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