Yesterday, April 1, 2020, would have been the 100th birthday of my fellow Aries, Toshiro Mifune. An appropriate thing to celebrate now that I live in Japan though, despite being representative of the country and culture for many cinephiles worldwide, Mifune's performances were atypical of Japan's film industry.
Mifune was born in China in a Japanese occupied region and he spent the first nineteen years of his life there before being drafted into the Japanese army during World War II. Japan has a reputation for conformity and politeness, two things I can certainly confirm from the many taboos and manners that keep the cities and trains running smoothly. Maybe it was Mifune's colonial upbringing that made him so different, that nurtured the wild spirit that so impressed Akira Kurosawa. Kurosawa, the director whose work provided the best roles of Mifune's career, was also not a typical Japanese director. Choosing instead to emulate American westerns, he was outspoken about a Japanese film industry he saw as lacking in vitality, though in later years he fondly recalled the greatness of Yasujiro Ozu and Mikio Naruse.
Aside from his films with Kurosawa, Mifune is probably best known in the west for his role in the Shogun miniseries. He appeared in other western films, like 1971's Red Sun, turning in performances more in line with western expectations of the stoic samurai. In Japan, Mifune's work for directors like Mikio Naruse or Masaki Kobayashi was never bad--at the very least, Mifune always had a piercing beauty about him. But all of these films remain dwarfed by his collaborations with Kurosawa.
From the drunken, dying yakuza in Drunken Angel, to the rabid bandit in Rashomon, to the feral peasant turned samurai in Seven Samurai, to the live wire thief in The Lower Depths, to the desperately afraid old man in Record of a Living Being--again and again, Kurosawa cast him in roles that demanded a deviation from that most famous Japanese virtue; restraint.
In the latter portion of their collaborative era, Kurosawa cast him as wiser men who seemed extraordinarily comfortable taking command of a situation. The general in The Hidden Fortress, the razor focused variation on Hamlet in The Bad Sleep Well, the conflicted but masterful executive in High and Low, or the benevolent demon doctor in Red Beard, all figures of natural authority who flagrantly bucked the system. In perhaps his defining role as the ronin Sanjuro in 1961's Yojimbo, the bedraggled and solitary samurai wanders into town and upends violent normalcy as much for his own amusement as a desire to stop the fighting.
One can't imagine, in any of these films, any other actor coming close to achieving what Mifune does, which is the whole point--he was extraordinarily, distinctly individual.
Twitter Sonnet #1341
Around the mountain whisper paper words.
In choc'late streams the patient calmly sleep.
The letters tucked in wing escort the birds.
A current drags the silent fishes deep.
An extra curtain pulled a window in.
A message stopped the lift above the floor.
The numbers stopped in sev'ral sorted bins.
A thousand grasping hands have tried the door.
A gasping dog inspects the market thieves.
The longest sword belonged to truest man.
A gen'ral hid the gold in burning sheaves.
A ragged ronin spurred the feuding clan.
As luckless thief he lived beneath the dirt.
As crimson beard he mended ev'ry hurt.