The Samurai Trilogy (Criterion), Hiroshi Inagake’s three-film adaptation of Eiji Yoshikawa’s epic novel, debuted the same year as Kurosawa’s The Seven Samurai and was one of the most popular cinematic exports of its era. Musashi Miyamoto was a real life swordsman elevated to the stature of almost mythic historical hero and this series embraces the mythic dimensions with a removed, distant style that elevates the character to tragic hero.
Toshiro Mifune enters Samurai I: Musashi Miyamoto (1954) as a brash and ambitious peasant who desires fame and power as a swordsman. His dreams of glory in war sour when his army is routed and he becomes hunted by the authorities, but with the “tough love” attentions of a kindly but severe monk helps him develop from a hot-tempered outlaw to thoughtful swordsman. Inagake’s somber color epic is very different from the energetic action of Kurosawa’s films. The sword fights and battles are more theatrical, staged in long takes that emphasize form and movement over action, and Mifune brings a sad, almost tragic quality to the samurai warrior Miyamoto, whose dedication proscribes him to a lonely life on the road.
While Samurai I can stand on its own, it is more properly the first act of an epic story and it takes on greater stature in in light of the rest of Inagaki’s stately, contemplative epic.
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Akira Kurosawa’s early police drama Stray Dog (1949), a kind of urban noir starring Toshiro Mifune as a young police detective who loses his gun in the volatile years of post-war Tokyo and Takashi Shimura as the veteran detective who tries to mentor the rookie as he tracks the stolen handgun, plays in Turner Classic Movies’ month-long tribute to Kurosawa.
The urban noir sensibility of post-war Tokyo in Stray Dog
The young Mifune projects a marvelous dichotomy as Murakami, his restless energy checked by a veneer of surface calm: the composed social face masking fierce turmoil underneath. Shimura is a complete contrast as his older, wiser mentor: warm and patient, he calms down the anxious, emotionally impulsive rookie cop and channels his efforts to methodically follow the leads.
Kurosawa sets it in the sweltering heat wave of a Tokyo summer and the atmosphere pervades the entire film. The faces on screen are constantly beaded with sweat, the cops mopping their brows and the streets crowded with listless pedestrians brought to a shuffling crawl by the oppressive temperatures. Kurosawa matches the atmosphere to the rising tension and the heat wave breaks in dramatic fashion with the climactic action. The atmosphere only exacerbates Murakami’s anxiety and impulsiveness. He’s driven by a mixture of shame and duty, afraid he’ll be fired and feeling responsible for every crime committed with the gun. (“Was it my gun?” is his first response to every shooting report.) But the gun is also part of his identity as a detective and Murakami, conversely, starts to identify with the criminal he’s tracking, who like himself, is a former soldier, driven to desperate measures. Both are, in effect, stray dogs, and as Sato warns Murakami, a stray dog can become a mad dog out of desperation. “There is even a saying about them,” Sato muses. “Mad dogs can only see what they are after.” Murakami’s single-minded pursuit of his gun is in danger of overwhelming his judgment.
Read the complete feature on the TCM website here. The film plays on March 23 and is also available on Criterion DVD.
I profile Akira Kurosawa’s Red Beard for Turner Classic Movies.
Lessons in compassion from Mifune's Red Beard
The final collaboration between director Akira Kurosawa and Japanese icon Toshiro Mifune is one of Kurosawa’s most ambitious, personal, and heartfelt films. Set in 17th century Edo, Red Beard (1965) features Mifune as Dr. Kyojo Niide, known as Red Beard to the interns and nurses at the public clinic and hospital he runs in the slums of the city. The three hour film follows the education of the spoiled, insolent young doctor Yasumoto (Yuzo Kayama, Mifune’s co-star in 1962’s Sanjuro and Toho’s hottest young star at the time). He has been educated in the state-of-the-art Dutch medical schools in Nagasaki and has every expectation of an appointment to the court medical staff, thanks to his family’s position and connections to the court. Sent by his father to visit the clinic, he’s appalled at the primitive conditions and the pathetic state of the patients and dumbfounded when he’s assigned to intern under the charge of Niide. Gentle beneath his gruff exterior and bearded face, but fierce in the face of greed and selfishness and cruelty and, worst of all, indifference, Mifune’s Niide is the fighting angel of the slums who has dedicated his life to tending the poor; he fights not just disease and abuse, but poverty and ignorance. “He has the body of a man in his forties, but his wisdom is like that of someone in their sixties or seventies,” explained Mifune of the character. “Nobody really knows how old he is. He’s ageless.” But Niide is also a practical man well aware of the real world in which he lives and works. When beset by a dozen young thugs who arrive to retrieve a patient, Niide fights them off with a mixture of martial arts and medical insight, wrenching limbs and breaking bones until they all are left writhing in pain on the floor. Being a doctor, he’s careful not to cause any permanent damage.
Read the complete feature here. Plays on Turner Classic Movies on June 11. Also available on DVD from Criterion.