“Now it’ll be quiet in this town,” said the surly, bedraggled samurai at the end of Akira Kurosawa’s great “Yojimbo.” Then, with a last scratch of his scraggly beard and a last twitch of his shoulders, he turned and walked off, alone, as he had come.
Now it’ll be quiet on this planet. Toshiro Mifune, the great actor who embodied the idea of the samurai in a dozen films that transcended their Japanese cultural identity and turned him into a world cinema icon, died Wednesday at age 77 of what is being described as “organ failure” by doctors in Mikata, Japan.
But one thing must be certain to all who loved this wonderful rogue: The organ that failed cannot have been his heart.
To the West, Mifune’s great talent has been reduced by his identification with roaming warriors--the gunfighters, as it were--of medieval Japan, primarily in the films of another great Japanese artist, Kurosawa, in such films as “Yojimbo,” “The Seven Samurai” and “Sanjuro.” A more reasonable account of his career would observe that his was a great actor’s gift, and he didn’t need a beard or a swagger or a giant sword to be believable, as he proved in less flamboyant but equally intense roles in “The Lower Depths” and “The Bad Sleep Well.” But in the world’s eye, he’ll always be the vagabond samurai, a man on a perpetual bad-hair day, who has never known the power of soap and water but loves the power of right over wrong.
Nearly everything about his persona was outsize. Born in China to Japanese parents, he never set foot on the home islands until after serving in World War II. He got into movies in an amazing way: He answered a want ad for movie stars. “Wanted: New Faces,” it said. And among the hundreds who showed up at the Toho Studios that day in 1946 was the rough young ex-soldier, who otherwise faced a dreary future as a laborer.
Kurosawa tells the story in his “Something Like an Autobiography"--how he was called over from his own set by actress Takamine Hideko, who urged him to come look at one “who’s really fantastic.”
“A young man was reeling around the room in a violent frenzy,” recalled Kurosawa. “It was as frightening as watching a wounded or trapped savage beast trying to break loose. I stood transfixed.”
Kurosawa interceded with studio authorities to get a contract for the young man. He knew what he had discovered.
“Mifune had a kind of talent I had never encountered in the Japanese film world,” Kurosawa wrote. “It was, above all, the speed with which he expressed himself that was amazing. The ordinary Japanese actor might need 10 feet of film to get across an impression. Mifune needed only three feet.”
Kurosawa immediately cast Mifune in “Drunken Angel,” but it wasn’t until two years later that the West first got its first glimpse of the demonic figure who was to capture its imagination.
The movie was the breathtaking “Rashomon,” which came from nowhere to win the Grand Prize at the Venice Film Festival. Derived from a series of short stories by Ryunosuke Akutagawa, the film told the story of a rape and murder from four points of view. Mifune, as Tajamuro, the rapist and murderer, is first seen in what was to become his trademark look: his hair unkempt, his face snarled, with a half-grown beard, his clothes dirty and flapping about him. He’s all growling machismo, a man proud of his outlaw ways and committed to them. With his vigor and power, he dominated the film. Some people didn’t quite get it.
“Toshiro Mifune,” wrote the London Times in 1952, “capers about the screen like a ferocious, demented Puck, bellowing with maniacal laughter.”
That was the beginning of a collaboration between the actor and director that would become one of the most influential in screen history. Between them, Mifune and Kurosawa made more than a dozen films with Mifune as the fastest sword in the East and the one least likely to visit a barber. In ways both small and large, it changed world cinema.
The two men were part of the internationalization of the western. Their films were really set at the intersection of Japanese and American culture and, “Yojimbo” particularly, played brilliantly with the iconography of the American West: dusty village streets, wandering gunmen, rival gangs and showdowns in the street.
I doubt we’d have a Clint Eastwood to kick around today if it weren’t for Kurosawa’s “Yojimbo” (1961). The American’s first big film, the spaghetti western “A Fistful of Dollars,” was not merely based but traced from that work. Eastwood’s laconic, squint-eyed gunfighter is a mere shadow of the figure Mifune invented. Bruce Willis? An out-of-work Jersey bartender without the pioneering iconography of Mifune, who invented the idea that the hero didn’t have to be angelic, he merely had to be commanding.
Everyone who cares about movies will have his own favorite Mifune moment. Here’s just one, from Kurosawa’s “The Seven Samurai” of 1954. Mifune plays Kikuchiyo, the rudest, crudest and roughest of the professional soldiers a 16th century Japanese village imports to protect it from marauding bandits. His Kikuchiyo is almost more wild dog than man, a grunting, eating, drinking force of nature who in battle is as invincible as he is annoying in social intercourse. He claims he hates the peasants he’s signed up to serve and he’s always screaming at them, “Don’t cry, fool!,” hiding his feelings behind his bluster. But so compelling is Kikuchiyo’s humanity that his seems the greatest sacrifice. In the end, doomed by a bullet from the bandit leader, leaking blood in gallons, he still chases the man down and finishes him with the giant blade he’s been carrying, dying in the mud to be the most mourned of the fallen. It’s a heartbreaking scene.
Of course Mifune rode the internationalization of film culture in the late ‘60s and ‘70s. He played Adm. Isoroko Yamamoto, who bombed Pearl Harbor, more times than anyone should have to; he appeared on American TV in the miniseries “Shogun” and in some not terribly great American films like “Red Sun,” with Charles Bronson and John Boorman’s “Hell in the Pacific.” His work in these films is always respectable but never inspired, and it is a puzzle to see the handsome, even elegant man he was in such films and think of the mongrel of sheer aggression that had made him famous.
One hopes the old fighter’s passing was swift and painless. Whether or not his name was instantly recognizable, he was a movie star like no other.