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.