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Kurosawa and Mifune: The End of an Era

Kurosawa and Mifune: The End of an Era

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Published by jandruka
Research paper for NMS 509, The Films of Akira Kurosawa
Research paper for NMS 509, The Films of Akira Kurosawa

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Published by: jandruka on Mar 14, 2011
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07/10/2013

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Joe AndrukaitisProfessor Masahiro SuganoNMS 509November 18, 2010
Kurosawa and Mifune: The End of an Era
After the worldwide financial and critical success that was
SevenSamurai
(1954), the film’s director, Akira Kurosawa, and its star, ToshiroMifune, were entering what would become the greatest phase of theirrespective careers. The next decade would see this pair of “heavy-drinking,physically imposing workaholics ” (French, “The Two Samurai”) join forces toproduce some of the finest and most beloved work in all of Japanese cinema,including
Throne of Blood 
(1957),
The Lower Depths
(1957),
The HiddenFortress
(1958),
Yojimbo
(1961), and
High and Low
(1963). But following thecompletion of 
Red Beard 
in 1965, the two men never worked together again,despite the fact that they would both continue to work in the film industryuntil just before their deaths, only nine months apart, in the late 1990s.Film scholars can speculate over the myriad reasons behind theirpermanent split, as Stuart Galbraith IV does at great length in his 2002 tome
The Emperor and the Wolf: The Lives and Films of Akira Kurosawa and Toshiro Mifune
, but it’s impossible to know their true feelings over thedissolution of such a lucrative and storied partnership. Whatever the reasons
 
Andrukaitis 2
behind their falling out, I will argue that these two men owed it to theiraudience, to their legacies, and most importantly to each other to make onelast film together.The 1985 film
Ran
, a feudal-era Japanese re-imagining of Shakespeare's King Lear that Kurosawa referred to as “a culmination of hislife’s work” (Galbraith 586), presented the ideal opportunity for such areunion. Already in his sixties, Mifune was the appropriate age for the leadrole of the elderly Great Lord Hidetora, but Kurosawa instead chose to castTatsuya Nakadai, 12 years Mifune’s junior. If the director really considered
Ran
to be his career-defining statement, he should have at least consideredhis old friend Mifune for a role that appeared to be tailor-made for him.Although these two titans of the Japanese film industry wereunquestionably gifted artists on their own, I will examine some of theirprojects from the 1950s onward to show that each man needed the other toproduce his best work. The yin-yang balance between Kurosawa’s nuancedportraiture and Mifune’s scenery-chewing physicality delivered some of themost magical moments not just in Japanese cinema, but cinema in general,and the absence of any reunion during the three decades following
Red Beard 
does a disservice to film history.Yu Fujuki, a young actor who worked with Kurosawa and Mifune on
TheLower Depths
(1957), observed their relationship thusly: “When I wasworking with Mr. Kurosawa, he was always with Toshiro Mifune. You see, he
 
Andrukaitis 3
would voice his ideas about the film through Mifune. Kurosawa only had togive Mifune a smile – they understood each other completely; Mr. Kurosawa’sheart was in Mr. Mifune’s body” (qtd. in Galbraith 242). The relationshipbetween director and leading man garners much attention in the press, justlike the relationship between coach and quarterback in football. Wheneversomething goes wrong on the screen or on the field, these are therelationships that bear the most scrutiny. “Many directors have favoriteactors,” writes Donald Richie, “and many actors have favorite directors. Onethinks of John Ford and John Wayne. The mutual attraction between AkiraKurosawa and Toshiro Mifune was, however, strongest of all” (“IrreconcilableDifferences”).The director/actor partnership that is almost always mentioned whendiscussing Kurosawa and Mifune is that of American Western director JohnFord and his iconic star John Wayne. A young Kurosawa grew up watchingFord's early Westerns and idolized the master director. After meeting Fordfor the first time in England in 1957, Kurosawa began “much like Ford, towear sunglasses and a wool cap on set, such was his admiration for him”(Galbraith 245). The way Kurosawa built up his films around Mifune mighthave been directly influenced by the way Ford built up his films aroundWayne, and it both cases it is nearly impossible to mention the director'sbody of work without addressing the importance of his leading man. Onenotable difference between “Pappy and The Duke” and “The Emperor andThe Wolf” is that the Ford/Wayne partnership spanned over fifty years while

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