The director-actor relationship between Akira Kurosawa and Toshiro Mifune is like no other.From 1948 to 1965, Kurosawa directed 17 films. Exactly one of them, Ikiru, did not star or feature Mifune.
Cinematheque Ontario has a dozen of their collaborations, and you come away from watching them with a renewed appreciation not of Kurosawa, but of Mifune.
Kurosawa is easy to appreciate. Just look at the climactic battle of The Seven Samurai (five screenings during the series, the first tomorrow, Friday, October 18, 6:30 pm) and you'll know Kurosawa is one of the great directors.
It can be argued that he's less appreciated than he should be because his films are so spectacularly entertaining. You don't require a deep understanding of Japanese culture to enjoy his films, as you do with Mizoguchi.
And you don't need the patience required for Ozu's endless variations on the family drama.
But back to Mifune. Our image of him is shaped by Kurosawa's period films -- the hyperactive bandit in Rashomon (Saturday, October 19, 6:30 pm), the peasant warrior in The Seven Samurai and the grouchy ronin playing both sides against the middle in Yojimbo (November 1, 8:45 pm; November 4, 6:30 pm).
But it was transformed by the films he made after his separation from Kurosawa, after he turned 45, when he tended to be used for his stern presence and petrified dignity.
In his introduction to Donald Richie's book on Kurosawa, Mifune wrote that the only films he made that he was proud of were Kurosawa's, and with good reason. Kurosawa got Mifune in his prime, discovering him at 28 to play a tubercular yakuza in 1948's Drunken Angel (October 24, 8:45 pm) and working him hard until 1965's Red Beard (Saturday, October 19, 8:15 pm) -- period and modern, peasant and general, doctor, salaryman, usurping king and beleaguered industrialist, old and young.
Watching a dozen of their collaborations, you see a protean performer with not merely an electrifying star presence but also a reckless physicality. Michael Jeck notes in his commentary on the DVD of The Seven Samurai that during the final battle there are no stunt men. "That is Japan's most expensive actor," he writes, "in the path of a charging horse."
Mifune's most remarkable performance for Kurosawa may be his most unexpected. In The Bad Sleep Well (Monday, October 21, 6:30 pm), a 150-minute revenge thriller about corporate corruption in contemporary Japan, Mifune, barely on camera in the first half-hour (he doesn't speak until 32 minutes into the film), plays a young man (he was 40) who marries a boss's daughter in order to insinuate himself into the highest levels of the business that murdered his father. The whole performance is seethingly interior, the character's polite public face bland and hidden behind glasses.
The Bad Sleep Well pairs beautifully with High And Low (Wednesday, October 23, 8:30 pm), which is also based on an Ed McBain novel. Mifune is a middle-aged industrialist in the middle of a corporate power play when kidnappers mistakenly nab his chauffer's son instead of his own and demand money he's committed to a huge stock purchase.
High And Low (Kurosawa's title translates as Heaven And Hell) is brilliantly constructed. The first hour takes place in a single set, and then moves from the heights of the industrialist's home to the depths of the slums. It shows not just the actor's range -- Mifune's body language alone makes the performance worth seeing -- but also the director's.
We tend to think of Kurosawa in terms of his period films. After High And Low, his only films with modern settings are Dodes'kaden and Rhapsody In August, and the period films are most easily found on video and DVD. Of the seven movies in this series available on DVD in North America, only High And Low does not fit into that category.
Yet Kurosawa made contemporary crime thrillers, including 1949's Stray Dog (October 24, 6:30 pm), with Mifune as a young cop whose gun is stolen, then used for murder. It's a very creditable film noir. And he made social melodramas. In I Live In Fear (Tuesday, October 22, 8:45 pm), about living in the shadow of nuclear weapons, Mifune added 40 years to his real age to play a factory owner sued by his children.
This is a tremendously entertaining series. Kurosawa was a great artist who, most of the time, knew how to please an audience. And we haven't even mentioned The Hidden Fortress (October 26, 3:45 pm), one of the influences on Star Wars, or Throne Of Blood (Tuesday, October 22, 6:30 pm), one of the greatest Shakespeare adaptations in any language, with Mifune as Macbeth.
Missing from Cinematheque's series are the two adaptation of Dostoevsky, The Idiot and The Lower Depths, and Scandal. In the last case, that means we're missing out on the chance to see Mifune as the romantic lead in a comedy.
KUROSAWA AND MIFUNE at Cinematheque Ontario, Jackman Hall, Art Gallery of Ontario (307 Dundas West), from Friday (October 18) to November 3. 416-968-FILM. See Repertory Film listings, page 95, for complete schedule. Rating: NNNNN