by Andrea Grunert
In the 1960s, the Japanese film studio system was in decline while television was becoming a strong rival. This situation also affected the career of Mifune Toshirō, who worked more and more for the new medium in the 1970s and 1980s. Mifune had founded his company Mifune Productions in 1963, and in the 1970s and 1980s, he started producing television series in which he also starred. This article deals with three of these series which transfer the jidai geki, to the small screen – Ronin of the Wilderness (Kōya no surōnin, 1971-1974, two seasons, 104 episodes, NET), Ronin in a Lawless Town (Ningyio-tei ibun: mūhogai no surōnin, 1976, 23 episodes, NET) and The Lowly Ronin (Surōnin makaritōru, 1981-1983, Fuji TV). Each episode in the first two series is 46 minutes long, and The Lowly Ronin consists of six films of 90 minutes each.
A hero for television
Ronin of the Wilderness and The Lowly Ronin are jidai geki (period drama) and are set in the early 19th century, whereas the setting for Ronin in a Lawless Town is the early years of the Meiji period (1868-1912), when the rule of the samurai had been abolished and Japan had re-opened to the world. It is in a very strict sense not a jidai geki, which are defined as tales from the Tokugawa era (1600-1868). However, the hero in the series is a former samurai, and there are many references to this warrior caste that had dominated Japan since the late 12th century. Moreover, its main character and also the characters played by Mifune in the two other series are very much influenced by Kurosawa Akira’s groundbreaking film Yojimbo (Yōjinbō, 1961). Like Kurosawa’s yōjinbō, Toge Kujūrō in Ronin of the Wilderness and also the hero in The Lowly Ronin are rōnin, masterless samurai who are travelling around in Japan. The main protagonist in Ronin in a Lawless Town is the yōjinbō, the bodyguard in the “Mermaid Saloon” in Yokohama, a bar with an underwater ballet as its main attraction.
The characters Mifune plays in these series share a number of other characteristics with the hero of Kurosawa’s film. In Yojimbo, the rōnin invents a name for himself, telling people that he is Kuwabatake (mulberry field) Sanjurō (thirty years). The main protagonist in The Lowly Ronin calls himself Shunka Shūtō (written with the Japanese characters for spring, summer, autumn and winter). A direct link with Kurosawa’s Yojimbo and its sequel Sanjuro (Tsubaki Sanjurō, 1962) is established in the sixth film (The Lowly Ronin: Betrayal at Yatate Pass/Surōnin makaritōru: Yatatetōge ni uragiri o mita, 1983), in which the protagonist says that his name is Hinoki (cypress) Sanjurō. In Ronin in a Lawless Town, the yōjinbō is simply called Mr. Danna. “Danna” can be roughly translated as “the master of the house” or simply “Mister”.
A further feature of the two films by Kurosawa that recurs in the three series is the rōnin’s walk. Walking with swaying movements and his shoulders hunched was largely the creation of Mifune himself. In the television productions, this walk is used by the actor as an identification trait. Kurosawa’s protagonist and those in the series are superheroes and essentially loners who prefer action to words. In the series, they fulfil the viewers’ expectation, which is to see Mifune in films in which the character he plays triumphs over his adversaries. Toge Kujūrō, Shunka Shūtō and Mr. Danna successfully take a stand against crime and corruption, giving the actor numerous opportunities to demonstrate his fighting skills.
The dividing line between good and evil which is very much blurred in Yojimbo is quite clear in the series, where their heroes do not share the nihilism of Kurosawa’s rōnin but are far more conventional figures, fighting against injustice and protecting the weak. They act in accordance with Kujūrō’s maxim: “Whenever I see weak people, I feel I must help them.” Embodying the Confucian principle of benevolence, these heroes defend peasants exploited by corrupt samurai or merchants threatened by yakuza. They rescue women sold to brothels and thwart politicians’ plots. The values of altruism, tolerance and solidarity may have been outdated in 1970s and 1980s Japan, especially in the light of the economic boom as well as new uncertainties and social problems. However, these three series with Mifune offered escapism from everyday worries and from a comfortable but boring life in a consumer society with no opportunities for adventure or heroism.
The figure of a powerful but selfless hero revitalized the ideal of a samurai at a time when it was being more and more challenged. Ronin in a Lawless Town is set in the period of modernization shortly after the abolition of the old and hierarchical class system with the samurai at the top. Mr. Danna still wears a kimono, hakama (trousers which look like a wide, pleated skirt) and the two swords worn by a samurai but wears a union suit under his kimono and a neckerchief. His hairstyle is a combination of the samurai’s topknot and western fashion. This hybrid external appearance symbolizes the mixture of elements in modern Japan – a combination of Japanese traditions and western influence. Despite this rather old-fashioned appearance, Mr. Danna is depicted as an open-minded man who has been to America and is familiar with western civilization. He speaks English and also translates the love letters of Europeans and Americans into Japanese. His open-mindedness is also illustrated by his plea for religious freedom (episode 9). However, Mr. Danna does not fight alone. Another important character in this series is Chidori Gennoshin (Wakabayashi Gō), an agent of the new government who squats in the “Mermaid Saloon”. A dandy dressed in expensive western clothes, he carries and uses a firearm. The two men fight side by side, but it is usually Mr. Danna with his swords who is more effective than the man with the modern weapon from America.
Ronin in a Lawless Town does more than simply emphasize that the values of the fast-disappearing culture represented by Mr. Danna are vital for the country. The series also has a strong didactic dimension, portraying Japan at a moment of radical change, as shown in the frequent street scenes of the bustling harbour town of Yokohama with its Japanese, European, Americans and Chinese inhabitants and/or visitors. Each episode focuses on a different step on the way towards modernization – the introduction of the telegraph and the postal service using stagecoaches, the construction of a water supply system of pipes, and the manufacture of ice cream. At the end of each episode, there is a comment on the innovation by a voice-over narrator. For Mifune, giving such information about Japanese history was clearly important. It also matched the policy of the television station NET (Nihon kyōiku terebi/Nihon Educational Television), founded in 1958 as an educational channel but from the 1960s on also producing fictional series.
Character traits of the heroes
Tradition is highly valued in the three series, but no tradition is immutable, and Mifune was well aware that change is necessary if tradition is to be kept alive. This also applied to the heroes he played in the television series. Although they are undoubtedly archetypal and therefore simplified characters, they are not unidimensional. Mifune’s performance is a considerable contribution to the creation of characters who remain human and appealing. The Lowly Ronin (1981) includes references to the hero’s past, suggesting that he has left his clan because he could not marry the woman he loved. When he returns to his home region thirty years later, he discovers that she blinded herself when he suddenly disappeared. A general shot shows the rōnin staring at the woman from a distance. He cannot bring himself to reveal to her that he has returned, and his body and face express very clearly his inner torment. In The Lowly Ronin: The Teenage Orphan Girl (Surōnin makaritōru: namida ni kieta mikka gokuraku, 1983), the rōnin is at first annoyed by the adolescent girl who pretends she is his daughter. However, in the few scenes in which they are shown living together, Mifune’s performance reveals his character’s suppressed desire for a homelife and his longing for love as well as showing the happiness he experiences in the girl’s company. At such moments of joy and tenderness, which are more frequent in Ronin of the Wilderness and Ronin in a Lawless Town, the character Mifune plays is in harmony with himself, and this is especially the case when he acts alongside children. The warm-heartedness of such scenes with the rōnin seems so natural that the viewer could almost forget that Mifune is acting.
Another element that successfully challenges schematization is humour. Ronin in a Lawless Town in particular is marked by a number of comical situations which add to the series from the year 1976 an element of humour that is close to parody. Mr. Danna’s laid-back attitude is an allusion to Sanjuro, a film in which the protagonist is shown in a series of shots eating and sleeping while waiting for the next event. Sanjurō’s behaviour shocks the young, hot-headed samurai, who are eager to fight. It is certainly not the kind of behaviour expected of an ideal samurai, who leads a life of frugality and action. In Ronin in a Lawless Town, Mr. Danna is, like Chidori, a freeloader who spends most of his time idly drinking sake, smoking, reading or sleeping.
Humour gives Mifune an opportunity to explore a great variety of facial expressions and enrich the character of Mr. Danna with his tremendous ability to suddenly change the expression on his face and his whole attitude – a talent so much admired by Kurosawa. When the eccentric Mrs Kitakōji, the owner of the “Mermaid Saloon”, suggests making a ring for Mr. Danna with one of the precious stones in the golden crucifix she has acquired, he abruptly takes his hand away from the cross, his calm attitude transformed into an expression of horror. This very quick emotional change reveals Mifune’s brilliant sense of timing and his attention to detail (episode 9).
This scene also reveals another characteristic of the rōnin played by Mifune in the three series: his asexuality. The series all illustrate the samurai ethos of abstinence in an almost exaggerated manner, and here too are reminiscent of Kurosawa’s yōjinbō. In Ronin of the Wilderness (season 1, episode 11), Kujūrō refuses his employer’s offer that he can sleep with one of the prostitutes in his brothel. As he says bluntly: “I do not like women.” In other episodes belonging to the same series, the hero’s decency is exploited as a source of humour. In episode 8, Kujūrō stays at an inn and takes a bath in a hot spring, where he is joined by a young woman. His face and body become rigid, expressing his embarrassment, and when he talks to her, he stammers. The invincible hero is suddenly plunged into a situation beyond his control.
In the three series produced by his company, Mifune was able to cast himself as the “good guy”, the ideal superhero with a heart of gold, and the characters he played were certainly also influenced by his own personality – his warm-heartedness and open-mindedness. However, the comical moments make it clear that he did not take himself too seriously, and this aspect of the heroes he plays produces highly enjoyable moments in the films.