Retrospective Roundtable

The Films of Toshiro Mifune

We turn our attention this month to one of Japan’s most celebrated actors, Toshiro Mifune. Known for his 16-film collaboration with Akira Kurosawa, Mifune’s performances were bold and powerful, playing characters such as samurai and businessmen. The duo’s relationship ultimately soured, their last collaboration being Red Beard. Following Mifune’s performance in the film, he turned to roles abroad starring in a number of US & UK productions, often playing characters who served in the military. Mifune’s body of work informed that of actors such as Clint Eastwood and Charles Bronson, and influenced performances in a broad variety of films to come, Western or otherwise.

Throne of Blood (1957)

By Nick Davie

MV5BMTc3ODE4NDUyOF5BMl5BanBnXkFtZTcwMTE3Njk5Ng@@._V1_In Akira Kurosawa’s transposition of Macbeth, Throne of Blood, Toshiro Mifune stars as Taketoki Washizu, a feudal-era Japan rendition of William Shakespeare’s Scottish king.  In a collaboration spanning sixteen films that began with the 1948s film Drunken Angel and ended in 1965 with Red Beard, the pair’s prolific partnership established both as film icons. Whilst the duo brought several successful epics to the screen in collaboration, Throne of Blood is a crowning achievement. The filmography of Kurosawa itself is monumental, but the performances of his frequent leading man Mifune is often the source of much awe and admiration. Though sadly the pair’s relationship deteriorated, Kurosawa acknowledged the presence of Mifune within his films was pivotal in their success.

Throne of Blood replaces Shakespearean poetry with striking visuals; a thick fog adds an ominous aura to the castle’s surrounding forests. Mifune’s performance encapsulates the throws of toxic ambition that brings his character Washizu to his bitter end. Washizu encounters Spider’s Web Forest’s evil forest spirit with loyal friend Miki (Minoru Chiaki), who prophecises the former’s rise to power. Kurosawa replaces Macbeth’s three witches with the evil spirit, who presents Mifune with the perfect platform to display such a powerful range of tumultuous emotions. The famous final scene of a continuous arrow barrage towards the ill-fated Washizu was filmed with trained archers’ real arrows. As Mifune would wave his arms frantically, not only was he projecting the realisation he had met his end, he was indicating his bodily direction for the trained archers. The lasting image of Washizu encased in arrows perfectly rounds of one of Kurosawa’s greatest films and one of the most remarkable Shakespeare adaptations in film history.

Yojimbo (1961)

By Eugene Kang

MV5BNTBiNDU0ZjYtZmFjMy00MDAzLWIwMWYtNTFjMzExZDhiNzljXkEyXkFqcGdeQXVyOTc5MDI5NjE@._V1_Mifune’s Sanjuro Kuwabatake (which literally means thirty-year-old mulberry field – clearly a pseudonym) finds himself embroiled in a destructive battle between two criminal organizations that are destroying the lives of ordinary townspeople caught up in the crossfire. Sanjuro’s considerable prowess with his sword makes him hotly sought after by both sides, but Sanjuro plays each side off each other with strategic deception and theatrical bravado, resulting in both sides’ eventual destruction. He is an agent of chaos, but one that is firmly against the abusers in power.

It is difficult to overestimate the influence of Akira Kurosawa and specifically Yojimbo. The basic story, which itself was inspired by the works of Dashiell Hammett, has been adapted many times, most memorably in Sergio Leone’s A Fistful of Dollars (Toho Studios would actually sue Leone’s company for not securing the remake rights). Beyond the story, Kurosawa’s dramatic and visually dynamic style makes this thrilling to watch. Even the way he stages simple dialogue and observation scenes are filmed in interesting ways. (The semi-transparent walls of the inn he is staying at play a crucial role storywise.) 

But even the most brilliant compositions would be nothing without a compelling lead and Mifune is that lead in spades. Though he appears gruff and cynical, his natural charisma draws in the characters in the film as well as commands our attention. Sanjuro also does less fighting than one would think. Much of his strategy is to present himself as a fearsome warrior and let his bravado overwhelm his foes. The theatricality he brings to his role is compelling, but it does not ring as false or calculated, even when he is being intentionally deceitful. While subsequent adaptations of this story have been good or even great (Miller’s Crossing is a notable one), they still suffer from the lack of a magnetic lead like Mifune.

High and Low (1963)

By Ian Floodgate

MV5BMTUwODU0NjUyN15BMl5BanBnXkFtZTcwOTI5MTU4Mw@@._V1_Many people are likely to remember Toshiro Mifune for his performances as a samurai. However, his performance as Kingo Gondo in Akira Kurosawa’s High and Low does not feature any sword-wielding or martial arts. Instead, it’s one of his more relatable roles and should be one of his most highly regarded performances. Gondo is an executive of a shoe company who wants to buy out the business to take control. However, on the eve of putting his plan into action, Gondo receives a phone call from someone claiming to have kidnapped his son. Gondo is prepared to pay the ransom the kidnapper demands only then to see his son return home. However, Gondo, his family and associates discover the abduction was of his chauffeur’s son instead. Despite the mistake, the kidnapper still demands the money. Gondo then becomes hesitant in deciding between completing the takeover or paying the ransom.

It is the dichotomy that Kurosawa places Gondo that brings out the best in Mifune. He knows that if he pays the ransom, Gondo and his family face financial ruin, but if Gondo does complete the buyout, he will appear heartless. The stress and anxiety that Mifune displays as Gondo is captivating. It’s a very different performance, as opposed to his confident and collected portrayal as Kuwabatake Sanjuro in two samurai films. The difference of emotions Mifune shows in High and Low is enough to demonstrate his versatility. When one compares Mifune’s work in High and Low to the range of his other performances, one realises what a remarkable talent Mifune was.

Samurai Rebellion (1967)

By Eugene Kang

MV5BMTk5NDU5NDY4NV5BMl5BanBnXkFtZTcwMzQzMTMwNw@@._V1_In Samurai Rebellion, much of the conflict of the story is political and interpersonal. Ichi (Yoko Tsukasa) is a former concubine to the daimyo that Isaburo Sasahara (Mifune) serves. Even though she has borne the daimyo a son, she is forced to marry Sasahara’s son Yogoro (Go Kato) by his order. Despite the marriage happening under duress, Ichi is more or less welcomed into the family and Isaburo even develops a fatherly affection for her, which is solidified by the birth of his granddaughter Tomi. When the daimyo orders that Ichi come back to the castle after his primary heir dies, Isaburo and Yogoro refuse, which leads to the daimyo eventually assaulting the Sasaharo home with 20 samurai. While much of the film up to this point had taken place indoors with long scenes of dialogue and exposition, the film explodes with its last climactic fight between Isaburo and countless samurai, including his old friend Tatewaki (Tatsuya Nakadai).

Director Masaki Kobayashi was a master of composition, always using stunning ways to frame his characters and action. He would experiment by playing with lights and make liberal use of overhead shots that would dwarf many of his characters, eschewing conventions like shot reverse shots and close-ups (though these are not absent from his film either). Because of his emphasis on grand compositions, there is a tendency sometimes for his actors to become small parts of these tableaus, but Kobayashi knew better than to dwarf a dynamic screen presence like Mifune for long.

Though Mifune was known more for showier roles like the hothead Kikuchiyo in Seven Samurai or the gruffly cynical Sanjuro in Yojimbo, here he displays a majesty and a poise that makes it clear that we are to respect and sympathize with this character. Even if you observed his body language, you know exactly why other characters look up to him so much. The fact that he turns into a lethal beast of a man in the climactic battle is both shocking and predictable. Shocking in that we have really only heard other characters speak of his prowess as a swordsman, but predictable in that the entire film has been building up to this moment. The fight is perhaps one of the greatest in cinema in terms of its staging, pacing and intensity, and Mifune may have been the only actor that could have pulled off the physicality and the emotional depth required for that scene. When he is wounded, it feel as if a magnificent beast has been hurt and your heart goes out to him when he falters in his savage grace.

Hell in the Pacific (1968)

By Alex Sitaras

MV5BNmI5NWQ2NWMtNGE5Ni00ODJhLTg5YjYtMWQyZTYwYjAyNzhlXkEyXkFqcGdeQXVyMjUyNDk2ODc@._V1_It is often the ‘smaller’, minimalist films that act as showcases for performing talent. John Boorman‘s Hell in the Pacific has a cast of two- Mifune and Lee Marvin– who play World War II servicemen stranded on a Pacific island, one Japanese, one American. At first sight, as enemies, their instinct is to fight each other though they realize pettiness is of no avail (I don’t think they truly intend to kill each other), and they can work together to share food and water rather than fight over it. They soon devise a plan to build a raft to set sail and escape from the island. When they do finally reach new land, their collaboration is challenged as reminders of WWII arise.

For Mifune, Hell in the Pacific was his second US production, and the film relies purely on his physical acting given that it was intentionally not dubbed or subtitled in order to mimic frustrations soldiers faced in WWII. Mifune’s character has a lot to say to his American counterpart; however, to an English-speaking audience at least, it has to be captured in gesticulation and tone of voice in order to be conveyed. Even so, the two characters are drawn closer as they gain an understanding of one another and establish a common goal. It’s only when the servicemen are reminded of their Japanese and American heritage and loyalties- that they are one of a collective that possesses its own biases and past- that their bond established throughout the film crumbles and survival becomes an impossibility.

Red Sun (1971)

By Henry Baime

MV5BOWE0MWRjMWYtNjk3Ny00YWNhLTk4NGItMDY5ZTg4NGY0ZTAxXkEyXkFqcGdeQXVyMTI3MDk3MzQ@._V1_Toshiro Mifune perhaps perfected the art of portraying a samurai, finding his most famous roles in a number of Kurosawa films and the Samurai Trilogy, and with Red Sun, he brought his greatest character to the American West. A truly international picture that brought Mifune and French Alain Delon to a rare English language outing and pairing them with Charles Bronson and Ursula Andress while filming in Italy and being directed by Terence Young, a three time James Bond director, it never made many waves but is a fascinating look at the way the Western is perceived around the world and the debts the genre owes to samurai films. In fact, the casting of Mifune, star of Seven Samurai, alongside Bronson, who appeared in its American remake, The Magnificent Seven, seems specifically designed to highlight the symbiotic nature of the genres and contrast American and Japanese filmmaking sensibilities. With both men having something of a mystery to them as they maintain a tenuous relationship searching for a stolen Japanese sword and seeking revenge and restoration of honor, they bring the mythos of their screen personas to the roles but play inverted versions of each other.

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