mifune ronin of the wildern

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.

36 chowringhee

„She wanted to warm herself,“ the people said. No one imagined what beautiful things she had seen, and how happily she had gone with her old grandmother into the bright New Year. (The Girl with the Matches by Hans Christian Andersen)

The aging Anglo-Indian Violet Stoneham is a teacher for literature. Her relatives and fiends have passed away or have moved to another country like her niece Rosemary. During the film, her brother will die too. The administration of the school where Stoneham works, demoted her. They say it is because of her age but some colleagues suppose it has to do with her ethnic belonging.

Her monotonous and lonely life she shares with her cat Sir Toby. A young couple brings for some time more diversion into her life. The young woman was once a student of Violet Stoneham. The young man pretends to be a writer who looks for a quiet place to write. While Violet Stoneham is working, the young couple occupies her little apartment. While the spectator soon questions the intention of the young couple (which seems to be rather on the search for a love nest), this constellation becomes soon a replacement for Stoneham´s family which does not exist anymore.

Later, when the young couple has married and has made a career, they hardly contact the old lady anymore. Once she shows up at their place unannounced and they try to get rid of her as soon as possible. They say they are just on the way to an appointment. After a sudden inspiration, Violet Stoneham prepares her much vaunted Christmas cake. She intends to put the cake as a surprise in front of the couple´s door because they are supposed to be not at home during holidays. The sceptic spectator begins gradually to be worried about the lonely lady. These two aspects of the the dreamy poetic and than a sober scepticism which we can feel in many films by Aparna Sen.

On this very day, Violet Stoneham reaches with her cake at the house of the young couple. A single close up of her face suggests that she has something seen which upsets her. This close up is followed by a slow camera movement towards the big window of the house. It is the window of the living room. The window is fogged up but the room is lighted. Many people are celebrating, singing or dancing. With one hand, Stoneham wipes a peephole on the foggy big window. And suddenly the peephole becomes a big screen. What the screen reveals appears as a projection of Violet Stoneham´s dreams, a party with friends, the opposite of her isolation and loneliness. But the party takes place without her and no one seems to miss her. There is the old phonograph, she gave to the young couple as a wedding gift. If she has noticed that a young man is mocking about the phonograph and the old fashioned records, I do not know. She stands like she is rooted to the spot.

Than the camera moves backwards and the big screen becomes again a small peephole of the fogged up window. This scene is hard to bear. It is on one hand a high concentrated example of pure cinema on the other hand we witness how the longings of a very lonely woman suffer the cold death. The dreamy view into a festive lighted room changes into into the disenchanted insight of loneliness how I know only from very few films. This setback from a great moment of cinematic poetry through two seemingly simple camera movements to grim loneliness gives the film a long echo which burns into the memory.

Now she is walking alone through the deserted nocturnal big city. A straying little dog (who must have smelled the cake which Miss Stoneham has still with her) follows her. She cites a bit from Shakespeare´s King Lear and than we hear her voice over citing a letter to her niece Rosemary. For the first time in her life, Violet Stoneham thinks about to leave her country India for good.

This concourse of poetry and realism reminds me in the deeply sad fairy tale by Hans Christian Andersen “The Girl with the Matches” The joy of the girls at the images induced by the light of her matches fascinated me as a child. With the first match she just wanted to warm herself up. But than she creates for herself everything what she is missing with the matches. She struck another match against the wall. It burned brightly, and when the light fell upon the wall it became transparent like a thin veil, and she could see through it into a room.” (The Girl with the Matches, Hans Christian Andersen).At first she sees in her own visions a splendid decorated Christmas room but when her recently deceased grandmother appears, she wanted to see her again and sacrifices her last match to walk with her into the light. The harsh contrast between this wonderful vision and the next morning, the lack of comprehension of the people at the sight of the girl who has frozen to death unsettled me a lot when I was a child.

Rüdiger Tomczak

This is the english version of a german text published in shomingeki No. 27 in homage to Aparna Sen in four parts.


by Andrea Grunert

Some time ago, cinematographer Takahashi Tetsuya suggested that I should explore the work of filmmaker Shichiri Kei, with whom he has often worked (1). Films such as Once Upon a Dream (2007/2016) and Necktie (2019) immediately fascinated me. I am therefore very happy that I have had an opportunity to watch the new short film by Shichiri-san, Explore Your Story, Speak Your Heart (Japan, 2021). An image film produced by the Waseda International House of Literature (WIHL), informally known as The Haruki Murakami Library (2), it is a real pearl and goes far beyond the mere self-presentation of a prestigious institution. Taking as its title the motto of the WIHL’s Opening International Symposium to be held on 20 November 2021, Explore Your Story, Speak Your Heart is a quest for the very essence, the heart so to speak, of the reading experience and establishes close links with the work of the famous Japanese author.
The film starts with shots taken outside the Haruki Murakami Library, with the focus on the sinuous framework wrapped around part of the building’s otherwise sober architecture. Rapid piano music accompanies shots of its undulating pattern before the interior of the library is revealed via a series of dissolves. The music that follows is softer and more reflective and a grand piano appears in the image, as if connecting image and sound. A young woman seems intrigued by several small white statuettes representing people reading a book and positioned on bookshelves.
Suddenly the lights go off, inviting the viewer to follow the camera into a realm of fantasy, where images of geometrical forms – empty shelves and the library’s staircase – appear and are invaded by shadows. Repeating the undulating pattern of the construction outside the building, they form part of their own mysterious space. The subtle interplay of light and shade creates a dense, unsettling atmosphere that challenges the first shots, filmed in broad daylight. A young man, who was earlier sitting at the foot of the staircase reading a book, is now a mere silhouette taking on the various poses of the statuettes, while the shadow of a woman appears in the dimly lit room. Piano music underscores the flow of the images, their smooth movements heightened by dissolves. The slow and graceful movements performed by the woman, who is no more than a phantom-like projection, a shadow cast on the walls and the shelves, contribute to the elegance of the floating, dreamlike movements created by the camera and the editing.
This crucial sequence, roughly in the middle of a film lasting barely three minutes, is its core and a reference to the experience of reading as an experience giving access to a different reality. The young man, still a mere silhouette, has now fallen asleep, thus linking the images to a dream situation and to an imaginary and secretive world about which Shichiri gives no further clues. His film is highly evocative and atmospheric and as mysterious as Murakami Haruki’s novels and short stories.
Explore Your Story, Speak Your heart reminded me of Murakami’s novella for children “The Strange Library” (1983), in which a boy is imprisoned in a nightmarish library where he encounters a number of strange people, including a voiceless girl. In the film however, the library at night does not seem particularly frightening. At one point, the young man has fallen down the stairs after being touched by the female silhouette. Looking at him, the woman makes a gesture that suggests grief, a brief emotion expressed when she covers her face with her hands. This relatively long sequence recreates via images something that Murakami wrote in his story: “Beyond the inner door was a shadowy corridor lit by a single flickering bulb.” This is where in the story the door opens into the realm of imagination, and in the film, the transition from the real to the imaginary world is revealed by the library itself, which seems to take on a life of its own. Shichiri visualizes moments of inner life, and Murakami addresses such moments throughout his work, with dreams and mystery playing an important role.
Shichiri-san told me that he was also inspired by Murakami’s letter of acceptance for the Hans Christian Andersen Prize, which he received in 2020, a letter in which he refers to Andersen’s fairy tale “The Shadow”, about a man who loses his shadow, which then becomes independent and falls in love with a princess… This is just one of what are certainly many sources of inspiration that could be identified for the film. Far more important is that Shichiri invites us to explore the unknown with him, experiencing it not only with our minds but with all our senses.
At the end of the film, Shichiri returns to the busy library in daylight – the reading room, the shelves, the piano (another hint to Murakami, in whose work music plays a vital role), the exterior of the building. This building is a place where different realities converge, and it is Shichiri who reveals them through image and sound. Not unlike Murakami’s writing, Shichiri’s filming mediates between dreams and thoughts – thoughts that his unconventional approach tries to encourage in the viewer. Both Shichiri and Murakami challenge the boundaries between interior and exterior reality, between the mind and the material world. And both the writer and the filmmaker imply that the distinction between what is real and what is not might be a question that simply does not matter.

1.Takahashi Tetsuya is also the cinematographer of Explore Your Story, Speak Your Heart.
2.The Waseda International House of Literature, established on the campus of Tokyo’s prestigious Waseda University, was opened to the public on 1 October 2021. Architect Kuma Kengo remodelled an existing university building into one that reflects the visions of Murakami Haruki, to whose work the library is dedicated. It contains 3000 of Murakami’s books translated into 50 different languages and also archive material donated by the writer.