Chris Knipp Writing: Movies, Politics, Art

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PostPosted: Sat Nov 26, 2016 12:59 pm 
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Mifune, Kurosawa, and the great era of Japanese cinema

"The ronin fights out of frustration and rage, knowing that in the end it's hopeless. He knows that death is inevitable. He fights for his own sense of justice. . . I feel that's what heroism is," say two of the talking heads in MIfune: The Last Samurai, a new documentary by Venice, California-born Steven Okazaki, narrated by Keanu Reeves, about the great Japanese actor who starred in some of the even greater director Akira Kurosawa's finest films - "only" 16 out of the amazing 170+ in which he appeared in his career. But their joint work was during the great period for Kurosawa, and this is also the story of their collaboration. And it's incidentally an introduction to Chanbara, and shows clips from partially lost silent fils of this sword-fighting genre. This modest but thorough and touching film includes interviews with some key remaining figures in MIfune's life and career, as well as Scorsese and Spielberg. Too bad it has no critical depth or edge, starting with Reeves' bland monotonous voice.

Mifune was impossibly handsome, dashing, and brave as an actor. In looks and personality he was like Anthony Quinn but with more physical prowess, a hard drinker who loved fast cars, and often combined the two. His collaborations with Kurosawa include the masterpieces Rashomon - the film whose Venice Golden Lion and Janus distribution made put Japanese cinema on he map and made Americans aware of and excited by it - and 15 others, including Seven Samurai, The Hidden Fortress, Throne of Blood, Red Beard, and Yojimbo.

MIfune was in the war, a sergeant training the boy soldiers who went off to die in suicide missions toward the end. HIs eldest son Shiro recounts how he wept when telling of this experience. MIfune's film career began in 1947: it was part of the resurgence of vitality in the postwar period. Kyôko Kagawa, one of Japanese cinema's great actesses, talks about her own postwar career (Tokyo Story, Sansho the Bailiff, The Bad Sleep Well, HIgh and Low, among other classics). Kurosawa, starting out at the same time, saw Mifune's raw talent and used him a lot, pairing him with the veteran talent Takashi Shimura (star of the immortal Ikiru). Scorsese asserts that Kurosawa's special relation with his actors was key to the success of the radical Rashomon, and their fresh performances departed from costume drama tradition and drew all viewers in. Mifune's rebellious energy struck a chord in Kurosawa, who never again wanted to see the Japanese weak and obedient toward their masters or leaders.

Moving on from Kurosawa, who made Mifune a great star, we learn that under contract to the Toho studio, he was overworked, making 27 films in four years with other directors. It was outside Toho that films with more opportunities for women occured. But Kurosawa's best work was with Kurosawa, and later he did The Lower Depths and The Hidden Fortress, which inspired George Lucas's Star Wars; The Bad Sleep Well (about corporate corruption) and the influential Yojimbo[/i ](1961) and its sequel, [i]Sanjuro, with Mifune playing essentially the same protagonist in both. After the powerful non-samurai but period film Red Beard, Kurosawa and Mifune parted, never to work together. Kurosawa had a bad, suicidal period, shown by the deeply sad (and memorable) 1970 Dodes'ka-den (not mentioned here); and the Russian-made Dersu Uzala (1975) it was with major American help he staged a "comeback" wit the 1980h Kagemusha, an offbeat samurai story. Kurosawa made the great epic Ran in 1985. But the great era for Japanese film, Kurosawa, and Mifune, was the Fifties and Sixties.

Mifune had thirty years of work after his parting from Kurosawa, and was very busy. He did some international productions, including several good ones, started a somewhat schlocky production company for Toho that drained his acting energies, and turned to television to boost profits. Regrettably he developed Alzheimer's-related symptoms and had difficulty remembering his lines later in life, and finally withdrew and declined, cared for by his estranged wife Sachiko and then after her death by hi son Shiro. He died at 77, too early cut off. Kurosawa, then too unwell to go to the funeral, died less than a year later, in September 1998. A moving etter from Kurosawa was read at Mifune's funeral, which one of his main female costars reads most touchingly here. . "We were part of the golden age of Japanese cinema together. When I look back at each and every film, I couldn't have made them without you. You gave so much of yourself. Thank you, my friend. For one last time over a bottle of sake I wish I could have told you all this. Sayonara, Mifune-kun. I will see you soon." There could not have been a dry eye in the house. As a film, this is a mediocre effort, but it brings back memories of greatness, and can make you weep.

MIfune: The Last Samurai, 80 mins., debuted at Venice, Sept. 2015, showing also at 8 other festivals including Telluride, London, Kyoto and Mill Valley. US theatrical release begins 25 Nov. 2016; wide, 2 Dec.

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