I don’t think it’s an exaggeration to say that Akira Kurosawa not only defined Japanese cinema but continues to inspire countless directors, actors and cinephiles across the world.
It’s also no secret that one of the most powerful tools in his director’s kit was actor Toshiro Mifune, with him he made many of his best films. This actor/director connection is apparently worth writing books about–The above biography, “The Emperor and the Wolf,” chronicles their relationship. While I don’t know much about either of them personally, their films have certainly left their mark. Let’s take a look at some of the best.
The Seven Samurai
This period drama defies description; it is probably best to define it through its legacy. “Seven Samurai” inspired George Lucas during his creation of “Star Wars” and lived on in the West as a Western action drama, “The Magnificent Seven.” Of course, Mifune is on hand in the title role. They don’t make period dramas like “The Seven Samurai” anymore, although I guess that people keep trying.
“Rashomon” is a bit of a mystery. It looks at a rape/murder from multiple perspectives, never quite allowing us to see which is the “correct” one. It is filmed in beautiful black and white; this casts doubt on the whole thing for me and makes it even cooler. I’ve seen it in color as well, although I wouldn’t recommend it. A gritty turn by Mifune as a bandit who has his own view of what happened on that fateful day.
This is one of the first films that I’d ever seen dealing with the Japanese mafia (Yakuza), and what I didn’t know is that it’s also the first Kurosawa/Mifune pairing. Thank you, Wikipedia! Anyway, Mifune plays the titular “Drunken Angel,” a down-and-out gangster who must decide whether or not to change his ways after he is diagnosed with tuberculosis. Want to know how it all turns out? Please see for yourself!
I Live in Fear (Record of a Living Being)
This film about an old man (again, Mifune) struggling with his fear of nuclear annihilation in postwar Japan is my favorite Kurosawa film; its also the first one I saw, which might have something to do with it. The subject matter is daring and the acting superb, made all the more amazing because the old coot (pictured) was a handsome 35 year-old guy under all that makeup. This is a little-known gem. See it if you can.
To Live (Ikiru)
This is the only film on my list not featuring Mifune, although that doesn’t make it any less awe-inspiring. “To Live” encourages us to break from the molds of our ordinary lives, to embrace who we are and what we really want no matter our age and stage. I would compare it to “It’s a Wonderful Life,” although without the happy ending that always makes me cry with relief. “To Live” is a dying old man’s journey and therefore shorter than George Bailey’s, but probably all the more human for it. I highly recommend this film.