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The Emperor and The Samurai: 5 Akira Kurosawa and Toshiro Mifune Collaborations

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“To nakedly affirm in the very face of things which make you doubt is a heroic action.

– Donald Richie, from The Criterion Collection audio commentary for Rashomon


June marked the debut of our Arthouse 101 series, highlighting artistically significant films from all over the world and spanning a variety of genres! Aptly enough, it opened with one of the earliest examples of an art film, Akira Kurosawa’s immortal drama Rashomon. As a heavy downpour falls on the ancient Japanese capital of Kyoto, three men – a commoner, a priest, and a woodcutter – take cover under the arches of Rashomon gate. Forced to wait until the rain ends, the woodcutter reveals that he was witness to a horrific incident involving the killing of a local samurai and the rape of his wife by a notorious criminal. But as his companions question him and consider the accounts of the other involved parties, the three realize that the truth might not be as cut and dry as any of them would like to believe. A career-maker for both Kurosawa and star Toshiro Mifune, Rashomon’s impact on cinema has been immeasurable and remains felt to this day.  

The film, of course, was one of many collaborations between Kurosawa – nicknamed “The Emperor” for his noble pedigree as well as his demanding directorial style and infamous temper – and Mifune, who often stepped into the role of a samurai for the director. Despite working primarily in the jidaigeki (period drama) and chanbara (samurai) subgenres, many of the movies the two made offer penetrating insights into the human condition that transcend any specific era or cultural context. This universal appeal can be seen in the countless films and filmmakers that have been influenced by their work, from Ingmar Bergman’s The Virgin Spring to George Lucas’s Star Wars and from Andrei Tarkovsky to Zack Snyder. Defying old stereotypes of foreign films as dull and stuffy affairs of elusive thematic significance, Kurosawa and Mifune’s collaborations transcend the conventions of their particular genres and truly reach the heights of arthouse cinema.

With all this in mind, now seems like a good time to revisit this most fruitful partnership by examining some of the productions they worked on together. Lay down your swords but hold your ground, because we’re about to charge headlong into five Kurosawa and Mifune collaborations.  


Rashomon (1950)

Based on the short story “In a Grove” by Ryunosuke Akutagawa, Rashomon wasn’t Kurosawa’s first film but it was the first to bring him international attention. Though its unusual structure was flagged as a potential source of confusion by studio staff at Daiei (the company was initially hesitant to even put up money for the project on account of it), the movie’s central device of having multiple characters tell the same story but from conflicting perspectives wowed critics and audiences alike upon its release, opening the eyes of many to the narrative possibilities of cinema. So influential has the Rashomon effect been that it’s inspired homages and parodies in everything from Frasier and Star Trek: The Next Generation to Rugrats and Johnny Bravo. Ironically, the film wasn’t well-received by Japanese critics, with some expressing confusion at the positive reception it received overseas and even (as Kurosawa describes in his autobiography) attributing it to Western fascination with “oriental exoticism”. While Kurosawa’s countrymen may not have appreciated it, there are any number of reasons why the movie lives up to its storied reputation.

Although Mifune had already worked with Kurosawa in such films as Drunken Angel and Stray Dog, it was his manic performance here as the bandit Tojamaru that served as his introduction to audiences across the world. Laughing in between boasts about his own depravity and fighting prowess, Tojamaru behaves like the sort of self-aware villain that you’d expect in a children’s cartoon but not an adult drama. This, tellingly, serves as the first indication that he’s not as accomplished an outlaw as others believe him to be, with his embellished retelling of the incident reflecting his desire to uphold his reputation as a notorious criminal. Offering a crucial contrast to Tojamaru’s cultivated villainy is the sensitive woodcutter who relates the story, played by fellow Kurosawa collaborator Takashi Shimura. Recognizable to Godzilla fans as Dr. Yamane from the original 1954 film (a movie directed by Kurosawa’s old film school friend Ishiro Honda), Shimura’s earnest, hopeful expression as he carries the baby at the end of the film brings some much-needed humanity to the story.

The film’s interrogation of truth and reality is appropriately accompanied by an eclectic, emotionally-ambiguous musical score from Fumio Hayasaka. This can be heard from the moment the opening credits roll, with the chiming, enigmatic-sounding chords of the title theme giving way to a curious interplay of traditional Japanese textures and Western orchestration. Various instruments come in and out without properly resolving, suggesting a struggle to reconcile disparate parts into a unified whole, an interpretation that could easily double as a description of the movie. Hayasaka continues to draw from Western influences throughout the film but nowhere is it more apparent than in his rearrangement of Maurice Ravel’s “Bolero”. Heard during the wife’s account, the martial-sounding percussion and persistent build-up are unmistakable to anyone familiar with the Ravel piece. However, the melody does differ somewhat from the original, perhaps reflecting the way each character’s recounting of Tojamaru’s crime build on one another even as they contradict each other. 


“Laughing in between boasts about his own depravity and fighting prowess, Tojamaru behaves like the sort of self-aware villain that you’d expect in a children’s cartoon but not an adult drama. This, tellingly, serves as the first indication that he’s not as accomplished an outlaw as others believe him to be, with his embellished retelling of the incident reflecting his desire to uphold his reputation as a notorious criminal.”


Even the camerawork advances the skepticism at the heart of the story. Utilizing close-ups of the woodcutter making his way through the woods and a long shot of the samurai committing suicide in the distance, Kurosawa leans on unusual compositions and angles when portraying the grove. This differs with scenes set in the courtyard, which are largely presented in straightforward shots with comparatively-clean compositions that imply the events shown did in fact unfold the way they’re being depicted. Another tool illustrating the difference between the two locations is light: while the courtyard is rendered in clear light, the grove is often shrouded by the shade of the surrounding trees. Protected from the all-revealing rays of the sun, it’s as if the grove inhabits a liminal space between reality and unreality, where the light of truth only has as much power as whoever is telling their side of the story.

As innovative in form as it is in narrative, Rashomon is a clever contemplation on objective truth vs subjective truth that’s as arresting today as it was when it first came out.


Seven Samurai (1954)

The most expensive Japanese film ever made at the time of its release, Seven Samurai more than covered its production costs in tickets sold at home and abroad. Revolving around the recruitment of a group of ronin to protect a village from marauding bandits and the subsequent preparations for battle, the movie has exercised comparable influence on cinema itself to Rashomon. Beating out Toho’s other monster hit that year, Godzilla at the box office, it even proved popular enough with American audiences to be remade a couple years later as The Magnificent Seven, with director John Sturges transposing the basic plot to the American West. While Sturges’ remake enjoyed its share of critical and commercial success, the influence of Kurosawa’s original dwarfs it by several orders of magnitude, with several narrative and editing techniques commonly attributed to it used in action films to this day.

Upping the ante after his turn as Tojamaru, Mifune takes the manic energy he exuded in Rashomon and cranks it to 11 as Kikuchiyo. The hotheaded son of a farmer, the would-be samurai squees like a schoolgirl at the sight of the village girls, whoops like Curly from The Three Stooges and, at one point, even smacks his rear in the enemy’s direction. His clownish behavior belies his prowess with a sword however, with him proving himself to be just as capable – if not more so – a fighter as any of the well-pedigreed warriors he fights alongside. Playing the straight man to him is Takashi Shimura once again as Kambei, the bald-headed leader of the samurai. Though he’s far more intimidating here than in Rashomon, Shimura is no less convincing as a tough guy with a secret soft spot for underdogs (a character archetype that Kurosawa and Mifune would return to in another movie on this list) than he is a humble woodcutter.

The film also reunited Kurosawa and Mifune with Fumio Hayasaka once again, with the composer contributing a score that’s surprisingly more subdued than Rashomon’s but still worthy of the movie’s epic ambitions. The opening theme, for instance, is relatively simple compared to the one from Rashomon: in contrast to the multilayered mystery of the earlier film’s theme, Samurai’s is basically a steady, heavy drumbeat repeating over and over. It sounds sparse on paper but the raw power of the drums and the rhythm they create is undeniable, building up anticipation for the coming conflict between the samurai and the bandits. Another key theme is the one associated with the samurai. Initially heard in connection to Kanbei, this determined, horn-heavy piece pops up throughout the film in varying arrangements and emotional contexts, making it a memorable signifier for the losses and victories incurred by our heroes. 


“Mifune takes the manic energy he embodied in Rashomon and cranks it to 11 as Kikuchiyo. The hotheaded son of a farmer, the would-be samurai squees like a schoolgirl at the sight of the village girls, whoops like Curly from The Three Stooges and, at one point, even smacks his rear in the enemy’s direction. His clownish behavior belies his prowess with a sword however, with him proving himself to be just as capable – if not more so – a fighter as any of the well-pedigreed warriors he fights alongside.”


Some might be put off by the film’s extended runtime, so it’s no small feat that it never feels bloated or boring. There are a number of reasons for this. One is the stimulating dialogue, which ranges from the poetic (the village elder saying “Even bears come down from the mountains when they are hungry”) to the sarcastic (Tojamaru deadpanning “Fascinating. I’m not bored at all, I swear.”) Another is the way the film is edited, with Kurosawa using a lot of fades and dissolves that give the narrative a fluid, episodic feel. Finally, there’s the action itself, which culminates in a final, tense battle between our heroes and their enemies. As the two groups exchange swords and arrows in the rain, the camera cuts back and forth between characters fighting and getting bogged down in the mud, imbuing the sequence with a kinetic energy that matches the onscreen combat and keeps viewers captivated.

Don’t let the 3-hour runtime intimidate you: Seven Samurai is a gripping, masterfully-crafted story filled with both swordsmanship and spirit.


Throne of Blood (1957)

While critics had already detected pronounced Western influences in the previous two films, Kurosawa took it to the next level with Throne of Blood. Instead of merely borrowing from Western media and art, the director embarked on the ambitious task of taking Shakespeare’s Macbeth and making it into a jidaigeki movie. As such, Kurosawa made several major changes to the material, not least of which was moving the story from medieval Scotland to the same feudal Japanese setting as his earlier films. Yet the overall plot of an accomplished general being goaded on by his wife and supernatural forces into betraying his superiors and allies largely captures the spirit of Shakespeare’s play, with some going as far to call it one of the best film adaptations of the Bard’s work. Indeed, Laurence Olivier — widely considered to be the foremost interpreter of Shakespeare in cinema — was a fan of the movie and even complimented Kurosawa on it after a screening in London.

In contrast to the two previous movies, Mifune gives a more subtle and restrained performance as the treacherous Washizu. Starting off scheming yet level-headed, Mifune initially confines his outwardly evil behavior to lurching across screen or sharpening his face as he plots his next move. However, the general’s actions become increasingly erratic as he weaves an evermore tangled web and his sanity begins to unravel. This culminates most pointedly in his anguished cry of “Fool!” upon learning his wife has given birth to a still-born child. It’s an unexpectedly vulnerable moment for Washizu but a revealing one as well: instead of mourning or weeping the loss of his child, his gut reaction is to get angry that his hopes of siring an heir have come to naught. Only slightly less unscrupulous is Isuzu Yamada as Lady Washizu, with her maintaining a stiff, cold demeanor for much of the movie as she calmly counsels her husband to murder.

Further diverging from Rashomon and Seven Samurai, the film features a score by Masaru Sato rather than Hayasaka. Coming in the wake of Hayasaka’s death as well as his helping orchestrate the score for Samurai, Sato really embraces the spookiness at the center of the story, with the creepy undertones coming through the musical tones heard throughout. The opening piece is suitably spooky, drawing from both ends of the eerie sound spectrum with a high-pitched flute and lowing choir to make a wary, foreboding theme that serves as a harbinger of the grim tale to follow. Yet even more chilling is the tune sung by the forest spirit to Washizu and a companion. Carried by nothing more than the spirit’s airy, emotionless voice as he laments the meaningless of existence, it’s an unexpectedly unsettling moment that would be just as at home in a horror movie.


“…the general’s actions become increasingly erratic as the web he weaves becomes evermore tangled and his sanity begins to unravel. This culminates most pointedly in his anguished cry of “Fool!” upon learning his wife has given birth to a still-born child. It’s an unexpectedly vulnerable moment for Washizu but a revealing one as well: instead of mourning or weeping the loss of his child, his gut reaction is to get angry that his hopes of siring an heir have come to naught.”


Though it never truly enters the realm of horror, the film isn’t afraid to lean on the creepiness of the material. It still retains the samurai trappings of the previously-listed Kurosawa offerings, but realizes them in the new, supernatural context of a Japanese Macbeth adaptation. Many scenes are shrouded in dust and mists, creating an ethereal atmosphere that befits the ghostly nature of the story. Also adding to the spookiness is the recurring use of extended silences, with scenes like Washizu’s covert murder of his lord unfolding almost entirely without musical accompaniment or even diegetic sound. But non-musical sound plays a part in making viewers’ hair stand on end too, and nowhere more so than with the aforementioned spirit. Hearing the phantom before we see him, our introduction to him is manic, disembodied laughter echoing throughout the forest as Washizu listens in confusion. It’s unnerving and effective, and all the more so because it feels like the spirit is enjoying a cruel, private joke at the warrior’s expense. 

A novel twist on one of theatre’s most celebrated tragedies, Throne of Blood is a mesmerizingly-macabre tale about how lust for power can lead one to tempt fate itself.


Yojimbo (1961)

Returning to a more realistic conception of samurai cinema, it would nevertheless be a mistake to view Yojimbo as a serious drama in the mold of Rashomon. Focusing on a mysterious ronin who offers his services to two rival gangs only to manipulate them against each other while fleecing both dry, it’s an amusing premise with potential for satire and action alike. This levity of tone has led some critics to regard the film less highly than Rashomon and Seven Samurai, but some (including this writer) would argue that it’s a more fun and accessible watch than either of those movies. In any case, the movie made enough of an impression with audiences to inspire Sergio Leone to unofficially remake it as A Fistful of Dollars, with Clint Eastwood’s Man with No Name filling the role that Mifune’s Sanjuro (a pseudonym that merely means “mulberry field”) played in the original. Legal issues aside, it’s a testament to the film’s cross-cultural appeal and lasting impact that ironically calls to mind Kurosawa’s own borrowing from non-Japanese material like Macbeth and “Bolero”.

Assuming the role of a tough guy with a secret sense of justice that Takashi Shimura played in Samurai, Mifune’s acting is even more subdued here. Adopting a cool, confident manner, Sanjuro silently swaggers around town and rarely expresses anger. In fact, one of the few times he loses his cool is when the family he rescues from one of the gangs grovels before him in gratitude, demanding that they stop and insisting that he hates “pathetic weaklings”. On the surface, it’s a cruel thing to say but the way it’s framed makes it clear that this is a deflection from the ronin who “just pretend[s] to be” bad. It’s this practiced knavery (similar, if not identical, to Tojamaru from Rashomon’s insistence that he’s an incorrigible outlaw) that makes Sanjuro such a compelling anti-hero, with his motivation for concealing any hint of altruism on his part remaining a mystery even as it recalls Kurosawa’s claim that “Human beings are unable to be honest with themselves about themselves.” 

Despite the violent subject matter, much of Sato’s score has a mischievous, even mirthful quality to it. Remembered for the jazzy sound of many of his compositions, Sato’s colorful style lends itself well to the film. This is apparent from the very beginning with the opening theme, a perky, big band-flavored number with horns, strings, and even a harpsichord that could easily fit in any of the Godzilla movies Sato scored (some of which I discussed in a previous post). It might strike some as anachronistic and out of place in a samurai movie but it works in the context of this particular one. Indeed, given the trickster-like nature of its protagonist, it makes sense that the score would try to highlight the humor in the film. Also of note is the piece heard during the geishas’ dance, an energetic little number with rapid-fire percussion and crackling chords.


“One of the few times he loses his cool is when the family he rescues from one of the gangs grovels before him in gratitude, demanding that they stop and insisting that he hates ‘pathetic weaklings’… It’s this practiced knavery (similar, if not identical, to Tojamaru from Rashomon’s insistence that he’s an incorrigible outlaw) that makes Sanjuro such a compelling anti-hero, with his motivation for concealing any hint of altruism on his part remaining a mystery even as it recalls Kurosawa’s claim that ‘Human beings are unable to be honest with themselves about themselves.'”


While there is obviously violence in all the movies cited above, the kind seen here is a lot more palpable and graphic. Few hits draw blood but the ones that do draw a lot. Blood sprays against a wall after a character is cornered and killed, and we often see dark stains splattered on floors and walls. On top of that, Sanjuro disables the gunslinger with a knife to the arm and even lops another warrior’s arm right off early on, with the camera cutting to the dismembered limb laying on the ground for added effect. Not even Sanjuro makes it out unscathed, particularly after one of the gangs discovers his deception and leaves him covered in cuts and a black eye. This hyperviolence contrasts with – or, perhaps, underscores – the subtly comic tone of the movie, with the excessively gory fates that befall the bad guys suiting the film’s heightened yet humorous tone.

Combining satisfying swordplay with clever comedy, Yojimbo is a black and white period piece that offers more energy and entertainment than many modern blockbusters.


High and Low (1963)

Departing even more dramatically from the previous four productions is High and Low. Based on the American novel King’s Ransom by Ed McBain, the film eschews a feudal setting for the 20th century, with Mifune playing a business executive instead of a samurai. Finally in a position to secure ownership of the company he works for, Kingo Gondo’s plans are jeopardized when a plot to kidnap his son goes wrong and the boy friend – his chauffeur’s son – is abducted instead. This puts him in the unfortunate position of having to either use the money for his buyout plan to save his son’s friend instead or ignore the kidnapper’s demands and keep the money, at risk of the boy’s life. Using this unforgettable set-up as a springboard for an exploration of class and modern life, the movie also has the distinction of being one of Bong Joon-ho’s favorites as well as an inspiration for Parasite, his own crime thriller/social drama hybrid.

Interestingly, Mifune’s performance as Gondo seems to follow the opposite trajectory of his character’s in Throne of Blood: whereas Washizu goes from confident and in control to obsessed and unhinged, Gondo starts off as desperate to retain his status only to become humbled upon losing it. His red-blooded protests and complaints about how unfair it is that he has to pay the ransom for someone else’s son became less frequent over the course of the film, with him ultimately adopting a more resigned and stoic manner by the end. This makes for an intriguing final exchange with the imprisoned kidnapper (the eerily ordinary Tsutomu Yamazaki), who trains to retain the collected cool he’s affected throughout the movie and taunt Gondo one last time. Instead, Gondo maintains his composure and refuses to take the bait, with the despondent kidnapper breaking down and yelling in despair as he’s taken away. Gondo, conversely, emerges with his dignity – and more importantly, his humanity – intact.

Curiously, little original music is heard in the film (Sato even lifts a theme from his score for 1957’s The H-Man, a common practice with entries in Toho’s science fiction cycle). Granted, little music is heard at all since much of it has no accompaniment, though Sato does punctuate the occasional revelation with appropriate cues. The opening theme is ambivalent enough for the film’s morally gray tone, but the soundtrack’s real strength lies in its use of diegetic music. A prime example would be an arrangement of Franz Schubert’s “Trout” during the kidnapper’s introduction scene. Heard on a radio, the gulf between the prim melody, lilting piano, and expressive violin and the rundown slum and cramped, single-room apartment he rents speaks volumes about the distance between the high culture of Schubert’s music and the low-status world that the kidnapper lives in.


“Interestingly, Mifune’s performance as Gondo seems to follow the opposite trajectory of his character’s in Throne of Blood: whereas Washizu goes from confident and in control to obsessed and unhinged, Gondo starts off as desperate to retain his status only to become humbled upon losing it. His red-blooded protests and complaints about how unfair it is that he has to pay the ransom for someone else’s son became less frequent over the course of the film, with him ultimately adopting a more resigned and stoic manner by the end.”


This dissonance is an example of a larger contradiction drawn between the wealthy like Gondo and the working class like the kidnapper as well as the police trying to apprehend him, poetically cast as the gulf between Heaven and Hell in the film’s original Japanese title. More literally, Gondo lives in a luxury home on a hill that overlooks Yokohama, making him akin to God or Zeus looking down from on high at the puny mortals below. Halfway through the movie however, the focus shifts from Gondo’s home to the rest of the city, providing a glimpse into the social and cultural anxiety then gripping post-war Japan. Between images of sickly heroin addicts lurking in dark alleys and a lively nightclub where American sailors mingle with Japanese women (with the camera going out of its way to linger on the Black men among them), it’s a cautiously suspicious view of Western values like multiculturalism and personal liberty that flirts with xenophobia, and one all the more surprising given Kurosawa’s clear affection and inspiration by artists and works from the West.

Wisely wedding its social criticism to the needs of the narrative, High and Low is a multifaceted thriller that’s as smart as it is enthralling.

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