“I did a scene where I had to kill 30 people at once,” Toshiro Mifune remarked about Akira Kurosawa’s Sanjuro (1962), one of 12 offerings in Film Forum’s seven-week “Kurosawa & Mifune” series. “I was young then, but I thought my heart would explode.” Though most identified with the ronin sword slinging of Kurosawa’s Seven Samurai (1954) and Yojimbo (1961), Mifune at his peak was never just a pretty face or an action hero; physically imposing and able to unleash vortices of rage, he could also accommodate more nuanced vigor—conscionable deception, soul-deep laughter. In Kurosawa’s hands, he was grandly human: not just vanquishing bandits but grappling with the dictates of fear and the maddening logic of responsibility.
The legendary director (1910-1998) didn’t discover his legendary actor (1920-1997): Mifune, who came to Toho Studios looking for work as cameraman (“I don’t want to be an actor. I don’t want to have to rely on my face to make money”), had already received top billing in his very first picture, as a gangster in 1947’s Snow Trail. In their first true pairing, Drunken Angel (1948), Mifune is a tubercular yakuza eaten up by disease and his own gang, in a literal Tokyo backwater that breeds mosquitoes, a repository for the detritus of squandered lives. Though there’s an overload of illness as metaphor, Mifune ably locates the tragic tone, and Kurosawa favorite Takashi Shimura (best known as the lead in Ikiru) is wonderful as the gruff but caring doctor. For Stray Dog (1949) Mifune replaces hoodlum swagger for the panicked despair of a stammering military vet turned cop whose stolen gun has been used in a series of crimes; monitoring the status of the Colt’s seven bullets is both snappy noir scorekeeping and a foretaste of Seven Samurai‘s body-bag accounting. Realizing the killer is a fellow ex-serviceman, whose rampage was triggered by the theft of his knapsack, the humiliated Mifune acknowledges both his connection to the criminal and the necessity of moral choice. (Stuart Galbraith IV, in The Emperor and the Wolf, his massive new book on the director and star, writes that the demobbed Mifune was so poor after the war that he took his two air-force-issue blankets and made them into a suit.)
Also included from this fertile era are Kurosawa’s justly famous jidai-geki, or period pieces. Despite its imposing castle set and lavishly armored players, Throne of Blood (1957) is less an epic than a gorgeously concentrated nightmare, a Noh-inflected Macbeth that subsumes Mifune’s capacity for subtlety into its darkling scheme, the way the omnipresent fog swallows warriors and woodland alike. (The new print intensifies Throne‘s crepuscular, death-haunted milieu until it treads upon the border of the unreal.) The following year’s The Hidden Fortress consequently feels all the more luminous, giving full CinemaScope to the ripping yarn of a disguised princess, Mifune’s loyal general, bumbling farmers, and hidden treasure. And the jaunty, cynical Yojimbo, with its Mancini-land score and Mifune’s itchy mercenary, is enjoyable if a bit one-note; the better sequel, Sanjuro, manages to be both lighter than air and ultimately more serious than its predecessor, giving more time to the camellias that give Mifune’s Sanjuro his name than to the blink-and-you’ll-miss-it showdown.
Back in contemporary dress, The Bad Sleep Well (1960) is Kurosawa’s unofficial Hamlet, an intricate revenger’s tragedy that doubles as a critique of corporate corruption. Opening with a bravura wedding sequence and ending with a sycophantic bow to a replaced telephone receiver, the film has its longueurs, but Mifune’s buttoned-down avenger is a compelling portrait of righteous obsession foundering on unpredictable reality. Three years later, Kurosawa adapted an Ed McBain novel for the brilliant High and Low. Mifune is Gondo, an up-by-the-bootstraps shoe company exec who lives high above the city. Learning that his son has been kidnapped, he’s prepared to pay; when it’s discovered that the wrong boy’s been nabbed, the kidnapper insists that Gondo pay up anyway. Though some prefer the original Japanese title (Heaven and Hell), High and Low maintains the altitudinal relation (the villain is a denizen of the city’s lower depths, most vividly depicted in the nighttown of “Dope Alley”) while suggesting the brows of its bisected narrative: The first hour is a taut moral drama; the second, a nail-biting tale of detection. (As in all these films, Kurosawa’s trademark “wipes”—still used by George Lucas—give the stories a page-turning rhythm.) High and Low contains the series’ single transgression from carefully composed black-and-white: a startling stream of pink smoke shooting out of a distant incinerator that signifies the chase is on.
There is no color in Red Beard (1965), Mifune’s final collaboration with Kurosawa, though director and star experimented with various dyes and bleaches. Mifune is the eponymous doctor, head of a clinic for the poor, willing to break some bones (with physician’s precision) to rescue a sick girl trapped in a brothel. The film is a bildungsroman (heartthrob Yuzo Kayama is the arrogant young physician who comes to share Red Beard’s philosophy), an extended treatment of Kurosawa’s ongoing concern with life seen through the lens of sickness, and a deft weave of numerous plotlines that add up to a Dickensian microcosm so rich one doesn’t care to leave.
Mifune—and perhaps Kurosawa—would never reach such heights again. With slight exceptions, the actor’s career would run on fumes, sinking to the ignominy of playing Lou Diamond Phillips’s Eskimo father; his once proud form would succumb to Alzheimer’s and other medical problems. Red Beard is a last stand, with Mifune’s doctor-hero an argument for compassion, fallible but unstoppable, and radiating something like pure charisma.