by Andrea Grunert
To Claude R. Blouin
In Inagaki Hiroshi’s Aru kengō no shōgai (Samurai Saga aka Life of a Swordsman, 1958), Mifune Toshirō plays the samurai Komaki Heihachirō, who, recalling the events of the preceding year, states: “Nothing of importance occurred on 1 April”. Is this an ironical reference to the actor himself, born on 1 April 1920? If so, it shows Mifune’s sense of humour and also his modesty. However, in my humble opinion, 1 April 2020, the centenary of this actor’s birth, is a day to commemorate him. This short article pays tribute to the great actor, producer and director. A man who became an actor by accident and only reluctantly when, trying to survive in post-war Japan, he took part in the “New Faces” contest organized by Tōhō film studios in their search for young actors. What followed was an astonishingly long career lasting from 1946 to 1995. Mifune was cast in more than a hundred films and several televisions series, he became an international star, and he was – for many – the symbol of Japanese masculinity, if not the face of Japan for the rest of the world.
A brilliant career in a few hundred words
Kurosawa Akira, having seen Mifune at the Tōhō contest, was “transfixed”(1) by his performance. In 1948, he cast the young actor in Yoidore tenshi (Drunken Angel), the first of sixteen films in a partnership lasting until 1965 and the beginning of one of the most prolific work relationships in film history.
In his first film Ginrei no hate (To the End of the Silver-capped Mountains aka Snow Trail, 1947), directed by Taniguchi Senkichi and co-written by Kurosawa, and also in Yoidore tenshi, Mifune plays a rebellious young man, a figure which appealed to Japanese moviegoers and which made the actor a star. Rebellion is a key word in an approach to Mifune, who shared Kurosawa’s anti-authoritarian tendencies and often played rebels and outsiders. But it was his speed, his ability to change the expression on his face so very quickly and also his energy which made him the ideal actor for this great director, whose work was so concerned with movement. As Kurosawa put it: “Mifune had a kind of talent I had never encountered before in the Japanese film world. It was, above all, the speed with which he expressed himself that was astounding.”(2)
Mifune’s first films were gendai-geki, but when Allied censorship ended in 1949 and the ban on jidai-geki and chanbara was lifted, he was often cast as a samurai, a role he is closely associated with and to which the title of Steven Okazaki’s documentary refers: Mifune: The Last Samurai (USA/Japan, 2015). Mifune played the legendary swordsman Miyamoto Musashi several times – in Inagaki’s Kanketsu Sasaki Kojirō: Ganryū-jima kettō (Sasaki Kojirō, 1951), in which he had only a supporting role, and in Inagaki’s Samurai Trilogy (1954-1956). His Musashi in the films that make up this trilogy develops from a rebellious adolescent to a swordsman looking for perfection and a sense in life. This development is magnificently displayed by Mifune, who plays the untamed youth with tremendous energy but is able to reveal the psychological depths of the character by means of highly nuanced facial expression and a restrained but complex body language. Mifune’s Musashi has romantic features to which the actor adds a good dose of sensuality, making him even more appealing.
In other jidai-geki, Mifune combines naturalist acting and extravagant poses, tenderness and bravado. In films such Ōsaka-jō monogatari (Daredevil in the Castle, 1961, Inagaki Hiroshi) or Akage (Red Lion, 1969, Okamoto Kihachi), he reveals his tremendous talent for comedy, playing men full of life and brimming with vitality. Mohei, the protagonist in Ōsaka-jō monogatari, is an outsider just as much as the protagonists he plays in Bakurō ichidai (The Life of a Horse Trader, 1951, Kimura Keigo), Muhomatsu no isshō (The Rickshaw Man, 1958, Inagaki Hiroshi), Kunisada Chūji (Chuji, the Gambler, 1960, Taniguchi Senkichi) and many other jidai-geki and gendai-geki films. Araki Mataemon: Kettō kagiya no tsuji (Vendetta of Samurai, 1952, Mori Kazuo, screenplay by Kurosawa) calls into question the bushidō via Mifune’s rich performance, revealing behind the accomplished swordsman and loyal bushi the moral dilemma and the despair of a man who, while respecting the codes of his caste, is forced into a fight to the death with his best friend. However, it is in Yōjinbō (Yojimbo, 1961, Kurosawa Akira) that Kurosawa and Mifune transform the swordfighting film by making it both more violent and funnier and by presenting a hero whose moral objectives are ambiguous. Mifune plays the yōjinbō with an amused grin and a laid-back attitude, the cool hero for more than one generation of moviegoers who became a role model not only in Japan.
Mifune played the role of the yōjinbō, the bodyguard, in several other films, including Zatōichi to Yōjinbō (Zatoichi Meets Yojimbo, 1970, Okamoto Kihachi) and Machibuse (Ambush at Blood Pass, 1970, Inagaki Hiroshi), and in television series such as Kaya no surōnin (Ronin of the Wastelands, 1973-1974) and Surōnin makaritorū (The Lowly Ronin, 1981-1983), produced by his own production company, Mifune Productions, which he founded in 1963. In the films and series with Mifune as actor and producer, he demonstrates his superb martial skills and plays ideal figures who stand up against corruption and crime and fight poverty and injustice. The rōnin Mister Danna in Ningyi-tei ibun: muhōgei no surōnin (Ronin in a Lawless Town, 1976-1977) is one of these superheroes, and Mifune saves the protagonist from being a mere cliché by his versatility and fine acting as well as by a brand of humour which shows that he does not take himself too seriously. Both Ningyi-tei ibun: muhōgei no surōnin and Dai Chūshingura (Epic Chushingura, 1971), a 53-episode series based on the story of the 47 Akō rōshi, have a strong didactic tendency, allowing the viewer many insights into Japanese history and the bushidō. In Dai Chūshingura, Mifune plays Ōishi Kuranosuke as the model warrior, giving a naturalistic performance of amazing depth and revealing Ōishi as a complex and captivating human being. All of the films and series produced by Mifune’s company also emphasize its founder’s concern with social issues.
It is not surprising that an actor who had achieved so much fame and been celebrated for his heroic roles starred in several war films made in the 1960s. He was cast several times as Admiral Yamamoto Isoroku (Rengō kantai shirei chōkan: Yamamoto Isoroku/Admiral Yamamoto, 1968, Maruyama Seiji, Midway, USA, 1976, Jack Smight etc.) and as Admiral Tōgō Heihachirō (Nihonkai daikaisen/The Great Battle of the Japanese Sea, 1969, Maruyama Seiji, Nihonkai daikaisen: umi yukaba, 1983, Masuda Toshio etc.). He played Anami Korechika, Japan’s last war minister, in Nippon no ichiban nagai hi (Japan’s Longest Day, 1967, Okamoto Kihachi) and the senior naval officer who evacuated the Japanese garrison of 5000 men in a courageous operation at Kiska a few days before the Americans landed on the Aleutian Island (Taiheiyō kiseki no sakusen/Retreat from Kiska, 1965, Maruyama Seiji). The only film Mifune directed – Gojūman-nin no isan (The Heritage of the 500,000, 1963) – combines adventure with memories of the war and of a violent past that still haunted the survivors, including the director-actor-producer himself.
Mifune is best-known for his samurai films, but he was just as convincing in romantic roles (Konyaku yubiwa/The Wedding Ring, 1950, Kinoshita Keisuke and Tsuma no kokoro/A Wife’s Heart, 1956, Naruse Mikio) and as a yakuza-godfather figure (Nihon no don: Yabohen/Godfather of Japan: Ambition, 1977 and Nihon no don: Kanketsuhen/Godfather of Japan: The Final Chapter, 1978, Nakajima Sadao) and a police inspector (Angokugai no taiketsu/Tales of the Underworld: The Last Gunfight, 1960, Okamoto Kihachi). His performance as the leading role in Ànimas trujano (Mexico, 1962, Ismael Rodriguez) was so convincing that the Mexican public believed him to be a Mexican. In the late 1960s, he became sekai no Mifune (Mifune of the world) and appeared in several international productions such as Hell in the Pacific (USA, 1968, John Boorman), Soleil rouge (Red Sun, France/Italy/Spain, 1971, Terence Young), 1941 (USA, 1979, Steven Spielberg) and in the American mini-series Shogun (USA, 1980, Jerry London).
Kurosawa said about his protégé: “Mifune is simply too well-built, he has too much presence. He can’t help but bring his own dignity to his roles.”(3) And dignified he was right up to and including his last screen appearance in Kumai Kei’s Fukai kawa (Deep River, 1995). Tsukada – the character he plays in this film – looks elegant in his silk dressing gown. Already weakened by illness, Mifune illuminates this scene and imbues it with the passion still burning inside him, lighting up the screen one final time.
A closer look at three films
Mifune was a star who was able to hide completely behind a mask. Even in films in which he was typecast, he succeeded in exploring the humanity of the characters he played beyond the cliché. His restrained acting is perfect for a screen hero assuming a different identity, and a pair of glasses is enough to complete the portrayal of the average Japanese (Warui yatsu hodo yoku nemuru/The Bad Sleep Well, 1960, Kurosawa Akira). When he was 35, he played a man twice that age (Ikimono no kiroku/I Live in Fear, 1955, Kurosawa Akira), and it is not make-up and short-cropped white hair alone which make him credible in this role. His whole body is transformed, and his gestures and movements disguise his muscular build. When face to face with 61-year-old actress Miyoshi Eiko, Mifune is absolutely convincing as her husband.
In this second part of my article, I will take a closer look at Mifune’s performances and reveal his versatility by considering his approach to three different roles. I am well aware that I can only provide a fragmented view as acting co-exists with other means of mise-en-scène, and it is not always easy, and perhaps impossible, to identify the source of a gesture. Is it the actor or the director or both? I focus here on Mifune on the assumption that these contributions are his, a logical assumption since he was a particularly creative actor, as confirmed by his ability to use and change the expression on his face, something that fascinated not only Kurosawa.
The rebellious youth: Yoidore tenshi
In Yoidore tenshi Mifune plays the yakuza Matsunaga, who is suffering from tuberculosis. Dr Sanada (Shimura Takashi), who lives and works in a run-down neighbourhood, tries to help him. Matsunaga is afraid of the disease, which was incurable in Japan until the late 1940s and was therefore considered a social stigma. He is a rebellious young man, a role which Mifune had already successfully played in his first film Ginrei no hate. In Yoidore tenshi, Kurosawa gives the character of this outsider depth, making him the symbol of the generation sacrificed during the war. Matsunaga is a disoriented young man with no clear perspective in post-war Japan, a country coming to terms with defeat and forced to face sudden socio-cultural change. The feeling of insecurity and resignation that marks a whole generation is expressed vividly through Mifune’s acting. In the first part of the film, Matsunaga is a brutish, arrogant youth, a proud male strutting around the streets like a peacock. Dancing with his mistress, the prostitute Nanae (Kogure Michiyo), his shrugging shoulders and protruded breast are a perfect expression of male aggressiveness. This new young actor Mifune reveals Matsunaga’s vulnerability and hidden fears through his performance and he does so with great speed and subtlety. In the very first sequence, Dr Sanada’s assumption that the young man has contracted tuberculosis affects his patient visibly, and his aggressiveness gives way to thoughtfulness and speculation. When the doctor calls him a coward, a cut on his face is a clear sign of his anger, and the next moment he darts at Sanada. This change from arrogance to fear which generates aggressiveness is repeated in several other scenes and expresses Matsunaga’s inner turmoil. He snarls, his eyes flash with anger and emotions are laid bare, becoming almost palpable.
Matsunaga’s physical decline is highlighted by his make-up – black making his cheeks appear hollow. However, more than any external means, it is the acting which reveals Matsunaga’s vulnerability, barely hidden behind his virile demeanour. His arrogance is only a mask to hide his confusion and lack of self-esteem, and Mifune’s stunning performance reveals the many cracks in this mask. This is seen in Matsunaga’s first encounter with his rival Okada (Yamamoto Reizaburō), who has just been released from prison. Matsunaga proudly walks around in the streets of the district which he and his gang control. While he is staring into a pond filled with garbage, a shadow is cast close to his own shadow in the slimy liquid. There is then a cut to Okada and Matsunaga, the latter bowing respectfully to the older gangster. Matsunaga’s demeanour shows a change from pride to servility, a change also expressed in his voice – much quieter and less confident than before.
In 1948 and thus a few years before Marlon Brando and James Dean, Mifune revealed the intensity and also the phlegm of a young man who feels bad about himself and uncomfortable in his body. This intensity, unusual in Japanese cinema, was so convincing that the Japanese public of that time took his performance for reality and thought that what they could see was a lunatic(4). And Kurosawa said of Drunken Angel, his seventh film: “In this picture I finally discovered myself. It was my picture. I was doing it and no one else. Part of this was thanks to Mifune.”(5)
The super-rōnin: Yōjinbō
Kurosawa’s Yōjinbō is a critical response to conventional jidai-geki and the fashionable yakuza films of the early 1960s. Set in the first half of the 19th century, the film depicts a society in which the merchants have become an important force despite the fact that the samurai still represent the ruling class. The protagonist played by Mifune is a rōnin who arrives in a town ruined by the rivalry between two merchants. He offers his services as a yōjinbō (bodyguard) to both, trying to play them off against each other as an amoral opportunist in a society dominated by greed and violence. In such an evil world, the conflict between giri (loyalty) and ninjō (personal feeling) that is at the core of many jidai-geki is obsolete. This rōnin is cynical and a true killing machine, but he purges the town of the true villains and helps a young family to escape.
In this film, Kurosawa is not interested in exploring psychological depth. His protagonist remains an enigma and the townspeople are mere clichés. However, the main character and the story, only simple on the surface, become complex through the interaction between characters and Mifune’s flawless performance. His speed and creativity make him the perfect choice for the role of a super-rōnin who injures and kills a large number of enemies with amazing agility. He demonstrates his speed and skill as a swordsman and – even more important – conveys his emotions physically through facial and body language, including tics and nuanced control of the expressions on his face.
The unkempt yōjinbō walks around the streets of the town, pulling his arms inside his grubby kimono to keep warm, and shrugging his shoulders. It is the walk of a swordsman, brilliantly supported by Satō Masaru’s music in perfect synchrony with the actor’s body movements. Kurosawa said about this walk: “It is Mifune’s own, but to stress it I carefully selected camera framings and lenses.”(6) The shrugging is not simply a mannerism but an expression of the harsh reality in which the lonely rōnin in his thin kimono and threadbare hakama lives, thus contributing to the portrayal. The same applies to the scratching, also an invention of Mifune. “Shrugging and scratching myself were my own ideas. I used these mannerisms to express the unemployed samurai, penniless, wearing dirty [kimono]. Sometimes this kind of man felt lonely, and these mannerisms characterize the loneliness.”(7) And the toothpick is a real brainwave. “A man who continually munches on a toothpick cannot help but look reflective, and at the same time informal.”(8)
The toothpick symbolizes the yōjinbō’s laconic, casual and unceremonious attitude – that of a self-confident man. He looks at the violence around him with an amused expression, a smile playing on his lips. He is the one who is pulling the strings and having fun, an aspect supported by details such as in the scene in which he eavesdrops on one of his enemies. When a group of prostitutes appear behind him, also listening and looking at him suspiciously, he simply sticks out his tongue at them. Another splendid reaction which makes words superfluous is when he sees the dog carrying a human hand. The yōjinbō’s face is like an open book, showing that an idea has sprung to his mind, namely that he will stay in the doomed town and make money out of the bloody conflict. Such attention to detail gives Mifune the opportunity to explore a great variety of facial expressions. One clear example of this is when he is confronted by the mallet-brandishing giant, whom he first looks at with surprise and then inspects from head to toe to emphasize – maybe with a touch of irony – the man’s enormous size.
Mr. Everyman: High and Low
The character Mifune plays in Tengoku to jigoku (High and Low, 1963), a film set in modern Japan, contrasts sharply with the very physical role as rōnin in Yōjinbō. Gondo (Mifune), the production manager at National Shoes, is trying to negotiate a deal to become one of the company’s major shareholders when he is informed that his son has been kidnapped. Shortly after, he learns that the kidnapper has taken his chauffeur’s son by mistake. Nevertheless, he is demanding an enormous sum of money, which Gondo at first refuses to pay because he needs the money for the deal. He then changes his mind and pays the ransom but loses all his wealth. He decides to leave National Shoes and to found his own company, freeing himself from a corrupt system only interested in profit-making.
Gondo is one of Kurosawa’s heroes who accept individual responsibility, in this case even for the kidnapper, to whom he says at the end: “Why must we hate each other?” Gondo lives in a magnificent villa, but coming from a working-class background which he has not forgotten, he proudly demonstrates his skills as a shoemaker. With a short haircut and a moustache, wearing a white shirt and jumper, Mifune looks just like an average citizen. However, it is not costume and haircut alone that ensure this star actor becomes invisible behind the role he is playing but, once again, it is in particular the way his sensitive approach to the character and his sense of space and timing contribute to characterization. The film is divided into three parts, with the first part shot almost exclusively in Gondo’s huge living room with its bay window affording a panoramic view of the city of Yokohama. Filmed in widescreen, the space looks like a stage on which the actors’ positions are skilfully choreographed. At the beginning of the film, Gondo discusses the policy of National Shoes with the three other managers, who do not share his work ethos but are only interested in reducing costs. Gondo, refusing to produce the kind of low-quality shoes his fellow directors are eager to promote, is presented as a self-confident man with a commanding voice and determined gestures.
The heated debates with his colleagues already suggest that Gondo, despite his self-confidence, is a man who can barely conceal his fury. The kidnapping, turning him into a victim, provokes a variety of emotions from despair to anger, from frustration to resignation. His inner turmoil becomes palpable when he walks back and forth along the length of the bay window, his hand running along the closed curtains while he explains to his chauffeur (Sada Yukata) why he cannot pay the ransom. But when he finally stops, his fists are clenched and his shoulders are slightly bent, like those of a man who bears a heavy burden and doubts his own words. Mifune succeeds in conveying Gondo’s moral dilemma by physical means – a slight movement of his lips showing his displeasure or his anger, a nervous gesture, the way his body freezes etc. His acting is as economical as Kurosawa’s cinematic style when he pulls the curtains open and closes them rapidly with an irritated gesture in response to the warning given by the policemen who are in the same room about the dangers of being observed by the kidnapper. Mifune finds the perfect balance between energy and quiescence to match Kurosawa’s directing. It is all there in his gaze and in the small gestures which betray his feelings .“I won’t listen to anyone. I won’t pay,” shouts Gondo, but his fingers drumming on his thighs reveal his tenseness. This nuanced acting shows once again that Mifune may have been a star but was a chameleon-like actor, able to conceal his own character and to become completely absorbed in the role he was playing.
“An actor through and through”
“Mifune was an actor through and through,” stated Kumai Kei, the director of his last film Fukai kawa(9). What an achievement for a man who did not intend to become an actor. Perhaps one can apply to Mifune what the character Funayama Jirō he played in the television series Gōnin no nobushi (Five Freelance Samurai, 1968) said about swordsmanship: “Swordsmanship is something you cannot learn. It is something you have in your heart.” Mifune invested heart, body and soul in his acting, and this is what makes him so outstanding and unforgettable.
1 Akira Kurosawa, Something Like an Autobiography, New York: Vintage, 1983, p. 160.
2 Ibid., p. 161.
3 Donald Richie, The Films of Akira Kurosawa, Berkeley, University of California Press, 1996, p. 133.
4 Tadao Satō, “The Multi-layered Nature of the Tradition of Acting in Japanese Cinema”, in Wimal Dissanayake, ed. Cinema and Cultural Identity: Reflections on Film from Japan, India and China, Lanham, MD, University Press of America, 1988, p. 47.
5 Bert Cardullo, Akira Kurosawa: Interviews, Jackson: University of Mississippi Press, 2008, p. 8
6 Quoted in Richie, op. cit., p. 155.
7 Quoted in Stuart Galbraith IV, The Emperor and the Wolf: The Lives and Films of Akira Kurosawa and Toshiro Mifune, New York/London: Faber & Faber, 2002, p. 304.
8 Richie, op. cit., p. 155.
9 Quoted in Galbraith, op. cit., p. 632.