Kurosawa and Mifune

An actor and a director who changed film history

Film history is full of famous director-actor collaborations. John Ford and John Wayne, Martin Scorsese and Robert De Niro, John Cassavetes and Gena Rowlands. They all offered their peculiar double whammy yin and yang to movie-goers.

Japanese director Akira Kurosawa and actor Toshiro Mifune were their own cinematic dynamic duo, collaborating on 16 films together over the course of their conjoined careers. Both helped bring the Japanese cinema to the attention of the world, and in later years, made their own unique contributions to film history. Kurosawa's films were often about the elasticity of truth and morality's gray zone, and Mifune served those themes well. His rugged Everyman quality and hypnotic intensity made Kurosawa's ideas live and breathe.

The High Museum's Kurosawa & Mifune film series highlights the importance of collaboration in both of their careers while showcasing seven seminal Japanese films offered here in newly restored prints: The Seven Samurai, Stray Dog, The Hidden Fortress, Yojimbo, High and Low, Sanjuro and Rashomon.

Kurosawa initially studied to be a painter, but when his commercial art career stalled, his destiny was set when he became an assistant director to filmmaker Kajiro Yamamoto. Kurosawa's first feature, Judo Saga (1943), marked the debut of a remarkable auteur who went on to make 31 films, many of which became classics of world cinema.

Part of that canonization of Kurosawa is in no small part due to Mifune's galvanic performances in many of those films. Japanese film critic Tadao Sato noted an essential division between heroic types in Japanese actors. On the one hand are the gentle, low-key actors reminiscent of a Joseph Cotton or James Mason, called nimaime. Mifune was no nimaime. Butcher than butch, Mifune was part of a film fraternity of virile types called tateyaku, equivalent to American actors like John Wayne.

Mifune's stoic acting style — a carryover from Japanese theatrical tradition — in turn inspired the supremely masculine, jaw-clenched performances of Clint Eastwood and Lee Marvin, who Mifune matched no-nuance for no-nuance in John Boorman's machismo endgame Hell in the Pacific. Mifune's distinction was his ability to also convey deeper strains of reluctance and regret beneath such Über-masculinity.

Kurosawa's innate talent for filmmaking was well-matched in his leading man's inborn charisma. Like Kurosawa, Mifune initially saw his destiny elsewhere. Mifune wanted to be a cameraman, reluctant not to "rely on my face to make money."

A lean, young Mifune had already appeared in one Kurosawa film, 1948's Drunken Angel, but it was the debut of Rashomon (July 19) in 1950 that became a career-defining moment for both men.

Kurosawa was already a well-established director in Japan before Rashomon. But it was that film, which won the Grand Prize at the Venice Film Festival in 1951, that broke through the wall of cultural obscurity that had ghettoized Japanese cinema.

Rashomon is a film about the flexibility of truth. It concerns a dead man, a rape and four versions of the crimes as told by four different witnesses, including the spirit of a dead character channeled by a medium. Mifune plays a bandit whose unapologetic brutality gives the film its electric power.

Kurosawa's distinction in Rashomon and later films was his ability to blend Japanese folklore with a modern sensibility, which was well-matched to Mifune's modulated mix of naturalistic and stylized acting. That same skill marked Kurosawa's other definitive films like 1954's The Seven Samurai (June 7). A "Far East Western," Samurai combined 16th-century Japanese folk legend with the vibrant, kinetic style of a Western. It was Kurosawa's ability to bridge the interests of the East with the vitality of the West that made him so enormously appealing to a world audience and so inspiring to other filmmakers like Jean-Pierre Melville, Walter Hill and George Lucas, who based his Star Wars on Kurosawa's 1958 The Hidden Fortress (June 21).

Kurosawa named his greatest influences as Howard Hawks, Frank Capra and John Ford, all — like Kurosawa — supreme technicians and masters of a variety of genres. But there was one genre that thrilled Kurosawa above all others — the Western, whose spare moral codes and economical gestures perfectly suited Kurosawa's own aesthetic. In turn, it was Kurosawa's ironic treatment of violence and his fresh, philosophical approach to the moral extremes of good and evil that profoundly influenced the revisionist Westerns of Sergio Leone and Sam Peckinpah.

Yojimbo (June 28) is representative of that revisionist approach. It begins as a classic Western with a stranger riding into town but soon shifts into a morally ambiguous precursor to the gray zone of the contemporary post-Western. Mifune is a paid gun / samurai who "cleans up" a corrupt small town in his own inimitably bloody, fatalistic way.

There is an element of comedy in the grotesque violence — as is seen in later American films with a nihilistic bent — that is defined by the film's opening shot of a mutt running through the deserted town holding a man's hand in his mouth. And one can see the blueprint for every American Western action hero to come when Mifune quips after Yojimbo's climactic bloody massacre, "Now there'll be a little quiet in this town." Taking that sense of heroic cynicism and running with it, Leone essentially remade Yojimbo in 1964 with his spaghetti Western classic Fistful of Dollars starring Clint Eastwood as a "gaijin" Mifune.

But Kurosawa was not exclusively hung up on the Western. He also ventured into historical epics, gangster films, tragedy and literary works from Dostoevsky (The Idiot) to Shakespeare (Throne of Blood, Ran).

He often invited his collaborator Mifune along on such ventures into fresh genres, as in 1949's Stray Dog (June 14) about a homicide detective (Mifune) who follows the man who stole his gun into the depths of Tokyo's post-WWII underworld. Steeped in the same postwar moral panic as the American film noir cycle, Stray Dog is greatly accessorized by Mifune's grave performance of a morally conflicted soldier turned policeman. Kurosawa returned to a suspense-laden noir milieu with 1963's High and Low (July 11)__. Based on Ed McBain's detective novel King's Ransom'', it's about a wealthy shoe company executive (Mifune) whose family is threatened by a kidnapper who dwells in Japan's brackish lower depths.

Kurosawa has acknowledged how essential filmmaking was in helping him realize his creative powers. As he once told critic Donald Richie, "If I could have said it in words, I wouldn't have gone to the trouble and expense of making a film."

Like the theory that a butterfly beating its wings in one part of the world may affect the weather in another, it's tantalizing to imagine how different film history might have been had Kurosawa persevered as a painter and Mifune as a cameraman. Mifune died in 1997 and Kurosawa a year later, leaving behind careers that seemed in retrospect preordained, but were probably just one of destiny's perfect flukes: a serendipitous match-up of two rare birds who together altered the course of film history.