Akira Kurosawa, Toshiro Mifune: Cinema’s Greatest Collaborations

Toshiro Mifune (left), Akira Kurosawa (right) on the set of ‘Yojimbo’ (1961).

Name a more iconic actor-director pairing from the mid-20th century than Akira Kurosawa and Toshiro Mifune. Unless you were going to say John Wayne and John Ford, we’ll wait for you to get back to us.

Over 18 years and 16 films they carefully crafted together, many made back-to-back or in quick succession, both iconic figures in Japanese cinema indisputably produced the most memorable and lasting work of their respective lengthy careers, doing so whilst working in such eclectic genres as crime movies, romantic dramas, adaptations of Shakespeare and East Asian folklore, and of course, as soon as the post-war ban on martial depictions was lifted, jidaigeki samurai films.

Coincidentally, both men were already working in different areas of the Japanese film industry during WWII – Kurosawa made propaganda films while Mifune was deployed in the aerial photography division of the Japanese armed forces. They both eventually found their way to Japanese mega production company Toho Studios. Toho gave both director and star their home throughout their long creative partnership, Mifune being discovered quite by accident in the “New Face” mass casting call after being rejected for his preferred job as a camera operator, while Kurosawa had steadily worked his way up from an assistant director under his mentor – the versatile pre-war filmmaker Kajirō Yamamoto – to write and direct his own projects.

Akira Kurosawa, much like Alfred Hitchcock, valued a polished script above all else and did not believe even a talented director could make up for shortcomings on the page. To mitigate this, he worked closely with a group which functioned almost like a modern American TV writer’s room, in order to exchange and improve upon ideas, ensuring the consistent quality of his screenplays. The final film was usually  made with his trusted creative team, the “Kurosawa-gumi”, including writers such as Ryūzō Kikushima and Shinobu Hashimoto, cinematographer Asakazu Nakai and script supervisor Teruyo Nogami. 

The pair’s memorable first encounter at an audition is recalled by Kurosawa thusly: “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.

To put it simply: Mifune was a force of nature. His aptitude for fighting both on screen and off, and the manner in which he threw himself into any task without visible fear, his intense stare, booming voice and intimidating presence made him impossible to ignore. He always stood out even in the impressive ensemble casts of such films as Rashomon and Seven Samurai. Kurosawa ended up designing some of the most memorable sequences in his always vivid films around what Mifune was likely to do, even though requiring some flexibility to accommodate his bankable but uncontrollable star could be a real problem for a director who would not budge an inch from his creative vision without good reason.

Their distinct working method involved both men intensively preparing separately from each other, and while their commitment to their beloved art form and often passionate disagreements certainly bore fruit, by the midpoint of both of their careers in film – following the difficult, contentious and much-delayed shoot of Red Beard (1965) – actor and director parted ways for good. Mifune’s career continued steadily on in Japan and abroad, but Kurosawa struggled with his work and mental health for over a decade until his modest late-life creative resurgence (roughly marked by the release of Kagemusha in 1980). Neither man quite hit the same heights they had reached while working together ever again. 

It is profoundly difficult to pick out a truly representative handful of films to stand in for the imposing Kurosawa/Mifune back catalogue, so we’ve gone a seasonal route and picked one of their collaborations from their early “spring” period, another from midway through, their “summer” and “autumn” periods, and finally one towards the end, the “winter” of their creative partnership. Please enjoy the first of The Film Magazine’s new series: Cinema’s Greatest Collaborations.

Spring: Stray Dog (1949)

Toshiro Mifune played tough Yakuza gangsters a lot in his early roles, notably in his film breakthrough with Akira Kurosawa, Drunken Angel in 1948, but was given the chance to be a lot more nuanced here in his third collaboration with his soon-to-be creative partner, playing a hapless and insecure cop. Both this and Drunken Angel also star Kurosawa’s other acting muse Takashi Shimura, but it is Stray Dog that gives Mifune in particular far more room to breathe as the unquestionable lead of the story, and he has far more opportunities to demonstrate multiple facets of his screen persona.

This sweaty, intense urban drama asks, what’s the most humiliating thing that could happen to a cop? Being promoted to Detective then immediately having your gun stolen on public transport by a common pickpocket has to be up there with the worst possible scenarios. Detective Murakami’s inadequacies both as a law enforcer and as a man are explored time and time again as he inadvertently digs himself into an even deeper hole in trying to put things right, eventually seeking help from the more level-headed and canny Detective Sato (Shimura) out of sheer desperation.

Because of the way he looked and sounded, Mifune specialised in, and was typically typecast as, scary brutes and slovenly slobs, but his versatility is tested here as he gets to be vulnerable and haphazard in how his character tries to correct his mistake. He ineffectually tries to chase down, and is often outsmarted by, prostitutes, dealers and smugglers, and so has no choice but to latch on to a senior colleague who actually seems to know what he is doing. 

Perhaps the best scene in the entire film is one of the more low-key sequences, where after an entire day of chasing a key witness without a result, the sex worker in question buys him a beer and some food and listens to his woes before providing some key information seemingly not out of honesty or duty but out of pity for this pathetic excuse for a police officer. Kate Blowers highlights in her essay “A Japanese Bull in a China Shop” that “When things go wrong for Mifune—as they often do, particularly in his earlier films—they go tremendously wrong”. Perhaps no other film in the entire Kurosawa/Mifune filmography shows this as explicitly as Stray Dog.

Mifune’s eldest son Shirō described his father’s unmistakable presence and unique working method, which can be seen plainly in most of his screen appearances: “He’s not an actor who blends into the background. You feel him energising everything around him. [Even though] he studied his part thoroughly, in front of the camera when they yelled “Action!” he forgot everything and just went for it. Mifune’s performance often had a feeling of improvisation around it despite his meticulous preparation, which helped all of his characters feel immediate and raw. 

Mifune could be scary, attention-grabbing and forceful, but in few of his films, especially those with Kurosawa, did he get to be this withdrawn, pitiable and fundamentally sad.

Summer: Throne of Blood (1957)

Throne of Blood is one of three Akira Kurosawa films heavily inspired by William Shakespeare plays (the others being the “Hamlet”-riffing The Bad Sleep Well and “King Lear” reimagined as Ran). In this case, the acclaimed director closely adapted “Macbeth”, transposing events to a particularly moody and atmospheric vision of Medieval Japan.

What better persona to embody barely-in-check madness than Mifune? As the increasingly unhinged Lord Washizu, he plays the part of a strong and charismatic leader, but with an ever-present element of instability, of unpredictability, perfect for any portrayal of Shakespeare’s severely troubled and timeless protagonist. Mifune’s exaggerated striding gait, mad stare and tendency to laugh inappropriately in deathly serious situations helped to punctuate many a serious Kurosawa scene with welcome levity, but here it’s all in aid of the high melodrama. 

The film is one of the few genuinely disturbing film adaptations of “Macbeth”, the more explicitly supernatural elements delving deeply into Japanese folklore and the striking visuals borrowing from Noh theatre traditions, from the makeup applied to the actors to the highly theatrical staging of the most powerful scenes. Gone are the three witches, in their place an evil forest spirit appearing as a decrepit woman spinning a loom, foretelling triumph and turmoil, the haunting spectres who appear unbidden to our Macbeth stand-in looking just like something from Japanese folkloric art. 

Either as a commitment to realism or out of sheer recklessness, Throne of Blood‘s unforgettable finale sees the (uninsured and potentially expensive star) Mifune being shot at with real arrows by a college archery team playing his lord’s treacherous army. Kurosawa at times seems to care so little for his star that you wonder how such high budget projects ever managed to get off the ground. Tom Cruise’s insurance coverage might be a nightmare to navigate for modern blockbuster filmmakers, but the same risks were in evidence decades earlier in Japan with Mifune. 

An observation made in feature documentary Mifune: The Last Samurai is that: “Kurosawa demanded everything from his cast and crew and was exacting in every detail, but he left it to Mifune to develop his own character, telling him “Do what you want with it”.” The Kurosawa-gumi had Shakespeare’s words, their own Japanese cultural perspective, and a whirling dervish of an acting force that simply needed to be pointed in the right direction and unleashed, so no extra embellishment was required to make the final product as dramatic as it could be. 

Haruo Nakajima (actor in Godzilla and Seven Samurai) remembers that “Mr. Kurosawa would spend an entire day filming one shot… Working with Mr. Kurosawa was like working on a play instead of a movie. We would spend a great deal of time rehearsing. It was torturous.” While this rule of intensive rehearsal  and control over his cast went for most of Kurosawa’s cast members, particularly on such high-profile and expensive features as Seven Samurai, it didn’t seem to apply to Mifune because giving him such instruction simply couldn’t be done. Luckily for Kurosawa, he saw what Mifune brought to the table and worked around him rather well.

Autumn: The Bad Sleep Well (1960)

Two characters who are shown talking about Mifune’s character in The Bad Sleep Well are neatly analogous for how this particular performance took many viewers by surprise: “What’s his efficiency rating? / Almost perfect, but he is very reserved.”

Extremely dialled-back by his usual standards this particular performance may be, this demonstrates Mifune at his coolest and most suave. Rather than unleashing a hurricane, Kurosawa tapped into his star’s captivating camera presence and inherent charisma to keep the focus always on him when he’s on screen and the audience’s thinking on him whenever he isn’t. 

Mifune plays Kōichi Nishi, seemingly an ambitious corporate type who marries into the family who run the corrupt Dairyu Construction Company, engineering an elaborate scheme to bring the company down from the inside as revenge for a family loss as a result of their dirty dealings. Though we only see him briefly in the opening sequence before the film’s first half focuses on the other key players, the denouement is all about Nishi and his plans coming to fruition, doing very bad things to bad people; Mifune being calm, collected and crafty all the way through.

Chuck Stephens commented on Mifune’s anti-hero in his essay for Criterion: “though he is mute for the first thirty minutes of the movie, it is Mifune’s stoic Nishi who will soon be shown as the poker-faced pivot around which the film’s every action and reaction will revolve.”

The Bad Sleep Well launched Kurosawa’s self-titled production company independent of Toho and marked a move from outright commercial filmmaking, the release making a slight loss at the Japanese box office but still earning plaudits from critics at home, particularly for its intricately plotted, noirish first half.

Kurosawa going independent of Japan’s biggest studio allowed him to get extremely political and discuss the dire state of post-war Japanese business practices, particularly in the film’s repeated insult: “He’s not a man, he’s an official”. Kurosawa uses the “Hamlet” story template and makes it as modern and relevant as it could be to a country re-establishing itself, and with his newfound freedom from interfering studio higher-ups and with the end of post-war restrictions on explicit political commentary in Japanese cinema, he could really get stuck in. Chuck Stephens again described Kurosawa’s aims for the film succinctly: “a film whose bitter intent—to throw open the windows of Japanese corporate corruption and air out the stench—is staged as a series of haltingly revealed motivations, haggard resurrections, and harrowing defeats.

Despite the fascination of seeing Mifune breaking his usual mould, this most definitely wasn’t a crowd-pleaser – the film is hard-going and demands your constant attention – but Kurosawa’s main goal was to ask his audience to consider Japan’s place in the world and what, if anything, could be justifiably sacrificed on a moral level for the sake of economic stability. 

Winter: Yojimbo (1961)

From the extremes of a dark and cerebral social issues film, Akira Kurosawa and Toshiro Mifune’s next collaboration spawned a character so successful it resulted in the pair’s only direct sequel. Sanjuro came just a year after Yojimbo, which in turn spawned the completely unauthorised remake (as in “we’ll see you in court” unauthorised) from Sergio Leone, A Fistful of Dollars, which kick-started the iconic Dollars Trilogy starring Clint Eastwood.

Mifune plays a nameless rōnin (wandering, masterless samurai) wearing a shabby kimono, unabashedly scratching and yawning away, seemingly uninterested in the affairs of the world except for where his next meal is coming from. He is reluctantly pressed into service to defend a town from some cruel local gangsters, but does not feel obligated to go above and beyond what he is being paid to do.

Forming his own production company, Kurosawa Productions, to house his more ambitious projects and lessen Toho’s understandable fears of heavy financial losses following the uninspiring reception of the challenging corporate thriller The Bad Sleep Well, Kurosawa returned to the Samurai films he was still best-known for and helped establish many a convention of lone warrior action movies in the following decades with Yojimbo.

Hisao Kurosawa (the director’s eldest son) points out that “Yojimbo was Kurosawa’s attempt at doing something fun. He wanted to do something everyone would enjoy. This is Kurosawa doing popcorn entertainment, and it and its sequel Sanjuro influenced multiple genres and wider cinematic iconography for the following decades, including the way fight scenes (both sword duels and quick-draw gunfights) were staged and edited in addition to establishing how you use stylised violence to punctuate a genre film in everything from Sam Peckinpah’s The Wild Bunch to Quentin Tarantino’s Kill Bill

If there’s one indelible image associated with this film, it’s the iconic finale with Sanjuro/the Ronan with No Name (much like Clint Eastwood’s Western icon he never receives a definitive moniker) facing off against the criminal gang in a deserted, windswept street. Previously an insouciant, unflappable presence as prone to standing by and laughing at threats as fighting them, in this moment and despite the seemingly overwhelming odds he becomes the hero the town deserves and dispatches the foes outnumbering him impressively easily and in record time. This was another of Mifune’s skills, he could switch modes in the blink of an eye from sleepy house cat to ferocious tiger (the latter of which was famously an inspiration for the restless way some of his characters moved).

Steven Spielberg theorises that “We don’t make the heroes, it’s up to the audience to turn a character into a hero. And the power of that is in the performance of the actor, it’s up to the actor even more than the director, because a director can only pull so many strings, but if a director pulls too many strings it’s a puppet not an artist.

Teruyo Nogami (regular Kurosawa script supervisor and one of the director’s inner circle of creatives) said that “People have no idea how hard [Mifune] worked. He was always thinking about his character and how to add humour to it. No matter how intense Mifune’s screen presence was and how thematically layered Kurosawa’s greatest films are, both men saw the value of diffusing tension, of giving a scene a more varied rhythm and a character more humanity with the addition of a funny grace-note, background buffoonery to repeated physical tics. 

Akira Kurosawa and Toshiro Mifune were a creative partnership for the ages, one that left an indelible mark on film in Japan and around the world, and as artists they were never stronger than when they were working side-by-side. Despite not speaking to arguably his most significant creative collaborator for three decades, when he outlived his muse by just a few months Kurosawa sent a letter to be read at Mifune’s funeral, movingly capturing what their love-hate relationship and their long and often tumultuous collaboration really meant, and perhaps in his way apologising for the way things ultimately turned out:

“When I look back on each and every film, I couldn’t have made them without you. You gave so much of yourself. Thank you, my friend.”

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