by Andrea Grunert

Many years ago, when I told colleagues that my PhD thesis was on the films of Clint Eastwood, some of them gave me a look suggesting that they pitied me. Even today, and despite the thirty-eight films he has directed since 1971, I hear and read condescending remarks on Eastwood, still considered by some to be a second-rate director who cannot really be taken seriously. However, since his directorial debut Play “Misty” for Me (1971), in which he challenged his hard-boiled hero image by playing a radio disc jockey who is stalked by a female fan, he has always revealed himself as a director in full control of everything he does.

Eastwood is a great narrator whose films continue to uphold traditions of Classical Hollywood cinema. But first and foremost, he is a man who knows how to tell a story in images, and these images are by no means shallow. On the contrary, they challenge the viewer to subject them to close scrutiny in order to grasp their depth and subtleties. Eastwood has a vision, and this vision is a connecting link from his very first film to his latest one, Richard Jewell (2019). The value of individualism and the exploration of man’s dark obsessions and of violence are recurrent themes in his films. Other factors they have in common are the actor-director’s interest in music – jazz above all, but also country and western music – and his fascination for the many shades of black which became a trademark of his films long before the arrival of high film sensitivity and new digital techniques. His world view can be detected in the films that he did not direct but over which he exercised control, having founded his own production company – Malpaso Productions in 1967. In the 1970s and 1980s, Eastwood was more dependent on his image as the strong individual and had to play this role for his fans, who expected him to win and not to die of tuberculosis like the country singer Red Stovall in Honkytonk Man (1982, Eastwood). However, he was presumably never involved in productions which he completely disliked, and he was able to alternate more action-oriented films with personal projects such as Honkytonk Man and Bronco Billy (1980). And he made – and still makes – use of his hero image in a creative way, not simply modifying it but repeatedly calling it into question. Reflections on the making of legends create a powerful subtext in many of his films (1). Eastwood’s star image resonates in his films, even in those in which he does not appear such as American Sniper (2014), in which Chris Kyle, the SEAL played by Bradley Cooper, recalls the police officer Dirty Harry (played by Eastwood in a series of five films from 1971 to 1988). Both men are experts in their field and both are obsessed with their dark side, one of the main differences between the two being the reason that in Kyle’s case the traumatism is explained.

The construction of heroes: Flags of Our Fathers

War and violence are the topics of both Flags of Our Fathers (2006) and Letters from Iwo Jima (2007). Both films deal with the battle on the tiny Japanese island of Iwo Jima (2) that lasted from 19 February to 26 March 1945. It was the battle in which the U.S. military suffered the largest number of casualties in World War II (3), but for many Americans it became a symbol of heroism. Flags of Our Fathers was initially one of Steven Spielberg’s projects, and his DreamWorks Pictures co-produced Eastwood’s film (4). Letters from Iwo Jima was Eastwood’s own idea and represented an enormous risk for a Hollywood production because the cast consists almost entirely of Japanese actors speaking Japanese. Leaving Aeschylus’s The Persians aside, it is perhaps the first attempt to present a battle from the viewpoint of “the enemy”, this alone making Letters from Iwo Jima a unique work of art. These two films deal not only with war and violence, memory and trauma but also address the topic of legend-making (here not connected with Eastwood’s own screen persona) and questions of representation and perception.

Paul Haggis rewrote William Broyles Jr.’s first film script for Flags of Our Fathers (5). Both scripts rely on James Bradley’s book Flags of Our Fathers (6); the author being the son of John Bradley, one of the flag raisers in Joe Rosenthal’s famous photograph taken during the battle and one of the film’s main characters. Both Flags of Our Fathers and Letters from Iwo Jima contain realistic battle scenes that encourage emotional participation through fragmentation by camera movement and editing and the cacophony of gunfire, explosions and voices shouting commands or crying for help. There is much graphic violence – soldiers burnt alive, dead soldiers lying in their own blood, human intestines, severed limbs – but this is never used for mere effect or glorification and there is nothing heroic about the horrors of war that both the Americans and the Japanese soldiers have to endure. Instead, emphasis is put on how the war affects the characters. Flags of Our Fathers depicts the change the young Marines undergo, often doing so in subtle ways. They are portrayed as boyish and unconcerned in the scenes at Camp Tarawa (Hawaii) before the battle, and on their way to Iwo Jima. In one scene on the ship some of them have fun playing cards. When Ira Hayes (Adam Beach) shows his comrades photographs of dead American soldiers and a song referring to death on the battlefield is aired on the radio, their mood changes. Suddenly there is silence, the young men lost in thought. In the next shot, three of them are shown on deck, mere silhouettes enveloped in mist and deathly figures. The ghostlike appearance of the soldiers is in both films reinforced by an absence of colour. Eastwood uses an extremely reduced range of colours, making in particular the battle scenes in Letters from Iwo Jima (which means two thirds of the film) close to black-and-white photography. This lack of colour is reminiscent of the archive material from World War II at the end of Flags of Our Fathers, and in Letters from Iwo Jima it is an omen that the Japanese defenders of the island are doomed from the very beginning.

Flags of Our Fathers suggests that the survivors such as Bradley are themselves living dead, still haunted by their war experience. The film starts with the cry: “Corpsman!”. The camera follows a soldier running across the battlefield at night to rescue one of his comrades. It is John Bradley (Ryan Phillippe), nicknamed “Doc”, who is the corpsman called to duty. The camera reveals what Bradley sees – carnage – and shows the young man’s face, then his eyes in close-up, a tear running down his cheek. In the next shot we hear the cry “Corpsman!” again as an old man awakes from a nightmare. The old man is the aged John Bradley, confronted by memories he has been unable to suppress his whole life long.

James Bradley’s book traces the lives of the six Marines, including John Bradley, who are shown in the photograph of the raising of the American flag at Mount Suribachi. Eastwood gives detailed portrayals of the three surviving soldiers, with an emphasis on the critical evaluation of their heroization and manipulation in the process of legend-making. Flags of Our Father is a fragmented, non-linear narrative which connects past and present, Iwo Jima and America. The film shifts from the battlefield to present-day America and to different moments in time – before and after the battle. Rosenthal’s photograph forms the core of the narration. “A photo can help to win or lose a war,” says the photographer in an interview in the film. Flags of Our Fathers reveals how a rather insignificant event can be turned into an icon inspiring pride and hope. As James Bradley writes in his book: “(…) the photograph suggested a very different reality from that being experienced by the Marines back on Iwo Jima.” (7). A first flag raising had taken place after the conquest of Mount Suribachi, two days before Rosenthal shot his famous photograph on the occasion of a second flag raising with a bigger flag. This second flag raising was not the result of a heroic effort but took place after an unopposed climb up the hill and passed almost unnoticed. Moreover, the photograph was shot on the sixth day of the battle, a battle that continued for thirty more days. Several pictures were taken at both flag raisings, but it is Rosenthal’s photo with its classic composition of the six men around the pole with the flag in the middle of the picture and its strong dynamism which became an American icon (8).

As the film shows, the photograph was successfully used to inspire courage in the war-weary American citizens. Many of them were unaware of the fact that the battle on Iwo Jima was still raging, but to them the image suggested triumph and the power of the will to succeed. The almost bankrupt American government used the Rosenthal photograph to promote war bonds and arranged bond tours with the three surviving soldiers who were supposedly in the photograph (9): John Bradley, Ira Hayes and Rene Gagnon (Jesse Bradford). Eastwood, by contrasting the battle scenes with the bond tours in America, reveals two different realities and illustrates what the aged John Bradley says in a voice-over at the beginning of the film: “Every jackass knows what war is, especially those who have never been in one.” During the bond tours in the film a dessert made of meringue is created which has the shape of Mount Suribachi, and the young men, instrumentalized by the military and by politicians, become heroes but do not enjoy their celebrity status (except for Rene Gagnon). How much they are haunted by their war experience is revealed through the editing. The three men are standing on a heap of earth surrounded by darkness, but the sound of detonations accompanying the sequence does not come from machine gun fire and is the sound of fireworks. Camera movement reveals that the Marines are standing on a small artificial hill in the middle of a stadium somewhere in the United States, where a burst of applause follows the firework explosions. Then, once again, we hear the cry “Corpsman!” John Bradley, framed in close-up, turns around to face the camera, as if listening to the sound of his memory. In the next sequence he is on Iwo Jima again, and this time the noise is that of a fierce battle. The editing effects in this scene and in many others in both films are smooth. They are almost imperceptible movements from one space to another, from one time to another, revealing that these two realities simply cannot be disconnected in the minds of the survivors (10).

Giving the enemy a human face: Letters from Iwo Jima

In Flags of Our Fathers, the Japanese remain anonymous, shooting from their hiding places or presented as the faceless targets of the Marines. In Letters from Iwo Jima, the roles are reversed and “the enemy” has a face, a name and a story of its own. Eastwood shows the daily life of the defence forces, the harsh conditions in the cave system (11) which the commanding officer General Tadamichi Kuribayashi has had built over a period of several months before the American invasion.

The narrative structure of Letters from Iwo Jima is less fragmented but is just as complex as Flags of Our Fathers (12). The emphasis is on Kuribayashi (Ken Watanabe) and the young Private Saigō (Ninomiya Kazunari), establishing a strange bond between the general and the ordinary soldier who in civilian life is a baker. Kuribayashi saves Saigō from punishment by sadistic officers several times and even saves him from death, and at the end it is Saigō who buries the general.

For weeks the Japanese had to survive in the caves and tunnels on the volcanic island – also known as Sulphur Island – with almost no vegetation and scarce water resources (13). In the final days of the battle, they were completely without food and water. However, and in contrast to the stereotype of the obedient Japanese, they are not depicted as a homogeneous group but as individuals, each with his own opinion – for example, Saigō  who expresses his criticism of the military government’s policy (“There is nothing sacred about this island”, (14) and mocks it (after one of his comrades has died of dysentery, he says that he died of “honourable dysentery”, referring to the credo of the Japanese military to die an “honourable death”). Kuribayashi is represented as an open-minded man who has spent several years in the United States (15) and is aware of America’s technological superiority. However, his ideas are regarded with mistrust by some of his officers, who see him as a friend of the enemy and therefore weak. The film represents Kuribayashi – the creator of the ingenuous subterranean cave and tunnel system on Iwo Jima who was able to inflict the greatest losses to the Americans in the Pacific theatre – as a clever strategist. Indeed, Eastwood was drawn to Kuribayashi because of his strategic skills and unorthodox solutions (16). It was in his letters that he discovered Kuribayashi‘s human side (17). His portrayal of Kuribayashi is as a skilful military strategist who shows concern for the ordinary soldiers, an attitude which distinguishes him from many other Japanese officers. Ken Watanabe plays him as a cosmopolitan and humorous character and a caring father and husband.

Beside the two main protagonists, there are several other characters in Letters from Iwo Jima who are not at all stereotypes, and who reveal their desires and fears, their hopes and their despair. It is in their letters that they often express their feelings, showing that there are no differences between the ordinary soldier and the general, the Japanese and the Americans. Many of these letters are addressed to wives or mothers. And it is a letter from the mother of the American prisoner Sam which moves the Japanese soldiers listening to Baron Nishi (Tsuyoshi Ihara, 18) when he reads it to them. Under the impact of that letter, Shimizu (Ryō Kaze) reconsiders his opinion of the Americans, who are described as weak and barbaric in the Japanese propaganda. However, when he decides to surrender and shows himself unarmed, he is shot dead by a Marine seeking revenge. Avoiding simplistic views of both the Americans and the Japanese, Flags of Our Fathers and Letters from Iwo Jima deal with the very idea of truth. Shimizu, suspected of being a spy by one of his comrades, reveals to Saigō that he is no longer a member of the kempeitai, the feared military police, but was dishonourably dismissed from its ranks. There are also links between the two films that serve to indicate errors of judgment by the Americans. In Flags of Our Fathers, the Marines discover the mutilated corpses of a group of Japanese soldiers who have blown themselves up with hand grenades. For the Americans, this fits the cliché that the Japanese die stoically. Letters from Iwo Jima depicts their moment of collective suicide. The men follow the example of their fanatical commanding officer to the death, but they express a variety of feelings such as fear and regret. And Saigō disobeys the orders of the officer, respecting Kuribayashi’s shunning of suicide and also his own survival instinct.

War and humanism: a dilemma?

Kuribayashi requires his men to fight to the death, following the policy of the military government of that time, which he does not question; however, this does not prevent him from taking some individual decisions. It is through such contradictions that Eastwood depicts him as a human being. But are they contradictions? Kuribayashi follows orders as military men are trained to do – in Japan as well as in the West. War is something which human beings are apparently unable to avoid, Eastwood seems to say, placing his two films in the context of recent or ongoing wars. Kuribayashi is represented as an ideal honourable and chivalrous but he remains a man of flesh and blood and is never a mere cliché, something which cannot be taken for granted in Hollywood productions dealing with America’s former enemy.

Both Flags of Our Fathers and Letters from Iwo Jima have a commemorative dimension, but they concentrate on what war does to men, leaving them traumatized and forever wounded. They challenge the Manicheism created by the propaganda in both countries and perpetuated by Hollywood films and also the racism that the Pima Indian Ira Hayes was the victim of (19). There is no historical record of Kuribayashi’s death, who in the film kills himself with the colt revolver he was so proud of. This colt is an object of significance in the film’s discourse on perception and identity. When Saigō spots it for the first time, he concludes that Kuribayashi must have taken it from a dead American soldier. Later, a flashback reveals that the weapon was a farewell present from Kuribayashi’s American friends when he left his post at the Japanese Embassy in Washington. Before he dies, Kuribayashi has a vision of himself driving a car along a road in America, the colt on the passenger seat. His voice-over, reading a letter written to his young son Tarō, reveals his happiness at being able to return home soon but also his regret at leaving his American friends. These two feelings coexist, being part of Kuribayashi’s complex character. After he has buried the general, Saigō is surrounded by a group of Marines. He attacks them desperately with his shovel when he sees that one of the soldiers has Kuribayashi’s revolver at his belt. Now it is a trophy and one which, ironically, will find its way back to America. The weapon creates a subtext dealing with false assumptions and also dealing with friendship and the overcoming of prejudices. It adds a new layer of meaning to the death scene, reducing its sentimental element. And this is just one example of the multiple perspectives that open up complex views on a single event, an event that changed the lives of so many men.



  1. Eastwood works and reworks his own legend, relying on the role of the powerful individual, and in Heartbreak Ridge (1986) contributes to the legend of the American invasion of Grenada in 1983.

  1. The island has a surface area of eight square miles.

  1. The U.S. casualties were “six thousand killed and twenty-five thousand wounded, while the Japanese defense force of twenty thousand was virtually annihilated.” (See John Dower, War without Mercy: Race and Power in the Pacific War, New York, Pantheon, 1987, p. 92). The numbers may vary slightly from author to author, but they give an indication of the importance of the battle.

  1. Both Flags of Our Fathers and Letters from Iwo Jima were produced by DreamWorks, Malpaso Productions and Amblin Entertainment.

  1. Lacking access to the original script, I am unable to compare the two. The name of William Broyles Jr. as one of the scriptwriters of Flags of Our Fathers has been kept for legal reasons, but apparently his script underwent considerable changes after Eastwood took over the project.

  1. James Bradley with Ron Powers, Flags of Our Fathers, New York, Bantham, 2000.

  1. Bradley, op. cit.

  1. Displayed in American newspapers, most of which covered the battle on Iwo Jima, it appeared in the same year on a postage stamp. The memorial to the Marines at Arlington National Cemetery is a copy in bronze of the group photographed by Rosenthal, and it became the model for other war memorials in the United States. The image was evoked once more during a ceremony paying tribute to New York’s firemen in the ruins of the World Trade Center in 2001, thus showing that it still has its hold on the American imagination to inspire courage at a moment of defeat.

  1. As the films shows, there was much confusion about the identity of the six Marines in the picture in which the faces cannot really be identified. According to recent research by James Bradley, we cannot even be sure that his father was one of the flag raisers. (Cf. Michael S. Schmidt, “Flags of Our Fathers’ Author Now Doubts His Father Was in Iwo Jima Picture”, The New York Times, 3 May 2016).

  1. This editing technique is also used in sequences with Ira Hayes and to a lesser degree in those focusing on Rene Gagnon.

  1. Kuribayashi used natural caves and had new ones built, all connected by tunnels. The underground passageways had a total length of 17 miles.

  1. Letters from Iwo Jima contains sequences of a Japanese research team exploring the caves in 2005 and flashbacks to events in the lives of the soldiers Saigō and Shimizu and to Kuribayashi’s time in the United States.

  1. Flags of Our Fathers was shot in Iceland and Letters from Iwo Jima in California (Malibu, Barstow, Bakersfield).This second film also includes a number of shots on Iwo Jima for which Eastwood obtained special permission, enabling him to add landscape shots that included residual evidence of the war – tanks, weapons, helmets and other material –, shots of the two war memorials on Mount Suribachi, and a few showing Ken Watanabe as Kuribayashi exploring the island’s topography.

  1. Iwo Jima had important symbolic significance for the Japanese. Part of the Japanese archipelago, it was where the first battle fought on Japanese soil took place and was therefore not only important for strategic reasons and for its two airfields.

  1. Kuribayashi was deputy military attaché at the Japanese Embassy in Washington from 1928 to 1930.

  1. Clint Eastwood quoted by Jack Foley, “Letters from Iwo Jima – Clint Eastwood Interview”, wwww.indielondon.co.uk, not dated.

  1. Cf. Tadamichi Kuribayashi, Picture Letters from the Commander-in-Chief: Letters from Iwo Jima., edited by Tsuyuko Yoshida, San Francisco, VIZ Media LLC, 2007

  1. Baron Takeichi Nishi was a Japanese equestrian show jumper and Olympic Gold Medalist at the Los Angeles Olympics in 1932. He died on Iwo Jima.

  1. At several points the film criticizes American racism targeting the Native American Ira Hayes. In his book, James Bradley plays down this racism and Hayes’s status as a victim.



You can read more from Andrea Grunert on the films by Clint Eastwood in the book

DICTIONNAIRE CLINT EASTWOOD,  Vendémiaire, October 2016.  978-2363582430 (In French)





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.


Once Upon a Dream-01

by Andrea Grunert

To Takahashi Tetsuya

The Lichtblick Cinema in Berlin was the location for a screening of films by the Japanese filmmaker Shichiri Kei. Once Upon a Dream (2007/2016, 80 min.), Necktie (2019, 15 min.) and Music as Film (2014, performance version with reality voice-over and remix) were shown on 3 March 2020 with the director himself present. My interest in his films was aroused a few years ago by the cinematographer Takahashi Tetsuya, one of Shichiri’s faithful collaborators. Unable to travel to Tokyo, the screening in Berlin was for me the first opportunity to finally discover a small sample of his work. I do not live in Berlin, but I seized the opportunity to attend the presentation of three films by Shichiri Kei, and my decision to do so turned out to be the best I could have taken.
Shichiri does not like genre categorizations and indeed, his films combine multiple elements, making a classification difficult. However, Once Upon a Dream and Music as Film in particular go beyond the conventional storytelling that most filmgoers are used to. Shichiri creates complex works relying on association and dissociation. The experimental character of his films requires considerable attention from us viewers, an attention which is, however, rewarded by deeply felt emotions, in the best case leading to understanding and insights. I have been in very high spirits since the evening at the Lichtblick Cinema, as if under the (very positive) spell of the films, and they continue to provoke new questions. Questions about the medium itself, about representation and perception and about the very essence of the images which continue to haunt us in a world that is flooded with images and sounds and in which digitalization offers new creative possibilities but also sets many traps. Shichiri’s work questions anew the very nature of the relationship between image and reality.

Once Upon a Dream

Once Upon a Dream is inspired by a manga in which the characters were represented. In Shichiri’s film, human bodies are almost totally absent. There are just a few shots in which actors are framed, and where they are framed, their bodies are fragmented or stylized. A young woman is filmed from behind, and in a series of more general shots, the woman appears in a view of a landscape as a miniature figure in a wide empty space. Or, we see parts of the human body such as hands. It is the human voice, detached from the body, which is at the very core of Once Upon a Dream, a film reminiscent of films by Marguerite Duras, a writer and filmmaker Shichiri is indebted to as he told me in a short improvised interviewii. However, in Shichiri’s work it is the voice that makes human presence strongly felt.
Once Upon a Dream is a cult film in Japan, where it receives annual revivals. On the 10th anniversary of the first screening, it was remastered in surround sound. The voice-over is not a commentary but an interior monologue, a stream of thoughts, memories, impressions. There are also dialogues between a man and a woman. And there is an inner confrontation with scary voices which haunt the woman and to which she refers in her monologues and in the dialogues. We listen to the sounds of the nature – the chirping of birds – or to a train passing by. In some sequences, the surrounding sounds of the natural or the urban environment are faded out, whereas the voice-over continues. Long stretches of landscape shots or street views are accompanied by music. Sometimes, a second soundtrack is audible in the background while we can still hear the voice-over. This complex approach to sound is mirrored by a similarly complex treatment of image: dissolution, fragmentation, subtle contrasts between light and shade. The blackness of the first shot is transformed by the light of a sunrise, with the branches of trees appearing as dark silhouettes set against the pale blue of the sky. The image of the tree emerges before our eyes while we listen to music and to the sound of a passing train – a reminder of the urban world, which is then revealed after a sudden cry by a female voice puts an abrupt end to idyllic feelings. The interior shots of a small flat – bedroom, tiny bathroom – suggest the everyday life of a woman, who is framed from behind while smoking a cigarette. The sounds and images of the most banal objects – a toilet, for example – are frequently used throughout the film. Spaces of daily life – the flat, empty streets, various rooms in a school in which the woman and the man work – are framed by the camera while the voices evoke memories, fears, dreams. The images of material objects collide with thoughts about love and work, insanity and death, revealing Shichiri’s interest in the subconscious. Our brain is not focused on a single object or space that is captured by the camera. Instead, thoughts and the spoken text drift away from the immediate environment, as if on a different track. Through dissociation of image and sound, new imaginary spaces are filled in us, the viewers, by our minds and emotions. There are also moments of light relief, such as the shots of the ashtray with the picture of a black cat and “le chat” (French for “the cat”) on it. This picture of a cat is an almost comic reference to the cat which lives in the woman’s flat and which appears frequently in the film and can even be seen in a photograph next to the toilet.

Once Upon a Dream is also a work on perception. Hands, the topic of the interior monologue and/or dialogue, are shown in close-up, revealing the way we perceive ourselves and our environment. Shichiri recalled during our short interview that he was reflecting here on human vision. Our field of vision is limited and our perception fragmented, which is one of the reasons why he avoids a representation of the human body in this film. However, Once Upon a Dream is not an abstract construct. Voices and images create strong feelings. The absent-present characters behind the voices express feelings which point to a descent into madness, for example the woman’s fear of waking up. Love, fear, madness, death are the topics of the spoken text, and they are conveyed by the emotions evoked by sound and image. Shichiri told me that his approach to reality is via the fantastic, and Once Upon a Dream shows that he does not need special effects to demonstrate that reality is a complex entanglement of images and sound, everyday impressions and poetry, material reality and the subconscious, the visible and the invisible.



In Once Upon a Dream the boundaries between reality and dream are blurred. Dream establishes a link between this film and Necktie, in which dream is an essential part of the narrative. This short film combines the search for a missing woman with the exploration of identity and desire. The search leads a man and a woman through the streets of Tokyo into a district which does not figure on any map, and the film becomes a journey into the subconscious. A young woman offers a necktie to a stranger whom she meets in a café, asking him to look for a friend of hers who has gone missing and who obsessively stole the ties of random drunk strangers. The physical object “tie” literally creates a tie between them, influencing the man’s behaviour and self-image. The theme of the film Necktie had a number of sources, as Shichiri explained to me. He did research on the origins of the garment in 17th century France, was inspired by the importance it had for Oscar Wilde, and was further motivated by an anecdote told to him by Takahashi Tetsuya concerning a love story in which ties played a crucial role. During the Thirty Years’ War, the knotted handkerchiefs worn by Croatian mercenaries aroused the interest of young Louis XIV. These cravats were presents given to the soldiers by their wives or lovers as protection, and they also served as a means to identify the dead on the battlefield. In these sources, ties have a dramatic function or are related to identity, and Shichiri explores both aspects in his short film, which is infused with mystery.

Music as Film

The key-figure in the third film is Salome. The voices revolve around the figures of a mother, a daughter and an absent father, whose identities remain as unclear as their relationship to each other. The relationship is as dreamlike as that between the man and the woman behind the voices in Once Upon a Dream and the relationship between the characters who appear in Necktie. “Cinema made from sound” is a project on which Shichiri has been working since 2014. At the Lichtblick Cinema, the composer Adachi Tomomi performed the live act that accompanies parts of the film.
One of the key questions Shichiri asks in this film is: How are images transformed under the impact of changing music and sound? On the soundtrack, a number of voices recite and sing, and during a live performance, a variety of sounds created by the human voice and by electronic devices are added to this soundtrack of recorded music, sounds and voices. Two stories are narrated separately but simultaneously, one in sound, the other in images. The recorded voices relate the story of Salome as interpreted by Shichiri, and images of landscapes and objects intersect with text. The written words of this text refer to the history of the cinema and its evolution towards the digital era. Shichiri told me that he started thinking about changes to the image as a result of digitalization, which for him represents the greatest change in film history. He compares the digital image with aliens taking on human form in films such as Invasion of the Body Snatchers (USA, Donald Siegel, 1956), the digital image looking like the real thing but differing from the original in significant details. It is a fake image, shallow and devoid of essence.
To approach this topic and the questions it raises, Shichiri goes back to the very beginning of filmmaking, showing in a fascinating way that film was never silent, that there was always musical accompaniment or surrounding noises. He does not need to explain this in words, and instead demonstrates it by means of a polymorphic soundtrack and sound environment and the association of images with written text. Here again, he makes use of dissociative as well as associative elements. Image and sound seem separated but are also closely connected, as if allowing the viewer to “listen to the image” (a phrase that Marguerite Duras used). Shichiri explained that the idea of connecting the Salome motif with reflections on the infancy of the cinema was born when he learned about Oscar Wilde’s play Salome, premiered in Paris in 1896, a few months after the first film screening by Louis and Auguste Lumière.
In our conversation, Shichiri emphasized that Salome is a prominent figure in 19th century literature and art, inspiring Heinrich Heine and Oscar Wilde as well as painters such as the French symbolist Gustave Moreau, whose painting “Salome” (1876) was the inspiration for Wilde’s play. According to Shichiri, the figure of Salome is closely connected with the birth of the cinema, and this connection is illustrated in the film not only by historical facts but also by allusions. One of these is expressed by the idea of the cut, and there are several references to cuts. In one sequence a male head is displayed on a concrete block near the sea. During the screening, I could not help associating this image of Jokanaan’s head with the process of editing, or “Schnitt” (cut) in German. And Shichiri told me that he had indeed been toying with that idea. Editing is a very cinematic device which is omnipresent in the elaborate fragmentation operating at all levels in Shichiri’s films, and it extends well beyond the usual editing of the photographic and sound material to include sounds from the space in which the film is shown. Music as Film brings together the dramatic story of Salome, who seeks to possess Jokanaan with a different form of possession, which is discussed at a theoretical level and addresses the question of when music first came to film – a man (film) seeking to possess a woman (music). The ancient story of Salome, her desire, and the violence of the biblical tale confronts the written text on-screen referring to the emergence of cinema. The water – the ocean – is a reminder of birth and the womb. Shots of the roaring sea filmed from a cavern have an archaic quality and evoke the strange encounter between the ancient Salome story, which provided a topic for the arts – literature and painting – at the end of the 19th century, and the modern age with the emergence of the cinema, inventions such as the car, and the birth of psychoanalysis. And as we know, psychoanalysis relies on many images familiar from mythological sources and has given them new perspectives. Moreover, the symbol of waves on the surface of the sea reminds us that both sound and light are also waves, waves which are fundamental to cinema.
Music as Film presents a number of different layers of time which meet each other, fuse into each other or resist each other. Shichiri tells stories of creation in which film becomes the starting point to explore cinema and reality, image and sound. What we see – and the text points to this – are images. Shichiri’s work offers a concentrated, but necessary reflection on images and sound which requires intense sensitive and intellectual engagement but without ever forcing us, and we can nevertheless take pleasure in the harmonies and disharmonies of which all three films are made.

Shichiri Kei-Portrait

i)I would like to thank Professor Shibutani Tetsuya for his kind support. He not only suggested that I should present Shichiri Kei with a variety of questions but was also kind enough to act as translator.

ii)The interview which Shichiri Kei kindly agreed to give me took place on 4 March 2020 in Berlin and provided some important clues for this article, for which I am very grateful.