Mifune Festival at Film Forum Part II
Film Forum’s Mifune Festival originally titled MIFUNE 100 is running at Film Forum from February 11 through 30 of March. The four week long commemoration of genius Japanese actor Toshirō Mifune’s centennial year in 2020 (he was born on April 1, 1920) was delayed because of the Pandemic. With the infection rate subsiding and as attendance at the festival will require vaccination and masking, the decision was made to open the retrospective on the legendary actor this year. Importantly, for film buffs, the Mifune Festival includes rarities and rediscoveries in 35mm imported from the libraries of The Japan Foundation and The National Film Archive of Japan. It has been programmed by Bruce Goldstein, Film Forum’s Director of Repertory Programming, and Japanese film scholar Michael Jeck.
The 33 films being screened, many of which feature Mifune’s seminal collaboration with director Akira Kurosawa are masterpieces which continue to influence global filmmakers to this day. The commentary in Part II gives a brief review of Mifune and Kurosawa’s collaborations on two films Kurosawa made in 1950, one of which catapulted Kurosawa and Mifune to global stardom and a premier place in global film history. To purchase tickets go to Film Forum’s website: https://filmforum.org/series/toshiro-mifune. For my previous discussions on Mifune’s first films collaborating with Kurosawa (Snow Trail, Drunken Angel and Stray Dog) go to my website: https://caroleditosti.com/2022/02/09/mifune-festival-at-film-forum-february-11-march-30/
Scandal (1950) Film Forum Screenings
Sunday, February 13 at 12:40
Monday, February 14 at 3:00
In this 35mm courtesy of the Japan Foundation, Kurosawa presents successful painter motorcyclist Ichirô Aoye (Toshirō Mifune) and attractive singer Miyako Saijo (Shirley Yamaguchi) who meet at a mountain resort with no interest in each other except as casual acquaintances because they principally concerned in furthering their careers. Predatory scandal monger photographers read into their innocent conversation, take photos and show them to their editors and owner of Amour Magazine who, in tabloid fashion right out of Enquirer and Rupert Murdock’s fake entertainment fabrication machine, align the painter and singer as lovers. It’s fabulous profit making copy! Who cares if the story is accurate or not. By the time they may have to retract, they will have boosted their readership and followership and made more money than if they suggested there was nothing untoward between the two. Unlike most celebrities at the time and even today, who ride on the crest of the publicity without taking action, when Aoye sees his photograph and Saijo’s plastered on walls, billboards and “newspapers” as well as the cover of Amour Magazine, he decides to sue for libel.
Enter Otokichi Hiruta (Takashi Shimura) a craven attorney with a weak character and affinity for alcohol and gambling. Hiruta convinces Aoye that he will do a great job with the case and hold Amour Magazine’s editors and owner accountable. When Aoye checks out Hiruta’s decrepit office and sees the racing papers, he understands immediately who Hiruta is and recognizes his capabilities are subpar, recognizing his friend suggestion’s not to hire this dangerous man has merit. However, visiting Hiruta’s home, Aoye meets Hiruta’s wife and angelic daughter Masako (Yôko Katsuragiho). She has been trying to recover from Tuberculosis for years and is incapacitated in bed. Overcome with sympathy and a sense of duty to help the family where Hiruta obviously fails, Aoye allows Hiruta to take his case for the sake of Masako.
Corruption and predation breeds lies and bribes. Aoye, an artistic personality, yet a successful painter is not bluffed by Hiruta, yet he gives him the benefit of the doubt and says he has faith that Hiruta will do the “right thing.” Aoye cares more to encourage Masako, who tells him her father has a good heart but is a weak man and Aoye agrees with her as both hope his nature improves. However, after days in court Hiruta doesn’t even cross examine witnesses properly. However, Hiruta’s weakness is so acute as it is beyond the pale even for Masako who can no longer abide by what she knows to be of her father’s character and unethical behavior in tanking Aoye’s and Saijo’s libel suit.
The tension and frustration we feel is palpable, even horrific, for it is apparent that Hiruta will not change his demeanor in prostituting himself to Amour Magazine despite stabbing his client in the face in betrayal. Meanwhile, Amour Magazine’s owners and editors appear to be sanctified and just. We groan that this is one more instance where the corrupt smash down the ethical and righteous, that evil, slime humanity colludes and conspires to overthrow what is ethical and right making this world a greater cesspool than it already is. This is Kurosawa at his finest thematically! The mendacity of the press that Kurosawa reveals in 1950 remains unchanged; to say this film is prescient is an understatement.
Kurasawa’s direction of the actors and capture of the close-ups of the empathetic, kind Mifune, humiliated but firmly corrupt Shimura and broken-hearted, angel Katsuragiho are genius. Indeed, the performances of the steadfast, quiet, likable Mifune’s Aoye and the wormy, egregious Shimura who grovels in guilt, but does nothing to correct himself, engage us throughout, heightened by the performance of Katsuragiho who is the innocent, sacrificial lamb. Thus, the film’s tragic turning point which reveals Kurosawa’s felt, profound knowledge of human nature, salvation, redemption and damnation carries us through to the end and especially the suspenseful last fifteen minutes of the film which becomes a reckoning. Thematically, Kurosawa’s work undergirded by his great actors is timeless and especially vital for us today.
Rashomon (1950) Film Form screenings
Friday, February 11 at 2:55, 7:10
Wednesday, February 15 at 5:35
Friday, March 4 at 3:50
Saturday, March 5 at 12:40
Wednesday, March 9 at 6:00
Thursday, March 10 at 12:40, 5:10
Perhaps one of the most memorable of all examples of cinematic story telling is Akira Kurosawa’s Rashomon, based on Ryunosuke Akutagawa’s short story “In a Grove,” which includes other elements of Akutagawa’s other short story, Rashōmon.” Kurosawa who based his screenplay on Akutagawa’s work twits our comprehension of individual perception and perspective and even twits the film medium itself as an alternate way of understanding our lives in story form.
Five stories are told in Kurosawa’s film, including the philosophical frame of universal focus that contains the other stories within it. The frame setting is a broken-down Shinto Temple, evidence of a faith diminished and destroyed by the encroaching inviolate social constructs and corrupted values in the Heian period Koyoto (794-1185). A Woodcutter (the always wonderful Takishi Shimura) and a priest (Minoru Chiaki) appear shell shocked and stunned as they wait under cover of the temple (symbolic irony) for a furious thunderstorm to pass.
A commoner (Kichijirô Ueda) joins them to get out of the rain and the Woodcutter and priest relate the story of the testimony they’ve just heard at a trial of a Samuri’s murder. The irony is that the priest and the Woodcutter are less disturbed by the killing and rape than by the accounts of the bandit, the raped wife of the murdered Samuri and the psychic who allows the Samuri to speak through her to relate what “really” happened in the grove where a life was taken. Then Kurosawa in flashback allows the three who were involved in the murder to confess their story of what happened.
As each of the witnesses relate their stories, they cast themselves as the heroes of their own myths reflecting the finest aspects of the identity they wish to present, coupled with the codes and values they hope to emphasize, thus manifest to persuade the judges and all present they are the truth teller. Thus, told from the perspective and identity of the bandit, the wife, and the dead Samuri’s spirit, the stories wildly diverge. The only thing agreed upon is that there was a rape and the Samuri was killed. However, whether the wife yielded to the bandit is a matter of question and how the Samuri was killed, whether it was in an unconscious rage by the wife, noble harikari by the Samuri or a valiant combat between the Samuri and the bandit is up for grabs. Not even Solomon the Judge of Israel, the most wise judge of all time could rule in this case where the truth is amorphous and vague and either everyone is lying or one individual is telling the truth.
Considering that someone is going to be punished for the death of the Samuri, no one is pointing the finger at the others for causing the Samuri’s death. This is what perplexes the Woodcutter and the priest. Meanwhile, the practical commoner doesn’t quite understand how clever each of the story tellers are and calls them liars. He misses the conundrum posed. For the three players in this triumvirate of truth-telling take responsibility for killing the Samuri upon themselves. Whether this is a ruse to escape punishment, a conspiracy of silence or an example of the nihilistic ego which places nobility and honor of identity ahead of safety and security from capital punishment is equally opaque. Ironically, what is also disturbing to the priest and Woodcutter who can only exclaim that what they witnessed was terrible is that the truth and accuracy are not considered a worthy value. Rather each of the individual’s beings are paramount. And the truth of what happened has little to do with the bandit, wife and Samuri who are caught up in their own sentience which may not represent factual reality, if there is such a thing.
Finally, the Woodcutter tells his version of the story which proves that the three were lying. In his version their proud identities are shattered and the wife, murdered Samuri and bandit are reduced to the pathetic, pitiable human creatures they are. Interrupting the Woodcutter, a baby’s cries prompt the commoner to steal the items left with the baby and ditch the baby with the priest. We are ba ck to the present and the frame of universal humanity.
The Woodcutter chides the commoner for theft who then turns around and accuses the Woodcutter of stealing the pearl handled dagger that was lost in the chaos, stating that all men are liars and thieves motivated by their own personal agendas. With that exclamation point of the truth about humanity, the commoner leaves, self-satisfied he knows it all and doesn’t need to hear any of the priest’s sermons. Desolate, the priest is ready to renounce his faith and purpose, but the Woodcutter tells him he’ll take the baby and care for it. The priest believes he will harm the baby until the Woodcutter says he has six children at home. What is one more? Faith is restored, the rain stops, the sun comes out, but there are still clouds in the sky, typical Kursawa’s philosophical take on what will come.
Kurosawa’s direction of the three players as the killer of the Samuri is powerful and to that their performances are sustained throughout. MIfune glares into the camera and shrieks out the story as the bandit Tajōmaru. He gleefully and wildly laughs taking pride in the murder, full of happiness that the wife (Machiko Kyō) gives herself to him on their first kiss. As he shakes and terrorizes he is brilliant and we understand how a woman might be mesmerized by his famous reputation as Tajōmaru the fierce bandit, attracted and repelled, but softened when he employs his powers of seduction. Mifune’s performance rises to the myth of Tajōmaru and electrifies as Kurasawa makes use of the straight-on camera shot of Mifune cross-legged, then close-ups of him flashing eyes and teeth to horrify and delight. No wonder this sterling performance captivated audiences globally then and now.
Likewise, as the wife Machiko Kyō is convincing and equally terrifying in her incessant weeping and wailing conveying the great harm the violation has done to her soul. Additionally, the husband’s cruelty after her rape is even more damaging emotionally for he blames her with his eyes and spurns her as the rotten goods that he will never touch again. The adaption of Boléro by Maurice Ravel by Fumio Hayasaka is as relentless as her emotional devastation and hysteria, signifying her loss of self, world of beauty, sanctity and safety. Interestingly, Kurasawa interchanges the cinematography varying it from that used with the bandit, implying the helplessness, the softness and the tragedy of the wife.
As the Woodcutter and the psychic who is wonderful relate “what happens” again Kurosawa changes up the shots and varies to close-ups except with the Samuri whom he mostly has in medium shots. However, with the psychic who is inhabited by the dead Samuri’s spirit, he uses close-up to maximum terrifying advantage.
Rashomon put Kurosawa, Mifune and the others on the global map of cinema for all time. It continually makes film lists of cinema greats. At the time it won The Golden Lion at the Venice Film Festival and an equivalent Academy Award for Best Foreign Language Film. Don’t miss Rashomon or the other films at Mifune Film Forum Festival. For tickets and times go to the Film Forum website: https://filmforum.org/series/toshiro-mifune
‘Mifune Festival’ at Film Forum February 11-March 30
Mifune, a four-week festival of 33 films is celebrating the legendary Japanese actor Toshirō Mifune at Film Forum from February 11 through March 30. Co-presented by the Japan Foundation, the series features 16 of Mifune’s collaborations with iconic director Akira Kurosawa in what has been identified as one of the most seminal actor-director partnerships in film history. The duo produced some of the greatest masterpieces of world cinema. And Kurosawa’s films continually serve as an imprimatur for global directors mesmerized by Kurosawa’s cinematic storytelling. Indeed, Kurosawa once admitted that without Mifune, he would have no great films.
Postponed due to the COVID-19 pandemic, the festival, originally titled MIFUNE 100, planned to commemorate Mifune’s centennial year in 2020; the actor was born on April 1, 1920. After two years, the decision was made to open the retrospective on the legendary actor. Film Forum Mifune Festival includes rarities and rediscoveries in 35mm imported from the libraries of The Japan Foundation and The National Film Archive of Japan. It has been programmed by Bruce Goldstein, Film Forum’s Director of Repertory Programming, and Japanese film scholar Michael Jeck.
This first in the series of articles gives an overview of select Kurasawa films that featured a young Mifune with another seminal actor Takashi Shimura, who often plays the foil to Mifune’s gruff, crude, deep-voiced characterizations. Highlights include a brief synopsis of each film and some points about the cinematography, scenic design and acting. The discussion moves in the film chronology from 1947-1949, beginning with Snow Trail (1947) Drunken Angel (1948) and Stray Dog (1949). In Part II you will find coverage for subsequent Mifune films including Rashomon (1950) which catapulted Mifune and Kurasawa to worldwide acclaim and awards and opened doors to further celebrity, dramatic risk and intriguing opportunities that historically shaped the cinematic art for decades. Film Forum Website for the MIFUNE FESTIVAL https://filmforum.org/series/toshiro-mifune
SNOW TRAIL (1947) At Film Forum: Tuesday, February 15 at 12:40, 6:00
Kurasawa casts Takashi Shimura (Nojiro) and Toshirō Mifune (Eijima) as escaped bank robbers, who with a third older accomplice retreat to the snow covered mountains to hide, though their impossible journey is besieged by one trial after another. Kurasawa configures the robbers with unique personalities and then pulls a switch when they confront the hellish conditions of traversing in six foot snow drifts along sheer mountain cliffs, and their older accomplice falls to his death taking his portion of stolen money with him. This is a wake up call for both Nojiro and Eijima and an important turning point where we empathize with these individuals as they realize the hopelessness of their situation from which they most probably will not get out alive.
All seems lost as the actors struggle against the mountain’s death grip. Kurasawa’s perfectly balanced scenic design and cinematic shots of the dominance of the mountain terrain, the deep snows, isolation and the freezing temperatures threaten their every step. As neophytes against nature’s cold, blasting fury, we see in their faces their yearning for life and sadness that it is over for them. Shimura especially gains our sympathy, but then a miracle occurs. They stumble upon a lifeline, a ski trail which eventually leads them to a resort where its hosts, a grandfather and his young granddaughter, entertain ski expert Honda (Akitake Kôno). It is there in this warm, congenial company where the fibers of the robbers’ characters are revealed and we note Kurasawa’s philosophical perspective teased in through the dialogue and emotional fear and pain of Mifune’s Eijima and Nojiro’s growing grace.
As Nojiro pulls away from Eijima, appreciating the sweetness of the little granddaughter, who reminds him of the daughter he lost, Eijima becomes more crude, violent and angry with him, attempting to dislocate his accomplice from their kindness. After all, Nojiro, masterminded the robbery, but from his icky sentimentality at the granddaughter, Eijima fears Nojiro lost his resolve to escape. It is in these scenes where we see the menace, bluster and extraordinary vitality of Mifune’s acting dynamism. How their characterizations diverge toward inner redemption and damnation as they attempt to scale the mountains after blackmailing Honda to guide them generates suspense, tension and danger. These elements heighten as Honda saves their lives repeatedly but must close down when he breaks his arm and is shot in the leg.
Mifune and Shimura are the perfect duo. Their technique and Kurasawa’s close-ups and medium shots provide the light and the dark, the hope and the desolation that propel the characters’ emotional turmoil up the mountain of fate in this survival story of good and evil that is layered, intricate and metaphysical. Against the mountain, their doom, with Kôno’s Honda bestowing the rope lifeline, symbolic of the code of community and friendship (the mountaineers code) it is up to each of them to work cooperatively to save each other from destruction. This is the lesson of redemption and hope that only one of the robbers learns and with that knowledge, gains the strength to be accountable for his actions.
Drunken Angel (1948)
At Film Forum: Saturday, February 19 at 12:40
Sunday, February 27 at 6:00
Monday, February 28 at 12:40
Tuesday, March 1 at 8:20
Wednesday, March 2 at 5:50
Thursday, March 10 at 2:45
Drunken Angel is Kurosawa’s examination of the soul’s demise to self-destruction. For this journey Kurosawa casts Takashi Shimura as the alcoholic Dr. Sanada and Mifune as Matsunaga a member of a Yakuza gang who controls the area but is evicted from his power when the boss exploits him then puts another in power until Matsunaga self-destructs. Dr. Sanada’s office is by a pond of chemicals and slime which Kurosawa sneaks in as symbolic of the entire community as the cesspool of humanity. The pond water which makes others sick, is likened to the values that make humanity sick: greed, exploitation and selfishness.
Interestingly, Sanada whose character weakness makes him a drunkard, has a kind heart and attempts to make a difference with these individuals who are worse off than he. As his patient, Matsunaga who has tuberculosis doesn’t follow his instructions, though if he did, he would be able to survive, maybe thrive. Sanada has a young female patient who he is helping to heal. However, Matsunaga lacks the will to help himself, regardless of how much Dr. Sanada badgers him not to drink and take care of himself. Clearly, Dr. Sanada puts up with Matsunaga’s manner, invests himself in the gangster attempting to help though the people who surround Matsunaga don’t care if he lives or dies and contribute to making him sicker.
Once again, Mifune’s performance as the soul destroyed gangster who Dr. Sanada sees as worthy to be helped is masterfully, carefully revealed, especially in his revelation that Matsunaga doesn’t have the energy or will to follow Sanada’s instructions, and allows himself a slow suicide. Theirs is an amazing duel of emotions: impatience, helplessness and withering bravado, frustration and love. The symbolism revealed in the scenic design of the various environments and the shot compositions of the dance hall, Dr. Sanada’s tight office, the close-ups of the emotional weariness of Mifune’s Matsunaga and the frustration and anger of Shumira’s doctor is superb. Despite the soul filth of the criminals who oppress, theirs is a relationship that appears noble. Sanada’ concern for Matsunaga leads us to feel empathy that he is dying, caught in his own sorrowful web of sickness and destruction that he let into his spirit when he gravitated toward the criminals in the hope of being “someone” others might respect. It is Matsunaga’s tragedy and the tragedy of all the self-annihilating criminal class, the theme of this superb film.
Stray Dog (1949)
Monday, February 14 at 8:10
Friday, February 18 at 2:40
Sunday, February 20 at 12:40
Thursday, February 24 at 5:50
Wednesday, March 9 at 8:10
Stray Dog is Japan’s first film noir crime procedural influenced by Jules Dassin’s script of The Naked City with Kurosawa’s signature philosophical commentary on the nature of the human soul in its travails through post-war Tokyo and beyond. Kurosawa sets the action in some of the most rubble-strewn sections of Tokyo in a clothes drenching heat wave before air conditioning cooled and refreshed. In every scene the pressure and struggle is evident in the scenic design and cinematography of the gritty, torn up city where vets, finding little work, join the Yakuza (gangster network).
Every character, every actor especially leads Takashi Shimura as Detective Satō, and Toshirō Mifune in an uncharacteristic but athletic portrayal as Detective Murakami, Kurosawa features with close-ups, dripping perspiration tear-drops down noses, chins and foreheads. White suits, dresses and hats show huge swaths of white cloth darkened with dingy, messy, wet stains. The heat Kurosawa uses as a character. And as a symbol, it represents the pressure and tension that Murakami (Mifune) puts himself under, obsessed with guilt that he isn’t up to the task of being a competent detective.
The driving incident occurs when neophyte Murakami, white suited and new to the job, has his Colt-45 pick pocketed while jostling against other sweltering passengers on a crowded streetcar. Realizing who stole it, Murakami charges after the thief on foot but eventually loses him. Thus, set in motion is the race against time to locate the stolen weapon. Murakami, who is shy and quiet with other detectives in the department, is ready to resign when he realizes that the gun was used to commit murder. His upright, honest and sincere attitude (fascinating to see Mifune’s humble versatility in comparison to previous criminal roles) is appreciated by the department head who assigns him to work with seasoned detective Satō (Shimura).
Together as a disparate but cooperative and congenial team they piece together the clues to those who can be traced through to the girlfriend (in an ironic, dramatic scene with her mother) of Yusa who commits two murders with the Colt-45. Look for the famous nearly 10-minute sequence shot by hidden camera in the city’s toughest black market as Mifune’s Murakami goes undercover to buy a gun on the black market and reveals the palpable anxiety and frustration at coming up against dead end after dead end. The taut thriller emotionally magnifies for Mifune’s Murakami, when Satō is almost fatally injured. Mifune is so authentic as he goes to pieces believing his gun killed his mentor and friend. Also, catch the superb dialogue at the conclusion when Satō encourages Murakami not to feel badly for Yusa. Shimura’s comment is eloquent, philosophical and pointed and Mifune’s response is memorable.
The schedule of films beginning the series on Friday, February 11th is as follows or go to the Film Forum website: https://filmforum.org/series/toshiro-mifune
Friday, February 11 at 2:55, 7:10
Wednesday, February 15 at 5:35
Friday, March 4 at 3:50
Saturday, March 5 at 12:40
Wednesday, March 9 at 6:00
Thursday, March 10 at 12:40, 5:10
I LIVE IN FEAR (1955)
Friday, February 11 at 12:40, 4:55, 9:10
Friday, February 18 at 12:30
Saturday, February 19 at 2:50