The Films: 6 from Toshirō Mifune & Akira Kurosawa
I thought it was important to highlight two of my favorite people in foreign film. There are a few reasons they’re on the list but the strongest of those reasons is that together they made modern films over 60 years ago, in a country strongly changed by World War II, that are still influencing filmmakers today.
Director Akira Kurosawa and actor Toshirô Mifune made 16 films together. They met at a talent search held at Toho Studios. Mifune didn’t make the cut but Kurosawa had seen him perform. “I am a person rarely impressed by actors,” he later said. “But in the case of Mifune I was completely overwhelmed.”
Stray Dog [Nora inu] 
A beautiful and interesting reflection of Kurosawa’s love of and influence on Western culture. Parts of the story feel unnatural, a push for a style of narrative and character which is not of it’s own culture. Yet the dramatic interpretation of a pulp noir fuses with the cultural concept of shame and creates a unique undertone worthy of study.
Taking place in the sweltering heat of a post-war Tokyo, as a rookie homicide detective goes in search of his stolen Colt pistol. The theme of making choices in hard circumstances is a theme carried throughout Kurasowa’s work and the dramatic tension it brings here is intriguing. The scene in the hotel with the public phone reminded me of the great burning and hostile suspense in Key Largo.
You can see here the strong vision of films to come, but Stray Dog misses some of the qualities found in Kurosawa’s later films. The director himself called it “too technical” while also remarking that it contains “all that technique and not one real thought in it.”
As a companion to the film I highly recommend the rather dry commentary by Stephen Prince on the Criterion Collection DVD. The information adds to the respect this movie deserves.
Seven Samurai [Shichinin no samurai] 
This was my first Kurosawa experience. I didn’t love it. I couldn’t understand what my sister, who picked the film, saw in it. But I remember the change in my mentality afterward.
There are things you realize must be true, obvious facts you hadn’t known, not out of ignorance, but because it had never dawned on you. I had seen more black and white movies than my peers but they were American productions. I hadn’t, until watching this film, realized there were classic films from other countries.
Sadly, I don’t remember the turning point, the time I watched The Seven Samurai and fell in love with it, understood the perfection of it. Every character, every scene, shot, they’re all working together toward the same goal.
Mifune plays the temperamental Kikuchiyo with the kind of passion Kurosawa wrote about seeing when the actor auditioned for a place in Toho Studios — “a young man reeling around the room in a violent frenzy…it was as frightening as watching a wounded beast trying to break loose. I was transfixed.”
The strength and kindness of the leader of the group played by Takashi Shimura works really well against the wild Mifune. Their friendship is one of the most dynamic and touching in any Kurosawa film.
Throne of Blood [Kumonosu jô] 
Kurosawa meets Shakespeare in this captivating adaptation of Macbeth. It is long, uneven, and the black and white often lacks depth but there’s a transformative sensation when Kurosawa is in charge. A feeling always compounded when Mifune fills the screen. In the role of Macbeth his wildly dynamic quality carries the film. Without Mifune, even the mighty combined powers of Shakespeare and Kurosawa could not have succeeded.
Macbeth is a desolate story filled with tragic characters brought to tragic ends, as much by the literal means of death as the psychological, and Kurosawa embodies and propels the desolation and tragedy further than any other adaptation. Tempered only by shots of vast wasteland engulfed by fog his sense for theatricality and Kabuki-like grandeur are observable in this film more than any other. Even with large-scale locations like the castle fortress and forest maze, the film maintains the essence of stage. Compared to Hidden Fortress, which seems so connected to the visceral world the characters are imprisoned in you can taste their sweat, the focus of Throne of Blood is so tightly held on the story’s characters you taste their paranoia. The insatiability of Lady Macbeth, as played by actress Isuzu Yamada, is intense and vile. She is not a little bee in her husband’s ear but rather a poisonous asp tightening round his neck. There’s nothing cloaking her contempt, lust for power, or treacherous aims. Nothing to even soften it. Kudos to Kurosawa to not show restraint, to not lighten the portrayal for sake of her sex. In the story of Macbeth, there are no winners, but in watching Throne of Blood, there are.
Hidden Fortress [Kakushi toride no san akunin] 
This time the focus turns to the physical, as two greedy peasants travel through enemy territory trying to make their way home. A road trip movie? Sort of. But so much more. From TV Tropes: “Akira Kurosawa’s first widescreen movie is a Jidai Geki with an interesting twist: the movie, rather than concentrating on the hero, focuses instead on a pair of bickering peasants…best known in the west as a major influence on Star Wars as the basis for R2-D2 and C3-P0.”
Toshirô Mifune stars this time as the silent type. His wide stance and fierce furrowed brow are large enough to truly inhabit the varied world of the film, a much larger, textured world than other Kurosawa films. Claustrophobia is replaced by more tangible threats; capture in enemy territory, dangers on the road ahead, and death. (That’s tyrannophobia, hodophobia, and thanatophobia, respectively.) There is a lot of misery and suffering for the characters in this film but it doesn’t come off as sadistic. For the character of the Princess, this suffering actually serves to humanize her and just when the film is wrapping up, you realize there’s been more to the sweat, blood, fears and tears than the surface objective. Lives have changed. However, slightly less so for the peasants who return to a familiar place personally and physically. But somehow their cynical journey seems fitting and allows Hidden Fortress’ to feel complete.
Yojimbo [ Yôjinbô] 
I sought this film after watching Kirby Ferguson’s Everything’s A Remix: Part 2 which showed side-by-side comparisons of images and ideas from Star Wars that were lifted from Yojimbo, Sanjuro, and Hidden Fortress. I wanted to see the context myself, see the films which inspired Lucas. As I looked into it, I realized Yojimbo was also the inspiration for A Fistful of Dollars, the classic spaghetti western starring Clint Eastwood, and Last Man Standing, a 1920’s gangster film starring Bruce Willis.
Mifune is the ultimate hardcore swordsman, his battle of wits and will plays out on the dusty streets of a small town ruled by warring gangs. The anti-hero ronin has qualities of other Mifune characters but the quiet intensity seems to come from a more mature place here. The wild stallion is now a strategic warrior.
Everything about this film is paced and solid. It has a solitary western feeling which makes it so distinct, entirely different from a thriller like Stray Dog or the theatrical psychology inThrone of Blood. Unlike Leone’s A Fistful of Dollars, the family thrown in the middle of the dispute is a genuine part of the story and Kurosawa uses it to reflect the motives of the ronin and drive the plot, not as a melodramatic side-dish.
Any element of Yojimbo can be taken apart, studied, or reflected on but the distinct quality of the work cannot be replicated.
Sanjuro [Tsubaki Sanjûrô] 
Once I had seen the first film, I had to see the second film staring the unnamed ronin. It’s a great companion to the Yojimbo but quite a different animal.
The flavour of the western is still there, but the shape is quite different. This time it’s a battle of wits and tactics, not brains and brawn. The action goes back and forth like a game of chess, in an attempt to save nine young samurai from a corrupt official.
Having Mifune’s ronin guard young samurai takes away some of the acidity of the first film. His motivations in the first film immediately set the tone. What’s interesting is that he doesn’t start out as he began before, which means his character has developed. This is a huge flaw I’ve disliked in other sequels, they rarely address the change actions from the first film might have had on the character.
But it also means, the antihero qualities aren’t as strong — which is what the entire conflict in the first film was based on. However, I would take the slight shift in tone over a complete repetition of the successful elements from the previous film. Much like Kasdan‘s great western Silverado, the plot is much more cerebral and psychological warfare trumps a show of force. And there’s nothing shabby about that.
The Food: Spiced Mexican Wedding Cookies
A comment on the recipe said if you pack the dough into a tablespoon and pop it out, the perfect size, you get 60 cookies. I halved the recipe as this was my first time making it, and got exactly 30 cookies. Whoo hoo! I made it right!
The original recipe also used almonds but I used pecans. Any nut will taste great but I wouldn’t recommend peanuts. I found the vanilla to be a very tasty part of this recipe but you can also swap out some or all of the vanilla extract for any other extract.
- 1 1/2 cups unsalted butter
- 3/4 cup confectioners sugar, plus 1/3 cup, for rolling
- 3/4 teaspoon salt
- 1 1/2 cups finely ground blanched almonds
- 5 1/2 teaspoons vanilla extract
- 3 cups sifted all-purpose flour
Shape into crescents using about 1 tablespoon for each cookie.
Place on ungreased cookie sheets, and bake for 15 to 20 minutes. Do not brown. Cool slightly, then roll in the extra confectioners’ sugar.
Here is the half recipe conversion I made:
- 3/4 cup butter
- 1/4 cup + 2 tablespoons powdered sugar
- 1/2 teaspoon salt
- 3/4 cup nuts
- 2 3/4 teaspoons vanilla
- 1 1/2 cups flour
When they’ve cooled, but before they’re cold, roll them gently in powdered sugar. I recommend adding spices to the sugar. Mix and match combos of these spices, extracts, and nuts:
Spices: chilli powder, cinnamon, ground cardamom, ginger powder, nutmeg, clove, cocoa
Nuts and seeds: walnuts, pecans, cashews , hazelnuts, almonds, pistachio, pinenuts, macadamia, toasted sesame seeds, poppy seeds
Extracts and flavourings: orange, rum, maple, lemon. peppermint or spearmint, almond, coconut