Director's cut leaves scars

March 15, 2002

Donald Richie looks at the partnership of a great actor and director.

Many film directors have favourite actors, and many actors have favourite directors. One thinks of John Ford and John Wayne, Ingmar Bergman and Max von Sydow, Francois Truffaut and Jean-Pierre Leaud, Satyajit Ray and Soumitra Chatterji. The mutual attraction between Akira Kurosawa and Toshiro Mifune was of this order and was, perhaps, stronger than most. The actor starred in more than half of Kurosawa's films and once told me that his best work was done with him. The director himself said that Mifune had an astonishing talent of a kind he had never before encountered. Obviously the two gave each other something important.

Just what that was is the subject of this well-researched account by Stuart Galbraith. In his own words: "Their faith in one another resulted in their own self-discovery. In this work, it is my hope to uncover the essence of these two great artists."

With this in mind, Galbraith read everything he could, mostly secondary sources, then interviewed nearly 50 people who had worked with the two men, and finally looked again and again at the films. And not only those on which they had worked together. He fitted the actor's films into the Kurosawa 30-film oeuvre and managed to see and write about most of Mifune's other features, 100 in all, and even his numerous television films.

Though Mifune had made a few movies before Drunken Angel (1947), it was this role, his first with Kurosawa, that made the actor a star and gave him a reputation that grew with the role of the bandit in Rashomon, the cop in Stray Dog and the farmer-turned-warrior in Seven Samurai . He went on to title roles in Yojimbo and Sanjuro , ending his association with the director in Red Beard (1965).

Originally, Mifune went to the Toho Studio hoping to become a cameraman, but was shifted to the "new face" programme. This was the company's attempt to replenish its acting stable - much diminished by wartime activities. Mifune was apparently moved because of his looks and his build; he had been making a living lugging tanks of Coca-Cola syrup for the occupying US forces. According to the legend, finding he was supposed to act, Mifune became ferociously angry. This may have alienated the judges but it impressed actress Hideko Takamine, who was on the panel, and she told Kurosawa about this wild new actor, asking him to take a look. Thus began the long association of actor and director.

It was not immediate. Mifune's first picture was actually Snow Trail (1946), a film for which Kurosawa had co-written the script but which he did not direct. His performance was such that he received top billing. Later he said that he was chosen only because this mountain film made in the dead of winter was dangerous to shoot and "the studio felt an unknown actor was more expendable".

During its production, Kurosawa took a keen interest. He watched the daily rushes as they came in and helped with the editing. In this way he could familiarise himself with the actor. And in the following year he cast Mifune as one of the leads in Drunken Angel , the film that Kurosawa said was the first that was really his own and the one that truly launched Mifune's career.

Why so mutually profitable an association came to an end long before the deaths of actor and director has long been a subject of speculation. Galbraith's guess is that for Mifune "the artistic benefits of working with Kurosawa were outweighed by the overwhelming business concerns that constantly plagued him", and that "Kurosawa felt betrayed and refused to understand how the actor could appear in inferior films".

I think this is correct so far as it goes. At the same time, however, Kurosawa was famous for monopolising those he needed and dropping those he did not - Mifune was not alone on his trip to Coventry. The initial break occurred during the filming of Red Beard . The actor led an expensive life and needed money. Yet he faithfully wore his red beard (and remained otherwise jobless) for the months it took to complete this notoriously over-the-schedule film. Then he had to scramble to find lucrative work no matter where. Kurosawa resented what he saw as defection.

In the mid 1980s, when Ran (Kurosawa's adaptation of Shakespeare's King Lear ) was being readied, I suggested to the director that Mifune was a perfect age for the role. Kurosawa turned to me and said severely that he would not work with anyone who had appeared in the likes of Shogun , a remark I thought particularly unfair since the director had practically driven his actor to such extremes by keeping him otherwise jobless for so long. Galbraith gives a different explanation for Mifune's not appearing in Ran - that the producers found him too expensive - but whatever the reasons the break proved permanent (though the two would smile and bow when they accidentally met), and marked the gradual decline of both men.

Mifune kept on acting until 1995, two years before his death, but these late roles give little indication of his extraordinary presence and his enormous skill. He was one of the few Japanese actors who completely inhabited his characters. Most rely on the more classic method of indicating character traits, of presenting rather than representing whomever they are pretending to be. Not Mifune. The bandit in Rashomon , the thief in The Lower Depths , the avenger in The Bad Sleep Well - the identification is so deep it seems impossible that the three roles were all played by the same man. This strength, which had something of the Stanislavski method in it, a technique Mifune had never heard of, illuminated the majority of Mifune's performances, even those in his least worthwhile films. It was only near the end that he was simply saying his lines - or, in the grips of Alzheimer's disease, trying to remember them.

Kurosawa died in 1998, nine months after Mifune, and his later pictures, in my opinion, never equalled the films up to and including Red Beard . Galbraith makes a case for this work and, indeed, finds the last film, Madadayo , "one of Kurosawa's best." Certainly, after the break, the director experienced increasing difficulties, both financial and personal.

Galbraith gives us a full and informed account (the first in English) of the disastrous, Hollywood "Tora! Tora! Tora!" project in 1967-68 - about the Japanese attack on Pearl Harbor. By getting into the files at Twentieth Century Fox, he is able to reconstruct the fabled imbroglio that the co-production became. Not only was Kurosawa hampered by having to work with an entirely new crew (that of Toei Studios, no less) but also the Americans were less than transparent in their dealings with him - such as offering David Lean as co-director and then substituting Richard Fleischer, a perfectly competent stylist but no match for Kurosawa. Then there was the lack of faith in the film evidenced by its producer, Richard Zanuck, and the wheeler-dealer antics of Kurosawa's own liaison man. After the dust had settled and Kurosawa was either fired or quit (depending which story you believe), Fleischer said that the blame for the catastrophe "lay on both sides although Twentieth Century Fox must carry most of the burden". Whatever - the professional and psychological damage to Kurosawa was permanent.

Then came the financial and critical failure of Dodesukaden , and the resulting suicide attempt in 1971 - a direct effect of Kurosawa's feeling that he had let down the independent company he had formed with three other directors (Keisuke Kino****a, Masaki Kobayashi and Kon Ichikawa) and made a failed film that ensured that these Four Knights (the name they had chosen for themselves) would ride no more.

Nor were the director's problems yet over. Kagemusha was not one day into shooting before Shintaro Katsu, the petulant comic for whom the part had been written, quit/was fired. Mifune was on the next set getting ready to shoot Shogun but Kurosawa never considered him and asked instead for Tatsuya Nakadai. When I visited the Kagemusha set later, there was Richard Chamberlain in his Shogun outfit looking over the fence and saying how much he would have rather have been in the Kurosawa film. Perhaps Mifune felt the same way. He loyally attended the premiere of the picture though he was never even considered for a role that might have been made for him.

There is no doubt that although the two men gave a lot to each other they also took a lot back. Mifune was the major loser with a public divorce, no more distinguished performances and a truly terrible end with Alzheimer's. But Kurosawa lost a lot too. Not only did he drop Mifune, he also no longer availed himself of the others who had so contributed to his films. The weakness of his last pictures is perhaps because he no longer worked with his major writers but wrote alone. When he could no longer work - because of his finances, his age and injury - he no longer wanted to live. His protracted death might be described as pining away.

The whole poignant, inspiring story is skilfully told in a leisurely way, with digressions for the doings of others apart from our two heroes. Galbraith offers an extremely detailed filmography, including all Mifune's work for television. But does he "uncover the essence of these two great artists" he has yoked together? Rather, he chronicles what can be observed of two intertwined lives. There is little insight because none is attempted, and there is not much interpretation either. But the book is packed with new information and buoyant with an informed enthusiasm that together make it by far the best popular account available about the relationship of an important film director with his finest actor.

Donald Richie, the author of many books on Japan including The Films of Akira Kurosawa , curated the recent Kurosawa retrospective at the National Film Theatre. Kurosawa films are available at: www.moviem.co.uk </a>

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