Mifune’s transcendent films, with and without Kurosawa

Toshiro Mifune once wrote of his collaboration with director Akira Kurosawa: “As an actor, I’ve never done anything I’m proud of except with him.

OKAY. Fine. These are 16 very good films that you have made together. But you made about 170 films! Never?

We can judge whether Mifune, who died in 1997, was a little too hard on himself (and his many other directors) from this weekend at the Film Forum, where a four-week festival will present 33 films by the great Japanese actor, as well as a documentary, “Mifune: The Last Samurai”.

It includes all of the films Mifune and Kurosawa have made together – certified masterpieces like “Seven Samurai” and “Rashomon,” as well as lesser-known but excellent footage like “High and Low” and “Red Beard.” The chance to see them on a cinema screen should not be missed.

But we’ve already talked a lot about these films — I don’t have much new to offer on “Seven Samurai” — and it’s the other half of the Film Forum program where you’re most likely to find surprises.

As a contract player for Toho Studios, Mifune never stopped working – according to “The Last Samurai”, at the height of his career he appeared in 27 films over a four-year period. Some of them were filled, no doubt, but the 50s and 60s were a great era for Japanese cinema, and when he wasn’t with Kurosawa, Mifune worked with other high-flying directors like Hiroshi Inagaki and Masaki Kobayashi.

Here, in the order they were made, are some highlights from non-Kurosawa productions of the series. Mifune may not have worked with his favorite director, but watching them, it’s clear he always brought his expressive countenance, vivid emotion, and unparalleled charisma to the set every day.

Mifune’s feature debut, a tense and bittersweet 1947 thriller set in the snowy mountains of Hokkaido, feels like it could be a Kurosawa movie. It’s probably because Kurosawa wrote the script for director, Senkichi Taniguchi. Mifune, 27, was spotted on a cattle call for Toho cast, and he is shockingly handsome, with a wild lock of hair hanging down his face. He also knew how to control the camera from the start. As the youngest and most ruthless of a group of runaway bank robbers, he’s a tight bundle of nervous, angry energy – you skip the frame waiting for him to explode. (As an older, more aware trickster, Takashi Shimura makes the first of many appearances alongside Mifune.)

Mifune’s Macbeth in “Throne of Blood” is widely celebrated, but fewer people know he’s also an excellent Cyrano in Inagaki’s 1959 adaptation of “Cyrano de Bergerac.” It’s a kick to see Mifune in a role where his command of language is more important than his looks and just as important as his fighting ability (although swordplay is crucial to the story, though). sure). Nineteenth-century French romance carries over well to the seventeenth-century shogunate; Inagaki stages the famous poetry duel from the first act on a Kabuki stage, with Mifune inflicting sword thrusts between verses on a whole company of attackers. And Mifune’s ability to play the alpha male with hints of humor and embarrassment suits him perfectly when it comes to the ultimate romantic comedy hero.

It’s one of seven films in the series directed by Kihachi Okamoto, a Toho veteran who was more dependable than spectacular but brought style and a darkly comedic sensibility to a variety of genres. Here he puts a sardonic twist on a colorful and violent 1960 yakuza story, with a good script from writers with notable Japanese new wave credits Haruhiko Oyabu (“Cruel Gun Story”) and Shin’ichi Sekizawa (” Take Aim at the Police Van”). Mifune stars as a disgraced cop who hides in the middle of a gang war for guns and gravel claims; in his white suits, he’s the cool center of the psychedelic action, downplaying the tough guy stereotype and putting an ironic twist on his punchlines, like his kiss to an overly anxious bar hostess: “It’s easy , a bed will not run away .”

The culmination of the series’ non-Kurosawa films, this 1967 revenge drama has the classic feel – the deliberate pacing, high-contrast black-and-white imagery, hard-lined emotions – that its director, Kobayashi, brought to his masterpieces “Human Condition” Trilogy. Mifune plays Isaburo, a mid-level member of an 18th-century feudal clan. When his son is forced to marry the abandoned mistress of an aristocrat and after falling in love and having a child is ordered to send her away, Isaburo must choose between paying homage to his clan lords and defending his honor and that of his family. You can guess who wins. “Rebellion” is as good a showcase as any of Kurosawa’s films for Mifune’s ability to portray unforced yet passionate nobility.

Okamoto directed this 1967 documentary-style drama about then-recent Japanese history, perhaps drawing inspiration from “Seven days in Maywhich had been released a few years earlier. It counts down 24 hours to Emperor Hirohito’s radio broadcast in August 1945 announcing Japan’s surrender in World War II, in which a coup attempt by young army officers army and air force is uncomfortably close to success. Mifune is part of the required all-star cast, along with other Japanese idols like Shimura and Chishu Ryu. Mifune lends considerable dignity and quiet angst to the role of General Anami, the Minister of War, who must try to negotiate a peace he can live with in marathon cabinet meetings while dealing with restless (and wildly exaggerated) who continue to demand that Japan fight at.

Mifune was 49 and running his own major production company when he made this rambunctious, satirical, and ultimately tragic period piece with Okamoto in 1969. He was already acting in major international productions that made little use of his talents, and he was about to begin the television work that would occupy much of the last two decades of his career. But he could still bring enormous comedic energy to the role of Gonzo, an excitable peasant soldier who can return to his home village and pretend to be an army officer fighting to restore the Japanese monarchy. His exuberance carries the image as Gonzo assembles a coalition of prostitutes, students, and children to battle the shogun’s corrupt minions.

“Mifune” runs until March 30. For more information, visit filmforum.org.

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