Saturday, April 17, 2010

Toshiro Mifune: Sexy Beast 三船 敏郎

1984 might’ve been the year that the Macintosh was introduced, Terms of Endearment won the Oscar for Best Picture, and Australia swapped national anthems (finally ditching ‘God Save the Queen’), but it was also the year that a major Japanese magazine conducted a national poll; when the results were in the actor Toshiro Mifune, at age 64, was declared the winner of the ‘Most-Japanese Man’ competition – singled out from all Japanese males, past and present, over the nation’s known history.

This is no minor feat when you fathom that the Japanese trace their recorded history back two millennia.

Mifune was prolific in the acting industry long before attempting English language roles in Steven Spielberg’s 1941 or the TV miniseries Shogun.

His filmography at tips the 180 mark, over a hundred of which were produced prior to his turn as Lee Marvin’s violent Man Friday in Hell in the Pacific (1968); the list stretches from his first film in 1947 through to the his death at age 77, fifty years later.

It’s no accident that Akira Kurosawa, the writer/director with whom Mifune did his superior work, orchestrated most of these Japanese films. By the time the rest of the world cottoned on to the actor, he and Kurosawa were estranged, having made their last film together in 1965 after a partnership that lasted almost two decades.

There’s his well-meaning rookie cop, eerily akin to a young Gregory Peck, who loses his gun on public transport in Stray Dog (1949); the brash samurai charlatan in Seven Samurai (1954); his hyperactive, paranoid dynamo in the Macbeth-as-jidaigeki-drama, Throne of Blood (1957); a bespectacled salaryman with the slow-burning vendetta in The Bad Sleep Well (1960); the ailing yakuza gangster in Drunken Angel in 1948.

Over the 98-minute course of Drunken Angel (this is one of Kurosawa’s shorter tales) the actor is by turns brutal and suave; at other moments there’s a scary vitality to his agitated, hollowed out face-of-impending-doom performance – in particular the show-stopping manic turn he makes in a drunken dance hall.

While the film stock may have dated, the style and performance here most certainly hasn’t.

Perhaps the most memorable and famous of Mifune's roles is the blasé, mysterious stranger in Yojimbo (1961) and its sequel Sanjuro the following year – himself the role model for both Clint Eastwood’s and Bruce Willis’ Man with No Name characters in A Fistful of Dollars and Last Man Standing.

The stand-out collaboration is debatable, but if you want to angle things in Mifune’s corner, toward the movie in which he rattles bones most as the sexy beast/enfant terrible of old-school Japanese cinema, you’re going to have to settle on 1958, when the actor was 38 and at the height of his stagecraft.

Star Wars aficionados interested in finding out the source material for Episode IV are duty-bound to investigate a B&W movie made that year by Kurosawa in the widescreen TohoScope format, starring Mifune, and originally released in Japan in December – because The Hidden Fortress has most of the key elements of a plot used 19 years later when the first Star Wars movie was released.

But in truth it’s Toshiro Mifune, above and beyond the superior script and direction, who shines.

Cast in the principle role of General Rokurota Makabe, the actor’s turn here sparked the whole ‘sexy thing’ reference in the somewhat dubious headline for this article – and without doubt contributed to his man’s man award in 1984.

As a samurai, General Makabe is perhaps the scariest, most fearless and honourable man alive – as well as one of the more charismatic and inspiring. He’s got that rousing leader quality, the sort Russell Crowe delivered in Gladiator, Edward James Olmos brandishes on Battlestar Galactica, and King Hal throws about in the pages of Shakespeare’s Henry V.

It’s also the kind you just didn’t get at all from Orlando Bloom in Kingdom Of Heaven.

Think effortlessly debonair, man-of-action panache, and gravelly speeches that’d embolden even an inert, pen-pushing sloth like myself to pull myself to my knees, yell a bit, shake a blunt spear about in the air, and cheerfully follow both his magnetic persona and/or twinkling eyes into battle – at least some of the way, before diving for cover.

You just know that Makabe is like Lieutenant Colonel Kilgore in Apocalypse Now, and he’ll never actually cop an injury at all. The guy wears serious bravery on his sleeve, and acts like it’s a regular wristwatch.

Most of all, though, while the steely scowl and the gruff baritone are the hallmarks of any encounter with Mifune in the reels of The Hidden Fortress, there’s also a barely repressed machismo that hovers there as he strokes his chin in thought, seemingly not amused or divorced from the events that transpire around him – then throws back his head with riotous laughter, more than a little bit mad.

Each facet is a thrilling moment that keeps your eyes glued on this fascinating, sexy beast of a man and his scene-chewing performance.

Here's just a taste of Mifune & Kurosawa combined.



This story is also online at the Aussie online Filmink site, as they're publishing a 4,000-word (hardly) epic ramble I hacked together to coincide with the Akira Kurosawa centennial-since-his-birth in their May 2010 issue.

All images and clips © Toho.

1 comment:

Ellen Weaver said...

Well, even though your blog post about Toshiro Mifune is 2 years old, I just found it and I'm glad I did. Always looking for anything new on Mifune. Have loved him since seeing Seven Samurai after the recommendation of an online friend around 11 or 12 years ago. Since then, I've been hooked. I'd seen him previously in Shogun and Red Sun, but the Mifune-love didn't kick in till Seven Samurai. Thanks and keep on blogging about that great actor, please!