Monday, 1 October 2018

The greatness of Akira Kurosawa and Toshiro Mifune: Throne of Blood, The Hidden Fortress, Stray Dog and Sanjuro

One of the worst things about being stuck in hospital for nearly a month was not being able to watch vintage films. Having seen  some 400 old movies in the last year, I reckon I've almost achieved "film fanatic" status, albeit only for films released between 1935 and 1965.  Since returning home three weeks ago, I've been making up for lost time.  I've long been a fan of the Japanese director Akira Kurosawa and his lead actor, Toshiro Mifune (Rashomon, The Seven Samurai, Yojimbo), but, checking through the list of movies available on the BFI subscription service available via Amazon Prime, I realised how many of their most celebrated collaborations I'd never got round to watching. I've been putting that right, starting with Throne of Blood (1957), an almost flawless adaptation of Macbeth 

There isn't a single line from the play, but it's nevertheless as faithful a rendering of the spirit, meaning and atmosphere of the original as one could wish for: the strangeness of the setting and the relatively minor changes to the plot make one see the whole thing through fresh eyes. Toshiro Mifune as General Washizu, who, urged on by his terrifying wife, puts friend and foe to the sword in his quest to become Lord of Spider's Web Castle, gives a performance of such power and depth, it's impossible to take your eyes off him from his first appearance riding home after an unexpected victory in battle to his demise, when his enemies' arrows have turned him into a snarling, writhing demon.

Toshiro Mifune was undoubtedly one of the 20th Century's greatest screen actors, just as Kurosawa was one its very greatest directors. For more proof of both contentions, try Stray Dog, a 1949 release, starring Mifune as a young police detective whose gun is stolen by a pickpocket as he rides to work on a packed Tokyo bus on a sweltering, airless summer morning. The gun is subsequently used to commit a number of crimes, including murder. Thoroughly ashamed of himself, Mifune spends the rest of the film tracking down the criminal who now possesses his 7-round Colt. Here, the young detective finally confronts his prey:

George Lucas has credited Kurosawa's The Hidden Fortress (1958) as a major inspiration for Star Wars. There's a young princess trying to return to her homeland, pursued by evil foes; R2D2 and C3PO are two two dumb peasants; Toshiro Mifune plays faithful General Rokurota Makabe, an amalgam of Han Solo and Obi-Wan Kenobe; there's a brilliantly filmed, protracted duel with spears between Mifune and a rival, in which they might as well be wielding light sabres. This next video highlights some of the numerous borrowings:

Kurosawa is arguably the most influential film director of all time - Samurai movies, Spaghetti Westerns, The Magnificent Seven, Space Opera, a lot of Spielberg's adventure movie output, anything directed by Quentin Tarantino etc., all owe a debt to the Japanese master. Just watch this climactic encounter between Mifune's scruffy samurai antihero from Sanjuro (1962),  the follow-up to Yojimbo, the film in which the original of Clint Eastwood's "Man With No Name" made his first appearance:

For those of you interested in cinematic technique, here's an excellent video analysing Mifune's brilliant, inventive use of movement: 

Cary Grant once remarked, "Everyone wants to be Cary Grant. Even I want to be Cary Grant." Well, for many men - especially those of us who have the legs for it - I reckon the same could be said of Toshiro Mifune: 


  1. Riveting viewing.I can't help watching Japanese cinema in the context of Japan's monumental, astonishing, and sometimes ghastly 20th.Century history which very approximately goes something like this:
    The Russo-Japan war,the Great Kanto Earthquake,Imperialism in Manchuria followed by military expansion in the Far East (Pearl Harbour etc.) Hiroshima/Nagasaki and then Pax Americana and a slew of hokum from Hollywood, economic miracle, leading somehow unsurprisingly to asset price bubble.
    I think it's an amazing country with Tokyo one of the world's safest most crime free cities unlike one I could mention.

    1. As often happens, in my view, subtitles can be a delight, and I enjoyed one which occurred in a Japanese film (title forgotten) in which a fierce historical figure shouted a very lengthy rant and the subtitle merely said "no!".

  2. Mystery Train 1989, not exactly a film in the Japanese Tradition, but for those who love Elvis it's a little gem.

  3. I really enjoyed this post [especially the clip about composing movement] so "Domo Arrigato!" It also reminded me again how much more effective black & white film can be in terms of drama and atmosphere and Kurosawa was a master of this medium. But he was also not bad at handling colour - see his take on "Lear". The colour photography in "Ran" [1985] is wonderful.

    Toshiro Mifune was simply a great and natural actor. Huge presence. I know you are not a war film man, but he gave a very dignified performance as Admiral Yamamoto in "The Battle of Midway" [1976] in which he delivers the admiral's prophesy about awakening a sleeping giant after Pearl Harbour. Strong stuff.

  4. Great round up. I thought they worked very well together in both Samurai and modern day city dramas like Stray Dog.

    Sanjuro is, of course, one of the few sequels that betters the original