Mifune and Shimura in Kurosawa’s SEVEN SAMURAI: The Father and the Son

If you haven’t read “Toshiro Mifune, and Akira Kurosawa’s “NORA INU / STRAY DOG”, please check that out first. Next, read Takashi Shimura, and Akira Kurosawa’s RASHOMON. This post is a continuation of those thoughts.

If I’ve wrtten at all the way I think it sounds in my head, by now you’re starting to get a sense that Kurosawa is using these two actors, Mifune and Shimura, to make a point. He’s telling us something, tied together across multiple films. In Seven Samurai, the dynamic between them becomes clear.

In his book about Kurosawa, Yoshimoto Mitsuhiro quotes the original film pamphlet for Seven Samurai: “What a wonderful thing if one can construct a grand action film without sacrificing the portrayal of humans.”(1) Here Mifune plays “Lord Kikuchiyo”, the outcast son in this film, the orphaned farmer boy who never quite becomes an accepted member of the samurai “family”. Shimura plays Kambei Shimada, the head of the group and the ideal leader figure: the other samurai join up because they recognize Kambei as a leader/father.(2)

As Gorobei says, though the plight of the farmers was moving, “it was your character that I am most interested in”.

Kikuchiyo, along with the others, is impressed by the quick and skillful way that Kambei dispatched the thief and saved the kidnapped child. He draws the dead thief’s sword in jubilation, waving it about while he shouts cheerfully. He then follows Kambei out of the village and seems about to talk to him when Katsushiro Okamoto (played by Kimura Isao) runs up, throws himself to the ground, and begs to become Kambei’s disciple, effectively taking the place of the son-figure and leaving Kikuchiyo as the outsider.

Both Katsushiro and Kikuchiyo have unshaven heads, showing them to be youths, and both are desperate for recognition. Kambei accepts Katsushiro as a samurai but questions Kikuchiyo’s credentials, shaming the man before leading Katsushiro away. Kikuchiyo tries several times to win the Kambei’s respect and gain a place as a member of the samurai family group, with little success. He brings the haul of dead samurai armor and weapons, expecting to be praised, and is angry when he is rebuked. Mifune’s well-played insecure warrior rants about farmers then reverses and defends their actions as being the only way to deal with the violence of samurai. When Kambei, in a moment of compassion, points out that he realizes “Lord Kikuchiyo” was actually born a farmer, the younger man flees.

In the next scene, Katsushiro walks over to Kikuchiyo, apparently to complement his armor (he is smiling but not laughing) but Kikuchiyo storms off, unable to handle another possible criticism. In this way he is like a stray dog, one that has been kicked too many times, and who shies away from even a gentle hand for fear of being kicked again.

“Throughout his career Kurosawa has preferred to let his films speak for him.”(3)

As both the director and editor on his films, he had the power to use his cinematography and editing to support his narrative vision.  The first time that the viewer sees the character of Kikuchiyo in Seven Samurai, it appears to be the first time that Kambei sees him as well. The freshly shaven samurai turns to the watching crowd and sees Kikuchiyo sitting on the ground, scratching his chest. Kikuchiyo leans forward expectantly, but Kambei turns away to confront the thief hiding in the barn.

In the following sequence of shots, Kikuchiyo pushes his way past the front; Kurosawa cuts to a scene of Kikuchiyo performing almost the same exact movement to get past the next set of watchers. The reverse shot is from a much lower angle and looks up from the ground to see Kikuchiyo (from behind) kick over a bucket for a seat while Kambei speaks to the desperate thief. Visually, Kikuchiyo is always positioned as the outsider: when the group of samurai initially enters the village, Kikuchiyo sits on a fence behind the others, laughing, while they stand stoically.

A “conspicuous formal trait that foregrounds the individuality of key characters,” evident in all three of these films, is Kurosawa’s use of “an extreme close-up of their faces.”(4) This individuality allows the characters the range to express themselves as both narrative figures and pieces of Kurosawa’s father-son dynamic, since they are not constricted by being forced to fit into a limited group stereotype.

Kurosawa shows the difference between Detective Murakami and Kikuchiyo in several ways. In Stray Dog, Mifune’s character pursues the “stray dog” and in Seven Samurai he is the stray dog. Mifune is hit over the head by Katsushiro (drunk, after a fight “fought like a wild dog”) and then confronts Shimura. Katsushiro runs off with his sword and they chase each other around the room like squabbling brothers. The other samurai play “keep away” with Mifune/sword. Shimura dismisses the passed out Mifune as a samurai “in his own mind”.

The next morning, the group leaves Mifune behind. Later, when they notice him following them, they try to shoo him off like a stray dog. When they view the new flag, Kikuchiyo is the triangle while the other 6 men (not counting Katsushiro) are circles, showing that he is not like them and will never be like them.

Mifune’s character in Stay Dog is able to redeem himself and win admiration from the father substitute. However, Shimura never takes in the character that Mifune plays in Rashomon, so the bandit suffers from having no one to teach or defend him. In Seven Samurai, Mifune’s aspiring samurai is eventually respected by Shimura’s Kambei, but only after sacrificing himself in a battle to save the villagers. He quite literally has to die in order to gain his father’s affection. However, Yoshimoto points out that without Kikuchiyo, and true alliance between the samurai and the villagers may not have been possible, a perspective that no one within the film’s narrative seems to grasp. (5)

Footnotes:

(1) Mitsuhiro Yoshimoto. Kurosawa. Duke University Press, 2000. Pg 240.

(2) Ibid.

(3) Alan Jaffe. “Review: [Untitled] / Something like an Autobiography by Akira Kurosawa and Audie E. Bock.” Film Quarterly, Vol. 36, No. 4 (Summer, 1983). University of California Press pp. 25. http://www.jstor.org/stable/3697093

(4) Mitsuhiro Yoshimoto. Kurosawa. Duke University Press, 2000. Pg 242.

(5) Ibid. Pg 241.

Takashi Shimura, and Akira Kurosawa’s RASHOMON

If you haven’t read “Toshiro Mifune, and Akira Kurosawa’s “NORA INU / STRAY DOG”, please check that out first. This post is a continuation of that thought.

Takashi Shimura and Toshiro Mifune are the two actors most closely associated with Akira Kurosawa’s work. Shimura had perhaps the longest run as an actor under Kurosawa, beginning before the end of World War II, and continuing until the end of his life (in 1982).

Susumu Fujita as Sanshiro Sugata

Shimura appeared in the director’s debut film Sanshiro Sugata (1943), and the last film of Kurosawa’s in which he acted was Kagemusha (1980); Kurosawa specifically wrote a part for him. His roles include the doctor in Drunken Angel (1948), the veteran detective in Stray Dog (1949), the flawed lawyer in Scandal (1950),  the mortally ill bureaucrat in Ikiru (1952), and the lead samurai Kambei in Seven Samurai (1954).

He was known for his “impressive and beautifully modulated performance(s),” and that acting ability helped Kurosawa elevate movies like Drunken Angel into a multi-faceted film that William Bernhardt suggested was, “a deeper probing of postwar Japanese life than one expected in a story of a tubercular petty racketeer and the drunken doctor who tries to save him despite himself.”(1)

Japanese poster for Rashomon

Rashomon (1950) is a story about how impossible it is to find truth in human memory, since the various views of the past are presented as being both similar and vastly different. The death of a samurai and possible rape of his wife are pinned on the young bandit Tajōmaru, portrayed by Mifune, while Shimura takes the role of a nameless Woodcutter. The Woodcutter is the only character who is both at the scene of the crime, and at the discussion of it afterwards, but the character shows us that knowing the truth doesn’t matter if you don’t come forward when necessary.

Tajōmaru, fearing dishonor more than death, boasts of killing the samurai but the dead man’s ghost swears otherwise. Just as he refused to admit that he’d fallen from the stolen horse he did not know how to ride, Tajōmaru refuses to admit that he was both afraid to fight a trained samurai and disinterested in fighting for the man’s wife.(2)

Kazuo Miyagawa, the cinematographer, did amazing things with focal length, light, and shadow, in this film.

Shimura, as the Woodcutter, could have stepped in to be Tajōmaru’s surrogate father. He knows how the murder actually happened but because he stole (and sold) the samurai’s knife, he lies about what he knows in order to save himself.

In this role, Shimura is cast as the abandoning father, opposite to the supportive, caring, men he played in Drunken Angel and Stray Dog. He has six children of his own at home that he is trying to support, so he clearly knows the importance of looking out for the younger generation — considered an important aspect of the ideal man — but chooses to ignore that ideal in this case.

The young bandit could have been saved if the Woodcutter had spoken the truth at the trial. It is this betrayal that Shimura’s character tries to redeem by adopting an abandoned baby at the end of the film, but is that act enough?

Kurosawa’s direction and Shimura’s superb acting certainly imply that if the Woodcutter hasn’t found redemption by that point, there is hope for his future. What seems a very cynical film — lies, selfishness, wrongful convictions — closes on a shot of the sun coming out from behind the clouds after the rain.

That moment becomes a cliche over time, as a thousand filmmakers used it as a kind of shorthand in later films, but just then, it’s a relatively new way to show good fortune smiling down on us. Everything you’ve endured watching Rashomon through to that ending is worth it. Every misgiving you feel about humanity is lessened, a little, by knowing we can make the wrong choice, but that doesn’t stop us from making the right choice the next chance we get.

Would it have felt the same if the Woodcutter had been played by Mifune instead? Do we need Shimura’s age and depth to convince us that his complexity is real?

Shimura as the Woodcutter

Rashomon won several awards, including the Golden Lion at the Venice Film Festival in 1951, and an Academy Honorary Award at the 24th Academy Awards in 1952, and is now considered one of the greatest films ever made.

If you haven’t seen it yet, make the time.

Footnotes:

(1) Donald Richie. “A Personal Record,” Film Quarterly, Vol. 14, No. 1 (Autumn, 1960), University of California Press. pp. 26.

(2) James F. Davidson, The Antioch Review, Vol. 14, No. 4 (Winter, 1954), pp. 492-501

Note: While the film borrows the title and setting from Ryūnosuke Akutagawa‘s short story “Rashōmon“, it is actually based on Akutagawa’s short story “In a Grove“, which provides the characters and plot.

Toshiro Mifune, and Akira Kurosawa’s NORA INU/STRAY DOG

I bumped today’s scheduled movie review when I realized that this past Saturday was the anniversary of Toshiro Mifune’s birth, and I could instead talk about Nora Inu (released in the US as Stray Dog).

First, let’s all remember the hotness that was Toshiro Mifune:

If you were expecting to see him in film-faux samurai garb, sorry to disappoint you. Mifune appeared in nearly 170 films as an actor, including 16 of Kurosawa’s, and most of them weren’t period pieces. He was an extremely versatile, expressive, and talented actor, with a wide range — which included dark, murky, detective film noir like Stray Dog.

Mifune originally worked as a photographer; he grew up in his father’s camera shop, and when he was drafted during WWII, he served in the Aerial Photography unit. Afterward, he got a job as an assistant cameraman for Toho Productions (home to Godzilla, and hundreds of other movies). It was there that he was “discovered” as an actor, first for his looks, and then for his ability to throw himself into a role, drawing on his wartime experiences, and general disregard for propriety during a performance.

He wasn’t afraid to be everything he possibly could, as an actor. You can see that onscreen, and Stray Dog is no exception.

Kurosawa saw Mifune during a screen test and immediately hired him. Mifune’s first role was in Snow Trail (1947), the story of three bank robbers who hide out on a snowy mountain lodge with an unsuspecting family; though Senkichi Taniguchi directed it, Kurosawa wrote the screenplay. The next year Mifune starred in the Kurosawa-directed Drunken Angel, and in 1949, they did Stray Dog together.

The short, spoiler-free description of the film is this: A rookie detective loses his gun, which is later used in a crime. To recover it, he teams up with a veteran detective on the verge of retirement. They traverse the darkest parts of Tokyo looking for it.

(If you’re thinking Kurosawa’s plot was “borrowed” repeatedly by Western filmmakers over the last 68 years, you’d be right.)

The longer description is this: Kurosawa used Stray Dog, Mifune, and another of his favorite performers — Takashi Shimura — to act out the complexities of the father/son dynamic within a noir story, just as he did with Drunken AngelRashomon, and Seven Samurai.

Here, Mifune is “Detective Murakami”, the son saved by his wise old mentor, “Detective Sato”, played by Shimura, while “Yusa Shinjuro” (the bad guy in the film, played by Isao Kimura) shows the negative alternative of how Murakami could’ve ended up.

After a long, hot, day, Murakami loses his gun to a pickpocket, which sets off a string of crimes he feels responsible for. His supervisor, seeing his determination to retrieve the gun, puts him together with Detective Sato in hopes that the older man can cool Murakami’s obsession. Sato has children of his own, and slides easily into the role of Murakami’s surrogate parent.

During the film, these characters talk about Yusa, whose first name literally means “second son,” as if the young criminal were a wild animal, a “stray dog” in danger of becoming a “mad dog”. Murakami, too, is in danger of this, having come from the same background as their criminal; both men even had their backpacks stolen when returning from the war.

In the end, Yusa, feeling trapped because the police are closing in, shoots Sato with Murakami’s gun, making the younger detective responsible for wounding his own surrogate father. His quest for redemption leads him to a muddy struggle with Yusa, where Murakami is wounded himself, but does not submit until the criminal is cuffed. In the end, he’s left to wonder how close he got to darkness, and if he’ll ever recover.

In addition to exploring the father/son relationship on a personal level, it also works its way through the traditional (at the time) Japanese “father as imperial authority” dynamic, altered forever by so many anchorless young men coming back from the war, who struggled to regain their place in society. It shows us parts of Tokyo society that weren’t often seen in films from before WWII, too: actors and criminals, broken households, and the often-degrading ways women survived alone in a hard world.

Plus, the cinematography is technical perfection. Look at these stills!

Stray Dog is heartbreaking and violent, frenzied and gorgeous, visceral and thoughtful, all at once. Just like real life.

I have the Criterion Collection version and recommend that.

Mini Movie Review: “Somm” and “Somm: Into the Bottle”

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

I’m reviewing these two documentaries together because they’re a matched pair: same director, much of the same cast, and two sides of the same coin.

You should watch Somm first, because it was filmed first, and introduces you to people you’ll see in the next film. It’s not the better movie, though. Somm is the backstage look at a small group of men who are preparing to take the Court of Master Sommeliers “Master Sommelier” exam, a three-part test to award the title and prestige that comes with being a master somm. (It is very prestigious; there are only about 200 Court-certified masters in the world, and ascending to that level comes with cache, swagger, and immediate job offerings all over the world.)

The test is truly difficult. It’s subjective, and it’s broad-ranging. To be a master, you need the skills of a botanist and a historian, along with a sensitive nose and an excellent memory for tastes and smells. It takes a combination of genetics and dedication, then, along with the money and privilege necessary to access the variety of wines you’ll have to memorize before the exam. So, of course these guys are stressed, and not every one passes.

If you already care about the master test, or you are working as a sommelier, this behind-the-scenes look will probably interest you. I learned a few things, watching it.

But Somm: Into the Bottle is far more educational. It brings back the guys from Somm, now employed by various wineries and restaurants, and has them help explain the history and mysteries of wine production. There’s obviously a bigger budget, and the director manages to get into some rare European locations to speak with winemakers whose families have been making wine since before there was an “America”, before the existence of many of the countries we know in Europe today.

I’d have liked to learn more about South American and Asian wines, but they do cover Australia, Europe, and California pretty well. They go over the botany, genetics, and economic/political pressures which make up a wine’s lineage and flavor profile. (War! Infighting between small wineries! Drinking lots of expensive wine!)

I don’t drink much wine, mainly because I could never afford to learn anything about it. I know a couple of things I like (bring unto me your finest Riesling, if you want me to be happy with your wine selections) and a decent amount of history (because, art historian). But knowing wine at the level of masters means knowing everything.

The thing is, I like to know everything. And I don’t like the realization that there’s this whole field which impacts culture and is grounded in history… which I haven’t accessed.

I need to read a few more books.

And definitely drink more wine.

(Both films are currently available on Netflix.)

Movie Review: “I Am Not Your Negro”

#SFWAPro

This is the most moving documentary I’ve seen in years. The impact, if you open yourself up to what’s on the screen, is immediate, lasts throughout the relatively-short film, and follows you out onto the street afterward. I saw it a few weeks ago, but I can feel the echo of it around me still.

I was a little concerned, before I saw it, that the entire time James Baldwin’s words or images were on the screen, Samuel L. Jackson’s voice would hover over them. Nothing against Jackson, a great actor who I enjoy, but I went for the experience of Baldwin briefly-revived, and didn’t want that experience diluted. I didn’t have anything to worry about. Jackson did read Baldwin’s words, in places, but his softened his voice and cadence give us narration that was less “Nick Fury” and closer to Baldwin’s “delicate but precise New York writer”. Enough, anyway, that it worked.

Big chunks of the film are in Baldwin’s own voice, from interviews and lectures and if you haven’t seen that man lecture before, go now, go online, go to YouTube, and find him. (Thanks to the internet, he lives on, at least a little.)

The rest is photographs, old and new, and some small clips of Black Lives Matter groups protesting in the last few years.

But what it is, really, is James laid bare, reaching out, reaching forward, to remind us that racism is not gone, not in the past, not even that old. We’re not post-racial, here in America; we are the children and grandchildren of those angry white mothers and brash young white supremacist boys who spit on black children wanting nothing more than a seat in a schoolhouse so they could learn.

Some people reading this are old enough to have been there, clutching their purses which righteous indignation, carrying signs, screaming, spitting, throwing rocks, or worse. That’s not a condemnation of my readers. It’s just a fact — one this documentary reminds you of, softly, crisply, and clearly.

But it’s even more than that. It’s a history lesson. It’s a look at how black men and black men’s bodies were regulated, even as they turned a profit. It’s also a reminder to speak up, to be yourself regardless of the circumstances, to write boldly, to make a mark, to love, to live, before it’s too late. Because it’s always too late, eventually.

Go see it in the theater while you still can.

Watch the trailer on YouTube: https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=rNUYdgIyaPM