Kurosawa film festival starring Toshiro Mifune [with comment by Paul]

Today is the 100th anniversary of the birth of Toshiro Mifune. Mifune was, most famously, one of Akira Kurosawa’s favorite actors. TCM is paying tribute to Mifune today by showing 10 films that amount to a kind of Kurosawa film festival. Here is the lineup, beginning at 6:00 a.m. (Eastern) this morning:

Drunken Angel (1948), the first of Mifune’s 16 films for Kurosawa, casts him as a small-time hoodlum who is befriended by an alcoholic doctor (Takashi Shimura, the “drunken angel”), but runs afoul of his former gangster boss.

Stray Dog (1949), one of Japan’s first film noir detective movies, has Mifune as a rookie homicide detective investigating a gun racket.

Rashomon (1950) is the classic Oscar-winning tale, set in the eighth century, in which various characters provide differing accounts of the same incident – the rape of a bride and the murder of her samurai husband. Mifune plays the notorious outlaw who claims to have seduced the wife.

Seven Samurai (1954) is another hugely influential classic – an epic samurai drama about a village of farmers in 1586 who hire seven rōnin (masterless samurai) to combat bandits who plot to steal their crops. Mifune is Kikuchiyo, a rogue who lies about being a samurai but proves himself as a warrior.

Throne of Blood (1957) is an historical drama in which Kurosawa transplants the story of Macbeth from medieval Scotland to feudal Japan. Mifune stars as the Macbeth character.

The Hidden Fortress (1958) is the story of two greedy peasants in feudal Japan who escort a general (Mifune) and a princess across enemy lines without realizing their identity.

Yojimbo (1961) is a samurai adventure about a wandering rōnin known as Kuwabatake Sanjuro (Mifune), who arrives in a small town where two competing crime lords try to hire him as a bodyguard.

Sanjuro (1962) is a sequel to Yojimbo, with Mifune reprising his antihero character from the earlier film. In this one, Sanjuro becomes the protector of a chamberlain of a clan who is being threatened by an evil superintendent.

High and Low (1963) is a police drama starring Mifune as a wealthy executive who is told that his son has been kidnapped and is being held for ransom. The executive faces a moral dilemma after he realizes that his chauffeur’s son was taken by mistake.

Red Beard (1965) was the final collaboration between Kurosawa and Mifune. The actor plays a gruff-spoken but sympathetic doctor in 19th-century Japan who takes an arrogant young intern (Yûzô Kayama) under his guidance and teaches him lessons in humanity.

Earlier this year I wrote that Kurosawa’s films — films including The Hidden Fortress, Throne of Blood, Rashomon, The Seven Samurai and many more — are entertaining and great on their own terms. They were also highly influential on a generation or two of American filmmakers.

Kurosawa was a great artist. Not surprisingly, he loved Shakespeare. Throne of Blood gives us Macbeth as Ran (not in this morning’s line-up) gives us King Lear, Japanese style. That is what goes under the denomination of cultural appropriation in today’s parlance. Can Kurosawa do that? Yes, he can.

Kurosawa’s samurai films appropriate the genre of the Western from Hollywood. Kurosawa’s samurai films rank up there with the Westerns of John Ford. Hollywood returned the favor in The Magnificent Seven, adapted from Seven Samurai. It’s a beautiful world!

The cultural appropriation continues in High and Low. The film is based on the police procedural A King’s Ransom, by Ed McBain (Evan Hunter), but goes far beyond it. It is an amazing film.

At the opening we meet businessman Kingo Gondo as he is engaged in raising funds to buy out the shoe manufacturing company he runs. Having raised the funds to save the company in the form he seeks to build on, he is told that his son has been kidnapped for ransom. He will have to use the funds to ransom his son. It is a decision he doesn’t agonize over. He doesn’t give it a second thought.

It turns out, however, that the kidnapper has mistakenly taken his servant’s son. Now what? That is a decision over which he agonizes for a night. The drama is excruciating.

The second half of the film depicts the police pursuit of the kidnapper. In an unforgettable scene toward the end of the film, Gondo seeks out the kidnapper in prison. He wants to meet the man who threw his life off-course. In a moment of deep humanity, the kidnapper’s reflected face is superimposed over Gondo’s. You can catch the image in the first few seconds of A.O. Scott’s comments on the film from the Times’s Critics Picks series in the video below.

TCM’s tribute to Mifune is about to commence with Drunken Angel. It’s not too late to fire up your DVR to catch this incredible lineup of classic films.

PAUL ADDS: I endorse Scott’s recommendation to record these films. Kurosawa was a master. I know of no better film director.

Recently, I watched Rashomon (which I consider one of the best films of all time) and Seven Samurai for the first time in many years. Both stood the test of time for me.

Somehow, I’ve never seen High and Low. I can’t wait to see it today.

Long live cultural appropriation!

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