Image-Yojimbo

by Andrea Grunert

60 years ago – on 25 April 1961 – Kurosawa Akira’s Yōjinbō (Yojimbo) was released in Japan. Since then, much has been written about this highly influential film that inspired many Japanese and international productions, of which Sergio Leone’s Per un Pugno di dollari (A Fistful of Dollars, Italy/Germany/Spain, 1964) is the best known. The Japanese film’s ambiguous central figure – the yōjinbō or bodyguard, played by Mifune Toshirō (1) –, its graphic violence (2) and its various mise en scène devices (3) have left their indelible mark on filmmaking both in Japan and in the West.

Subverting genre conventions
Leone turned Kurosawa’s film into a Western (made in Europe), and Yōjinbō itself contains elements reminiscent of this most American genre, including shots of the protagonist emerging on the dusty main street of a small town where the final showdown will later take place. There are also numerous details that evoke Westerns as well as elements of the hard-boiled genre in film and literature. However, the setting and many other aspects are distinctively Japanese. The many references to a great variety of narrative and visual elements in Japanese and other cultures (4) reflect the history of Japanese cinema (and of the country as a whole), contributing further to the originality of Kurosawa’s film.
With its many fight scenes, Yōjinbō could be called a chanbara, a swordfighting film, but its complexity makes the label jidaigeki (period film) more appropriate. The action is set in the early nineteenth century in the last decades of the Tokugawa era, which ended in 1868 after more than 250 years with the samurai no longer the official rulers of the country. As in Shichinin no samurai (Seven Samurai, 1954), Kumonosu-jō (Throne of Blood, 1957) and Kakushi toride no san akunin (The Hidden Fortress, 1958), Kurosawa offers a critical view of the samurai class and its codes of behaviour. However, in contrast to these earlier films, he openly challenges genre conventions. The yōjinbō defeats his opponents using their methods, and Kurosawa reacts to the jidaigeki and chanbara genres from within by subverting their conventions.
Distancing himself from the mass productions by the successful Toei studio – the champion of chanbara production with its stylized fight scenes and stereotypical plots and characters – Kurosawa pushes graphic violence to new extremes. The shot of a severed arm falling to the ground or blood gushing from the neck of a victim create gore effects unknown at that time in mainstream period films. As Yoshimoto Mitsuhiro writes, “there was no direct representation of blood in conventional chambara. Yojimbo destroys this convention once and for all!“ (5). In Kurosawa’s ground-breaking film, the realistic approach to violence is also explored in the sound effects – one particular innovation being the sound of human flesh being slashed.
Kurosawa’s shift from formulaic expression had already inspired Araki Mataemon: kettō kagiya no tsuji (Vendetta of Samurai, 1952, Mori Kazuo), for which he wrote the script and in which Mifune was cast in the leading role as the famous swordfighter Araki Mataemon. The film starts with a ballet-like swordfighting scene reminiscent of early silent films and their origins in Kabuki theatre. A voice-over informs the viewer that this form of representation belongs to the past, new films being more realistic. Both Mori’s film and Yōjinbō present realistic fight scenes and have complex main characters. However, the critical reworking of the samurai ideal in Araki Mataemon is mainly expressed through narration whereas in Yōjinbō aesthetic aspects are important in the critical discourse on the values attributed to the samurai and on genre conventions. Moreover, Kurosawa’s film eschews the didactic intention that is revealed in the first sequences of Araki Mataemon. Yōjinbō’s various cultural references and its rich intertextual dimension that is an integral part of Kurosawa’s filmmaking and Mifune’s media image enhance the critical exploration of the film’s genre renewal. It is this multi-layered approach that makes Yōjinbō a masterpiece of modern cinema.

Hero and mise en scène
The hero of Yōjinbō has been described as the “the narrative attractor” (6), and in the film, he openly talks strategy with the innkeeper Gonji (Tōno Eijirō), who identifies his role as manipulator and initiator of violence when, referring to a series of killings, he asks: “Did you write this play?” This hero, a ronin (a masterless samurai) is reminiscent of the nihilist samurai and ronin figures in the films of the late 1920s and 1930s (7) but is adapted to fit the 1960s, making him darker and also funnier. Whereas the traditional image of the ideal samurai celebrated the value of loyalty, Kurosawa’s hero sells his services to two masters and his sole aim seems to be to make money – a further aspect of the film that is in strong contrast to the ethos of the warrior class. He is part of a society still ruled by the samurai but in the nineteenth century largely dominated by the merchants, the lowest of the four classes (8) into which Japanese society was divided in the Tokugawa period. In this world, notions of honour and loyalty are meaningless and so is the conflict between giri (loyalty) and ninjō (personal feelings) that is at the core of many period films. When asked his name, the ronin, looking at a mulberry field, says that it is Kuwabatake (mulberry field) and that his first name is Sanjurō (literally 30th man, which is his age). Instead of exploring the conventional relationship between the samurai, who often had a short life, and the cherry blossom – the delicate flower which only blooms for a short time – Kurosawa offers the mulberry as an ironical alternative, reinforcing his criticism of the warrior ideal perpetuated in many of the Toei productions.
This materialist hero who kills in cold-blood is a pivotal element in Kurosawa’s bushidō criticism and also an important figure in the intertextual discourse as a means to subvert genre conventions. The disparity between this unkempt ronin and figures such as the famous swordsman Miyamoto Musashi, whom Mifune played in Inagaki Hiroshi’s Samurai Trilogy (1954-1956), or the loyal general Makabe Rokurota in Kurosawa’s Kakushi toride no san akunin adds a touch of irony to the figure of this highly ambiguous ronin who then became the model for more modern cinematic heroes. However, the fact that Sanjurō does not hesitate to kill also reveals what the Samurai Trilogy and other period films of the 1950s only suggest – namely that their heroes are killing machines and alienated characters (9).
As in Shichinin no samurai, Kurosawa pursues a realistic streak in which external elements are a reflection of life conditions and an inner struggle and thus appropriate for this alienated loner hero. The yōjinbō’s kimomo is greasy, his hair unkempt, his face unshaven. To these physical aspects Mifune adds mannerisms that underline the character’s poverty, loneliness and marginality. Gestures are means of characterization. The way he tucks his hands inside his kimono to keep them warm, scratching himself frequently and chewing on a toothpick also contribute to the ironical detachment that inspires the portrayal of this hero (10). “Sanjurō never presents himself as a defender of social justice; he is a self-consciously humorous character who always maintains a critical distance from himself” (11), a description that Mifune’s economic acting supports magnificently with his amused, laid-back attitude. The speed with which he changes the expression on his face, – an ability that Kurosawa admired so much – and his enormous creativity as an actor made him the perfect choice for the role. As for his walk – swaying movements, his shoulders hunched –, it is Mifune’s own creation, heightened by framing, camera lenses and music (12).
Mifune’s performance is a marvellous match for Kurosawa’s complex mise en scène and Miyagawa Kazuo’s sublime cinematography. Constant use of deep focus, allowing maximum detail in the shot, together with unsettling close-ups create a highly elaborate visual experience. The unusual orchestration of Satō Masaru’s soundtrack prefigures Ennio Morricone’s music for Leone’s Spaghetti Westerns. Its playfulness, contrasting with the violent action, creates a comic counterpoint that is a further contribution to the genre subversion at the core of the film. Humour is an important part of the narrative and is also captured in a number of caricatures such as the cowardly town constable Hansuke (Sawamura Ikio). In the Toei productions and in the “cinema of cruelty” that followed the success of Kurosawa’s film, humour is absent. It is also the element that most clearly distinguishes Yōjinbō from “other graphically violent films” (13) such as Kobayashi Masaki’s masterpiece Seppuku (Harakiri, 1962).

Post-war masculinities
The yōjinbō is a hero endowed with almost supernatural powers. The way he unbelievably escapes death in impossible situations also contributes to the film’s ironical dimension, bypassing realism. This combination of supernatural powers and alienation makes Sanjurō a symbol of his time, his marginalization creating a link to Japan’s recent past. “Although this film is set at the end of the Tokugawa era (1600-1868) when Japan was ‚forced‘ to open to the West and began to modernize, the roots of Yojimbo do not lie only in the imagined heroic past but also in the moral dilemma of the immediate postwar era.” (14) In one of the first sequences, the protagonist crosses paths with a stray dog carrying a severed human hand in its mouth. The sight of the dog with the human hand is a signal to the ronin of the state of anarchy in the town; and the viewer is also invited to identify the lone figure in his shabby clothes with the dog. Not unlike the animal, he lives on the margins of society, a reminder in 1961 of the Japanese soldiers returning from the battlefields in China or the Pacific who were regarded as outcasts by their compatriots and considered no better than stray dogs – a topic that Kurosawa addressed directly in Nora inu (Stray Dog, 1949). Here, Mifune plays a young police inspector who tries to overcome his war trauma and adapt to the new, peaceful Japanese society in a film dealing symbolically with the feeling of emasculation experienced by many Japanese men after defeat in 1945 (15). Sanjurō, by contrast, displays a newly regained masculine strength which is, however, tainted by alienation and loneliness as symptoms of a society dominated by materialism and greed. The past is inseparable from the present; and the historical setting becomes infused with social and political meaning. Addressing modern-day concerns about a corrupt society in which politics, the economy and crime are intertwined, Kurosawa’s 1961 jidaigeki continues the critical discourse of his previous film Warui yatsu hodo yoku nemuru (The Bad Sleep Well, 1960) set in 1960s Japan (16).
Intertextual elements support the film’s reflections on masculinity and heroism. The elderly yojinbō Homma, who leaves the town before the first fight, waving good-bye to his colleague, is played by Fujita Susumu, the star in Kurosawa’s directorial debut Sugata Sanshirō (Sanshiro Sugata, 1943). As Stephen Prince puts it, “the moment becomes self-referential, a scene in which the two heroes, past and present, of Kurosawa’s cinema meet.” (17) The idealistic young man represented by the judoka Sanshirō is replaced by the middle-aged alienated hero played by Mifune. “It is also a farewell to a more innocent conception of the past, as an era that could nurture Sanshirō’s childlike optimism and spiritual commitment. From now on, the force of history would be felt in terms incompatible with these conditions.” (18) This brief moment in the film is also a reminder that since Yoidore tenshi (Drunken Angel, 1948, Kurosawa), Mifune has presented a far more complex masculinity than Fujita did in Sugata Sanshirō and its sequel (19), a masculinity less concerned with physical prowess than with the inner struggle of the male protagonists.
However, this estranged and violent hero is still capable of altruism. He saves Nui (Tsukasa Yōko) and her family from violence and humiliation and, in giving them all his money, rejects his materialism. Nor does he kill the young peasant who has joined one of the gangs. Instead, he sends him back to his parents, repaying the couple for their kindness when they let him drink water from their well on his arrival in the town. Sanjurō’s violence contrasts with that of Unosuke (Nakadai Tatsuya), the younger brother of one of the gang bosses terrorizing the town. When the innkeeper asks whether he scripted the series of killings, Sanjurō answers: “Half of it. The other part was written by him”, referring to Unosuke. This reply perhaps suggests that he and Unosuke are two sides of the same coin, evoking the doppelganger motif Kurosawa so often explored in his films and with Unosuke, the incarnation of evil, being the yōjinbō’s dark side.
Unosuke, the younger of the two men and not a samurai is the symbol of a new, changing society and, as indicated by the fact that he uses a pistol, influenced by the West. He is the extreme version of modern Japanese youth, even though he does not wear an Aloha shirt like the yakuza Matsunaga in Yoidore tenshi or the rebellious teenager in Ikimono no kiroku (Record of a Living Being, 1955, Kurosawa). In Yōjinbō, the sword wins out over the firearm, tradition over modernity. Anarchy and crime are abolished, but order is only restored by resorting to violence and repression. There is no feeling of harmony or liberation in a world permeated by crime and corruption when the yōjinbō turns his back on the town to continue his solitary life on the road.

Notes
1. Shiba, the ronin played by Tamba Tetsurō in Gosha Hideo’s Sanbiki no samurai (Three Outlaw Samurai, 1964), is reminiscent of the character created by Kurosawa and Mifune in Yōjinbō. Mifune played the lead in the film’s sequel Tsubaki Sanjurō (Sanjuro, Japan, 1962, Kurosawa Akira) and he played the ambiguous, alienated figure of the yōjinbō in Inagaki Hiroshi’s Machibuse (Incident at Blood Pass, 1970) and Okamoto Kihachi’s Zatōichi to yōjinbō (Zatoichi Meets Yojimbo, 1970), both produced by Mifune’s production company. He also portrayed the ronin/yōjinbō in several television series produced by his company such as Kaya no surōnin (Ronin of the Wastelands, 1973-1974) and Surōnin makaritorū (The Lowly Ronin, 1981-1983), where this figure is a much less rounded character.2. “A new genre of film called ‚cruel film‘ (zankoku eiga) emerged in the wake of the commercial success of Yojimbo and its ’sequel‘ Sanjuro. In 1963, for instance, Toei’s most successful film at the box office was no longer a formulaic jidaigeki film but Imai Tadashi’s Cruel Stories of Bushido (Bushidō zankoku monogatari), an omnibus film that graphically depicts the masochistic sufferings of the protagonists over seven generations.” (Yoshimoto Mitsuhiro, Kurosawa: Film Studies and Japanese Cinema, Durham, NC, Duke University Press, 2012 [2000], p. 290-291). The heightening of graphic violence is also visible in the Spaghetti Western, a genre that began with Sergio Leone’s remake of Kurosawa’s film.
3. The perpendicular, medium-length shots frequently used in Yōjinbō became an action film convention and were exploited by directors such as George Lucas, one of the many admirers of Kurosawa.
4. With regard to these possible references, Dolores P. Martinez (“Kurosawa’s Noir Quartet: Cinematic Musings on How to Be a Tough Man” in Chi-Yun Shin and Mark Gallagher, eds.   London/New York, I.B. Taurus, 2015, p. 37-52) examines Yōjinbō in the context of film noir and Japanese folklore whereas Gerald Sim (“Cinematic Expressions of Rakugo in Akira Kurosawa’s Comedies Yojimbo and Sanjuro”, Asian Cinema, Fall/Winter 2011, p. 253-268) reveals the film’s close links with Rakugo, a traditional Japanese form of entertainment.

5. Yoshimoto, op. cit., p. 289.

6. Leonard Ginsberg, Rhapsody on a Film by Kurosawa, CreateSpace Independent Publishing Platform, 2013, p. 16.

7. The period film was very much an innovative genre in the second half of the 1920s and in the 1930s in which directors such as Shōzō Masahiro, Itō Daisuke, Itami Mansaku and Yamanaka Sadaō expressed social criticism through criticism of the bushidō. Their films, having abandoned the Kabuki-inspired style of earlier productions, contained spectacular swordfighting scenes and were characterized by more realistic acting. Their heroes often played by the stars of that period – Tsumasaburō Bandō and Ōkōchi Denjirō – were social outcasts and the settings the poor quarters of Edo (present-day Tokyo).
8. Japanese society of the Tokugawa era was divided into four classes: samurai, peasants, craftsmen and merchants. The merchants, whose world was money, were much despised by the ruling warrior class, whose ethos put honour above material needs.
9. In Inagaki Hiroshi’s Sohen Sasaki Kojirō (Kojiro Sasaki, 1950), Mifune had already played Miyamoto Musashi, a minor character in the film. This Musashi is clearly guided by his killing instinct, his savagery underlined by Mifune’s energetic acting and wild glares.
10. The reference to a toothpick has a historical foundation. Ruth Benedict writes: “They [the samurai] were forbidden to give way to hunger but that was too trivial to mention. They were enjoined when they were starving to pretend they had just eaten: they must pick their teeth with a toothpick. ‚Baby birds,‘ the maxim went, ‚cry for their food but a samurai holds a toothpick between his teeth.’” (The Chrysanthemum and the Sword: Patterns of Japanese Culture, Boston, Mass., Mariner Books. 2006 (1946), Kindle edition, no pagination. The fact that the poor ronin in Yōjinbō chews on the toothpick has nothing to do with honour – he is truly starving.

11. Yoshimoto, op. cit., p. 292.

12. See Donald Richie, who refers to a statement by Kurosawa (The Films of Akira Kurosawa, third edition expanded and updated with a new epilogue, Berkeley, University of California Press, 1996, p. 155).

13. Yoshimoto, op. cit., p. 292.

14. Martinez, op. cit., p. 37.

15. Yoidore tenshi (Drunken Angel, 1948), Shizukanaru kettō (The Quiet Duel, 1949) and Nora inu.

16. Warui yatsu hodo yoku nemuru and Yōjinbō were the first two films produced by Kurosawa’s own production company, established in 1959.

17. Stephen Prince, The Warrior’s Camera: The Cinema of Akira Kurosawa, revised and expanded edition, Princeton, NJ, Princeton University Press, 1999, p. 230.

18. Prince, ibid., p. 230

19. Two years after the release of Sugata Sanshirō, Fujita Susumu played the role of Sanshirō in Zoku Sugata Sanshirō (Sanshiro Sugata II, Kurosawa, 1945).

 

by Andrea Grunert

When I first watched Sekigahara (Japan, 2017), I was intrigued by its great formal beauty, complex structure and the many outstanding performances. Harada Masato’s film brings to life a crucial moment in Japanese history; and its main protagonists become real human beings of flesh and blood. The battle that took place on 21 October 1600 near the village of Sekigahara on the western edge of Mino province (1) was the crucial event in a campaign that had started in July of that year (2). Its outcome changed the course of Japan’s history, achieving unification and marking the beginning of about 250 years of Tokugawa rule – 250 years of peace based on a complex bureaucratic system and a strict military regime. The battle was a confrontation between two rivals for supremacy in Japan – Tokugawa Ieyasu (1543-1616), played in the film by Yakusho Kōji, and Ishida Mitsunari (1563-1600), played by Okada Jun’ichi. At that point in history, Ieyasu was the richest and most influential daimyō (3) in Japan. He was the lord of the eight provinces of the Kantō region in the east of the country and one of the five regents (tairō) for five-year-old Hideyori, the son and designated successor of Toyotomi Hideyoshi (1537-1598), the general who is regarded as the second unifier of Japan following more than hundred years of civil war (4). Mitsunari was one of the members of the go-bugyō, the council of five magistrates in Hideyoshi’s government, and he defended the young heir’s interests during the Sekigahara campaign.

Narrative complexity meets aesthetic beauty
Adapting for the screen Shiba Ryōtarō’s novel Sekigahara, published in 1966 (5), was clearly a tremendous challenge; and the film reduces the several hundred characters in the three-volume epic to around 50. It depicts the battle as the culmination of a complex series of events that are traced back over several years. Harada’s account of some of these precursors to the final confrontation near Sekigahara reveals the desire for power and revenge, the shifting alliances and the hatred at the core of the conflict.
The focus in the film is on Mitsunari, defeated in the battle, who had previously been belittled for a long time as a mere bureaucrat. Anthony J. Bryant describes Mitsunari as an “inveterate schemer” (6), which is also how a number of films had presented him, including Tanaka Kinuyo’s Ogin-sama (Love under the Crucifix, 1962) and Kumai Kei’s Ogin-sama (Love and Faith, 1978), both adapted from Kon Tōkō’s novel Ogin-sama (7), and Teshigahara Hiroshi’s Rikyū (Japan, 1989), based on the novel Hideyoshi to Rikyū (8) by Nogami Yaeko. In all three films, Mitsunari is depicted as a villainous and treacherous character (9), but this is a view that Harada disagrees with.
After a first brief sequence set on the plain near Sekigahara on the eve of the battle, a series of flashbacks outlines the political context and Mitsunari’s role as Hideyoshi’s confidant. The flashbacks start in 1573, when Hideyoshi, who was to become the most powerful man in Japan a few years later (10), meets Mitsunari for the first time. According to a famous legend, 13-year-old Ishida Mitsunari – then called Sakichi – served tea to the thirsty general, who was taking a rest in a temple near Nagahama Castle in Ōmi province (11). Mitsunari’s origins are obscure, but a remark in the film suggests that he was a peasant. Hideyoshi takes a liking to the boy – perhaps because he reminds him of his own humble background. The following scenes refer to various events showing Mitsunari as a grown man who has distinguished himself in the service of Hideyoshi and has become one of his most trusted collaborators. After Hideyoshi’s death, he kept his position in the council of the bugyō, but real power was exercised by the five regents, the most important of whom was Ieyasu.
The series of flashbacks reaches its narrative climax in 1595 with the execution on the Sanjō riverbank in Kyoto of the wives, concubines and children of Hideyoshi’s adopted son Hidetsugu, who has been accused of treason. This key scene, in which Mitsunari tries in vain to save the life of Princess Koma (11), brings together several of the film’s main characters, namely the samurai Shima Sakon (Hira Takehiro), the daimyō Kobayakawa Hideaki (Higashide Masahirō), Ōtani Yoshitsugu (Ōba Yasumasa), and the ninja Hatsume (Arimura Kasumi), a fictitious figure (12). The sequence on the riverbank reveals Mitsunari’s compassionate nature and at the same time his ultimate powerlessness against the wishes of his benefactor Hideyoshi, thus challenging the rumours that Hidetsugu’s downfall was the result of one of Mitsunari’s schemes. It also provides some clues to the complex relationships between the five characters. The young Kobayakawa Hideaki accuses Mitsunari of having failed to save Koma and the other women. Shima Sakon says that the killing of women and children will bring disgrace on Mitsunari, Hideyoshi’s loyal collaborator Sakon is disgusted by Hideyoshi’s perfidy but Mitsunari nevertheless succeeds in persuading Sakon to serve him (i.e. Mitsunari) despite his alliance with Hideyoshi. And he also saves the life of Hatsume, the ninja woman who becomes his faithful servant.
The sequence on the riverbank combines distance shots and swift action with close-ups and medium close-ups that reveal Mitsunari’s inner torment, his hectic movements emphasizing his inner turmoil. Not unlike a Noh play, Sekigahara switches between movement and stillness, the emptiness of large rooms contrasts with shots packed with human bodies in the fighting scenes and silence contrasts with the noise of the battle. The symmetry of the Japanese architecture and the choreography of the sophisticated movements in accordance with official etiquette is challenged in the battle scenes and also at other moments in which violence erupts among the constantly brawling samurai. Great attention is paid to detail and to authenticity with regard to architecture, costumes, objects and customs, and this is also true for the portrayal of the main protagonists. In one scene in which Ieyasu leaves his bath half-naked, the camera reveals his enormous belly, recalling that this first Tokugawa shogun is generally described as a man with a paunch. The scene in which an excited Ieyasu observes a battle from the balcony of his quarters while dining is described by several historians and other writers (13). It is also reported that while Ieyasu was studying Kobayakawa Hideaka’s movements during the Battle of Sekigahara, “he chewed nervously on his fingernails” (14), a gesture performed in the film by Yakusho, revealing Ieyasu’s emotional involvement while observing the course of events on the battlefield from his quarters.
Harada’s shots of interiors reveal the complexity behind the apparent simplicity of Japanese architecture, with pillars and paravents fragmenting almost empty spaces. This sophisticated spatial structure is mirrored in the episodic style of the narrative, which shifts between events centring around the two main characters and on the ten or eleven other important figures such as Hatsume and Shima Sakon. A number of shots from the sequence at the beginning of the film reappear, now integrated into the chronology of events in the scenes just before the battle. The battle scenes are magnificently filmed, combining choreographed movements of troops and the chaos of violence and death (15). There are also variations on a single motif: Mitsunari, on the eve of the battle, putting a Jizō statue (16) he finds lying by the roadside back in its place in a small shrine and Ieyasu doing the same thing when he inspects the battlefield after his victory. The execution scene in the first part of the film is also echoed at the end of the film, with Mitsunari on his way to the same execution site on the riverbank.

Ishida Mitsunari
Harada has commented on Shiba Ryōtarō’s approach to Ishida Mitsunari: “The author did a certain justice about recreating Lord Ishida. as a rational, logical person, unlike any other Japanese historical character. His way of thinking is more of contemporary Westerners. and thus, I understand Ishida’s character quite well.” (17) The film challenges widespread view of Mitsunari as an arch-schemer, presenting the bugyō as a man courageous enough to challenge Hideyoshi, who is eager to conquer China. However, when asked why he is “loyal to that tyrant”, he simply replies: “That tyrant made me.”
Emphasizing Mitsunari’s modesty and seriousness, the sombre colours of his kimono and hakama – dark blue and black – contrast with Hideyoshi’s gold-coloured attire and Ieyasu’s less flamboyant clothes with their elaborate design but dominated by shades of yellow, green, beige and brown. Harada depicts Mitsunari as an idealist whose credo “dai ichi, dai man, dai kichi” (roughly translated as “one for all, all for one, everyone happy”) is written on his family crest and who declares: “I want to change the unjust world.” Recalling that Mitsunari once sent back a hostage (18), Maeda Toshiie (19) comments: “You go all the way for what you care. That is also your weakness. You assume that the object of your affection will reciprocate. You may be too pure to become a general of generals”.
However, as the simplicity of his costumes suggests, Mitsunari is presented as an austere figure not interested in the brawling of the other Toyotomi allies – his stern attitude being perhaps a further aspect of his character which distinguishes him from the other daimyō. As Shima Sakon puts it: “You are hard on your allies and soft on your enemies.” Mitsunari’s moral standards and intransigent nature create hostility towards him as Sakon realizes when he reminds him of an incident with Ieyasu, a man Mitsunari mistrusts. When Ieyasu picked up a stick that Mitsunari had dropped and gave it back to him, Mitsunari failed to make even the simplest gesture of acknowledgement. The film suggests that these traits of his personality – his loyalty and moral behaviour close to stubbornness – may have contributed to his defeat at Sekigahara and the defection of over the third of his forces (20). He clings to his battle plan, unable to adapt to new conditions, and right up to the last moment he expects Kobayakawa Hideaki to remain loyal (21). Following historical sources, the film presents the Toyotomi allies as a “disjointed and quarrelsome coalition of rival lords” (22) who pursued their own goals instead of fighting for Hideyoshi’s young heir.
The traditional view of Mitsunari is as a mediocre military leader and magistrate, but Harada sees him as a loyal servant of the Toyotomi family. The focus is on Mitsunari as an altruistic human being rather than on his political achievements. Shima Sakon is depicted as the perfect samurai, who is courageous and selfless, and Mitsunari, critical of himself, says of Sakon: “I retained a samurai who has all the qualities I lack”. Sakon chooses a spectacular death by explosives, killing not only himself and his loyal soldiers but also many of his enemies. It is Shima Sakon who persuades his friend Mitsunari to flee after the battle. In doing so, Mitsunari does not act like the conventional samurai, but far from representing him as a coward, the film implies that he surrenders in order to save the life of the peasant who gave him shelter. Moreover, he stoically endures the humiliations and beatings while he is Ieyasu’s captive, and in the final shots, on his way to the execution site, he is shown as a man who faces death with pride and serenity. He explains to Kobayakawa Hideaki that he decided not to kill himself because he wanted to live a little longer to see what became of the people he cared about. On the way to his execution, he sees Hatsume, whom he believed dead, for one last time. The young woman repeats her master’s credo “Dai ichi…” when he passes by, expressing the hope that Mitsunari’s ideals will survive. Hatsume is one of the people Mitsunari cares about, treating this ninja as a human being and not as a dog, which is how she regards herself. His empathy makes him more understandable for contemporary audiences, but the modernity of his character lies mainly in the way he expresses self-doubt and inner contradictions, and here, Mitsunari’s inner torment is marvellously expressed by Okada’s restrained and sensitive acting.
These characteristics of Mitsunari’s stand out very clearly as they contrast with those of Ieyasu, depicted as an arch-manipulator but also as a pragmatist and a brilliant strategist who has the self-confidence and authority his opponent lacks. Lord Tokugawa is the opposite of the austere Mitsunari and a man who enjoys life – an energetic, pleasure-loving and sensual man played by Yakusho in a most vivid and original way. His Ieyasu is an elemental force, shouting and laughing, and he celebrates a victory by behaving like a football fan in a stadium. He can also behave like a child, when, wearing a hōrō (24) on his back, he cavorts round his room, imitating a galloping and neighing horse. However, when he learns that Mitsunari has left his quarters, he immediately stops his playful activity and returns to his main concern: the quest for power.

Past and present
There is one sequence which breaks with the film’s historical setting, and it shows Shiba Ryōtarō as a child, resting and drinking tea in the same temple in which Mitsunari first met Hideyoshi. From the off, the voice of the adult Shiba explains how close he felt to Mitsunari at that moment. Harada also has an affinity with his main character: “I feel like Ishida Mitsunari is a totally misunderstood character, like how I am misunderstood by some of the Japanese. We fought the same kind of battle, a mental battle against society, and so I sympathize with his character.” (24) Connecting the story of the Battle of Sekigahara and Mitsunari with contemporary Japan, the filmmaker explains his intentions: “Well, actually, most of the Japanese youth, they don’t know what the Battle of Sekigahara was all about. And they certainly have no idea who Ishida Mitsunari was. So, I wanted to do some kind of justice about what Lord Ishida contributed, and what if he won the battle? The Japanese could have been different. Or what if we have a politician with Ishida’s mind? Japan would be much, much better today.” (25) Whatever the answer may be, Harada re-creates a highly significant moment in Japanese history in a most memorable film.

NOTES

(1) Mino, one of the historical provinces, is today part of Gifu Prefecture.

(2) See Anthony J. Bryant, Sekigahara 1600: The Final Struggle for Power, Oxford, Osprey Publishing, 1995.

(3) This term designates Japan’s magnates and lords in a feudal system that existed from the 10th century until 1868.

(4) Oda Nobunaga (1534-1582) was the first unifier of Japan. He was succeeded by his general Hideyoshi. Tokugawa Ieyasu completed the process of unification.

(5) The numerous historical novels written by Shiba include books about Hideyoshi (Shinshi Taikōki, 1968) and Ieyasu (Haō no ie, 1973).

(6) Bryant, op. cit., p. 17. However, views on Mitsunari are contradictory. Stephen Turnbull calls him “a fine general in his own right but one who lacked the political skills needed to bind the alliance in a genuine commitment to the cause of Hideyori.” (Tokugawa Ieyasu, Oxford, Osprey Publishing, 2012, p. 17). In recent years, more attention has been given to Mitsunari as the loser of the battle who had apparently often been neglected by both historians and writers of popular novels in Japan.

(7) Published in 1956.

(8) Published in 1962.

(9) Ishida Mitsunari, also known as Ishida Kazushige, was the inspiration for Ishido Kazunari, the arch-villain in James Cavell’s novel Shogun (1975).   

(10) The historical province Ōmi comprises today’s Shiba Prefecture. A monument  commemorating the first meeting between Hideyoshi and young Ishida Mitsunari stands in front of Nagahama train station. 

(11) The 15-year-old Koma was not even officially recognized as Hidetsugu’s concubine when she was executed together with all the members of his family. 

(12) Among the many figures in the film, there are also strong female characters, especially the Iga ninja Hatsume, who wins Mitsunari’s heart, and Shima Sakon’s wife Hanano (Nakagashi Noriko), who runs a frontline hospital near the battlefield. In an interview, Harada explains that the information about Hanano was the result of his research on the battle and its historical background. See “Sekigahara director Harada Masato on filming history through a modern eye”, an interview conducted by Diva Vélez at the New York Asian Film Festival, 15 July 2018. https://screenanarchy.com/2018/07/new-york-asian-2018-interview-sekigahara-director-harada-masato-on-filming-history-through-a-modern.html

(13) Stephen Turnbull, op. cit., p. 40.

(14) Bryant, op. cit, p. 72.

(15) The representation of the battle is inspired by a variety of battle scenes in film history, including a combat scene in Sergei Eisenstein’s Alexander Nevsky (USSR, 1938). Another important reference is to the great battle scene at the end of Kurosawa Akira’s Shichinin no samurai (Seven Samurai, Japan, 1954). See “Sekigahara director Harada Masato…”, op. cit. The soldiers moving in the background of one shot, framed as mere silhouettes against the horizon, are reminiscent of the first shots in Kurosawa’s masterpiece.

(16) In Japan, a Jizō is a highly venerated bodhisattva – any person who is on the path to enlightenment –  mainly as a protector of the souls of children. There is a link here between the scenes with the jizō statue and the idea of protection that permeates the whole film.

(17) “Sekigahara director Harada Masato…”, op. cit.

(18) At that time, it was common practice among the daimyō in Japan to give hostages as a means of guarantee used to secure treaties or wartime commitments.

(19) Maeda Toshiie (1538-1599) was a daimyō and a member of the go-tairō, the council of regents. In the film he is played by Nishioka Tokuma.

(20) Bryant, op. cit., p. 84.

(21) Lord Kobayakawa, often represented as a mere traitor, is depicted as a more complex character who is forced by Ieyasu’s men to abandon Mitsunari, and at the end of the film he says to Mitsunari, with tears in his eyes,: “I failed to requite your good faith. (…) I succumbed to injustice.”

(22) Bryant, op. cit., p. 84.

(23) A hōrō is a cloak or garment put over a framework (oikago) of wicker (as in the film), bamboo or whalebone which was attached to the back of the armour of a samurai and had a protective function. As Ieyasu explains in the film, the term means “mother’s covering” and is modelled on the placenta.

(24) “Sekigahara tells the forgotten stories of the battle”, an interview with Harada Masato at the Toronto Japanese Film Festival, 16 June 2018, http://nikkeivoice.ca/sekigahara-tells-the-forgotten-stories-of-the-battle/

(25) “Sekigahara director Harada Masato…”, op. cit.

Mifune-Yojimbo-Tournage-07

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.

Mifune-DrunkenAngel-29

 

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.