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