Wednesday, April 1, 2020

10 Great Performances by Toshiro Mifune

Toshiro Mifune in Yojimbo
It was 100 years ago today that Toshiro Mifune was born in Japanese occupied Qingdao, Shandong, China, where his parents were working as Methodist missionaries. When he was young he worked in his father's photography shop. At 19 he was drafted into the Imperial Japanese Army. During World War II, he served in the Aerial Photography unit. Following the war, Mr. Mifune was accepted for a position as an assistant cameraman at Toho Company, Ltd.

It was in 1947 that a number of Toho's actors left to form a new company called Shintoho. It was then that Toho held a contest to attract new talent to replace the actors who had left. One of Toshiro Mifune's friends submitted his photo and an application for him without him knowing it. He was on 48 applicants who was accepted out of around 4000. He then took a screen test for director Kajirō Yamamoto. Afterwards he was cast in his first feature film, the comedy Shin Baka Jidai (1947).  Ultimately, Toshiro Mifune's career would last for 48 years and would include many classic films. He worked with several of Japan's top directors, most notably Akira Kurosawa. Toshiro Mifuen and Akira Kurosawa would make sixteen films together.

Below are some of Toshiro Mifune's best performances from throughout his career.They are listed in chronological order.

Stray Dog (1949): Stray Dog was the third film that Toshiro Mifune made with Akira Kurosawa. It is a prime example of Japanese noir. In the film Mr. Mifune plays homicide detective Murakami, whose gun is stolen by a pickpocket. He gives a bravura performance as the rookie cop who finds himself amidst the underworld to retrieve his stolen weapon.

Rashomon (1950): Rashomon was the first of Akira Kurosawa's films to receive international attention, and it is with good reason. It is a remarkable film all around, with an excellent script, incredible cinematography by Kazuo Miyagawa, and solid performances by its actors. In the film Toshiro Mifune plays a character far removed from the stalwart samurai he is known for. The bandit Tajōmaru is boastful, cowardly, dishonest, and dishonourable.

The Samurai TrilogyHiroshi Inagaki directed three films based on the life of famed swordsman Musashi Miyamoto. The films, Samurai I: Musashi Miyamoto (1954), Samurai II: Duel at Ichijoji Temple (1955), and Samurai III: Duel at Ganryu Island (1956), followed Miyamoto through his life from an overly confident young warrior to to a wise and philosophical samurai. Samurai I: Musahshi Miyamoto begins following the battle of Sekigahara, while Samurai III: Duel at Ganryu Island ends with his famous duel with rival Kojirō Sasaki. Toshiro Mifune does a masterful job of playing Miyamoto, taking him from youthful and inexperienced samurai to a more grounded warrior.

Seven Samurai (1954): Seven Samurai may well be the best known film of both Akira Kurosawa and Toshiro Mifune's careers. And it is with good reason. The film regularly ranks in lists of the greatest films of all time, and I personally considered the greatest movie ever made. Seven Samurai was certainly influential, with films still being made that bear its impact. Given Seven Samurai centres on a band of samurai protecting a farming village from bandits, one might expect Toshiro Mifune to play a traditional, brave, and noble samurai. Instead, to a large degree Mr. Mifune played comic relief in Seven Samurai. Kikuchiyo is temperamental, volatile, and often comical. In fact, he is not even truly a samurai, but a farm boy who wanted to be a samurai. That having been said, Kikuchiyo is also brave and resourceful, and he understands the farmer's plights more than the other samurai. Kikuchiyo is one of the most sophisticated roles Toshiro Mifune ever played, a character who provides humour, but can be taken seriously nonetheless.

Throne of Blood (1957): Throne of Blood takes the plot of Macbeth and moves it to feudal Japan. Toshiro Mifune then finds himself in the role corresponding to Macbeth, Taketoki Washizu. Toshiro Mifune does an incredible job portraying the samurai general who, following a prophecy from a spirit, is manipulated by his wife into murder and more.

The Bad Sleep Well (1960):  Another one of Akira Kurosawa's film noirs, The Bad Sleep Well also owes a bit to Hamlet. Toshiro Mifune plays Kōichi Nishi, a young man who takes a job with a major corporation in order to bring to justice the man responsible for his father's death. Mr. Mifune does a remarkable job playing the grieving son intent on exposing the corporation's corruption.

Yojimbo (1961) and Sanjuro (1962): Yojimbo is one of Akira Kurosawa's most famous films, and certainly one of his most influential. The film is based largely on Dashiell Hammett's novel The Glass Key, with the action moved to the end of the Edo Period in Japan (1860). The film would prove successful, so that a sequel, Sanjuro, was made. In both films Toshiro Mifune plays a ronin who is reluctant to give his real name (in Yojimbo when asked his name he simply says it is "Kuwabatake Sanjuro"--"mulberry field thirty years old).  In Yojimbo Sanjuro plays two warring clans against each other. In Sanjuro he deals with corrupt officials. In both movies Sanjuro is crafty and not below using means that could be considered dishonourable. Yojimbo would prove to be influential. Arguably, the whole concept of a morally ambiguous hero with no name can traced back to it, though Sergio Leon's  unauthorised remake A Fistful of Dollars.

High and Low (1963): In High and Low Toshiro Mifune plays shoe company executive Kingo Gondo who is in a struggle to maintain control of his company when a friend of his son is kidnapped. Based on the "87th Precinct" novel King's Ransom by Ed McBain, High and Low is very much a police procedural.

Samurai Assassin (1965): Directed by Kihachi Okamoto, Samurai Assassin is a solid jidaigeki set in 1860, the last days of the Edo period. The film was inspired by actual history, namely the Sakuradamon Incident, in which Japanese chief minister Ii Naosuke was assassinated by rōnin. Toshiro Mifune plays Niiro Tsurichiyo, the illegitimate son of a noble who sides with various clans opposing a powerful man in the shogunate.

Hell in the Pacific (1968): Hell on the Pacific centres on an American serviceman (played by Lee Marvin) and a Japanese serviceman (played by Toshiro Mifune) stranded on an island in the Pacific during World War II. Although the two are initially distrustful of each other, they eventually decide to work together and even bond together. Both actors do a remarkable job in their respective roles, a particularly remarkable feat given how little dialogue there is in the film. While many of the roles Toshiro Mifune took outside of Japan failed to display his considerable talent, Hell in the Pacific displays the full range of his considerable skill as an actor.

1 comment:

Caftan Woman said...

I can't see anyone arguing with your selections. Mifune continually impresses me.

A personal favourite of mine is Scandal (Shubun) from 1950, another Mifune and Kurosawa collaboration. It is a contemporary story of tabloids and the legal system, with a very emotional core.