares a serious moral concern with the specter of atomic apocalypse. In Kurosawa's film, though, the threat comes not from mutated dinosaurs--a reification of anxiety direct from the postwar Japanese id--but from within. Having survived Hiroshima and Nagasaki, the film suggests, the Japanese now risk fear-induced paralysis--a moral ambivalence shading toward numbness. It is, in the end, Mifune's old man who sees the danger most clearly--and he is declared insane for his trouble.

 

Their considerable individual merits aside, films such as Stray Dog and I Live in Fear also belie the idea that Kurosawa was primarily a maker of "pure cinema"--a master of sound and fury, signifying nothing. The sense one gets from these early works is, rather, of a cautious humanist, sympathetic to the weakness of the individual, but cynical about the rigid feudal codes that gave rise to Japanese militarism. Viewed in this light, even lesser slash-and-grab pictures such as Yojimbo and Sanjuro (both screening March 7 and 9) seem blackly comic satires on the futility of war.

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.

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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