Fri Nov 8-Thurs Nov 28
at the Varsity.
Legend has it that in 1947 Toshiro Mifune showed up at Toho Studios in Tokyo looking for a job as a camera operator. The casting department took one look at him and saw gangster/warlord/trickster/knave. "Weep," they said. "Why?" asked Mifune. "I'm not sad." "Okay, be angry," they said. Angry he could do; he tore the place up, terrorizing all the actors waiting for auditions. The casting department called security: "Get that madman out of here." But by luck Akira Kurosawa, already a veteran director, happened into the room as Mifune was destroying it. "Wait," said Kurosawa. "Perhaps there's something here that I can use." Something he could use indeed.
Physically, Mifune was shortish, with slender, muscular thighs and calves beneath a broad torso and barrel chest worthy of a Tudor monarch. In many of his roles he wore a rakehelly moustache and sideburns. Makeup emphasized the circles under his enormous dark eyes, like the stylized villain in a 19th-century Japanese woodcut, and his dramatic, charcoal-smudged eyebrows completed the frame. He held his arms often slightly akimbo, his fists clenched. His voice wasn't especially deep, but he had superb dynamics, and he was a master of the roaring growl or growling roar, a Japanese sound unmatched for menace by any other language.
In Mifune's vast repertoire of gesture and movement, my favorite is his run. Japanese costume drama features lots of running; it's some kind of cultural thing. Mifune has the best run of all, his torso upright and his legs in semi-squat, for all the world like Groucho Marx, but speedier.
Mifune began acting at a time and in a place where conventions of manliness did not preclude being expressive. Picture Gary Cooper tearing out his hair and stamping his feet; imagine John Wayne shrinking in terror; think about how Gregory Peck would look scratching his stomach; fancy Charlton Heston in tears--no casting director ever asked Charlton Heston to cry. And yet at the same time when male American actors were in their rock-jawed, reticent heyday, Mifune was, true to form, tearing up the place. For me, as a young heterosexual woman in the '50s, Mifune was a revelation. Masculinity did not require impassivity. Mifune was nothing if not emotive, and indubitably a stud. He was also comically, wittily vulgar--Marlon Brando with a sense of humor.
But I've been writing as if Mifune did it all by himself, and that's obviously not true. He had a long career after he broke with Kurosawa, but never again did he strike the high notes of those early movies, the psychological insight of his callow detective in Stray Dog, his bravura quadruple portrait of the brigand in Rashomon, his strenuous underplaying in The Lower Depths. Kurosawa gave him amazing actors to play off and understood how to use his camera to ground this most supremely physical of all actors in three dimensions. Yes, Mifune runs in movie after movie with the signature Mifune run; but thanks to Kurosawa, we always know exactly where he's running from, where he's running to, and what the terrain is like in between. Above all, Kurosawa gave him scripts worthy of his talents. Scripts, as Mifune undoubtedly noticed in his subsequent career, don't grow on trees.
Many of the magical pairings of director and actor end heartbreakingly too soon. Howard Hawks made only five movies with Cary Grant, Stanley Donen three with Audrey Hepburn, Jonathan Demme three with Jason Robards, Alfred Hitchcock three with Grace Kelly, John Woo five with Chow Yun-Fat (although in that last case we can still hope for more). Making movies is such a circus of complications, scheduling, budgets, and personalities that we may never know whether Martin Scorsese could continue wringing new juice from Ray Liotta, whether Gillian Armstrong could continue to help Diane Keaton find her backbone. Of the great collaborations, the few that seem sufficient include Anthony Mann with Jimmy Stewart (eight), John Ford with John Wayne (24), and, of course, Kurosawa with Mifune (16). All praise to the Varsity for bringing us 12 of these 16, and just in time--I'm convinced that the only cure for seasonal affective disorder is to go to a movie.
Barley Blair is the pseudonym of a little old lady who bores everybody silly with her ranting on about how there's more information in one square inch of a movie screen than there is in an entire HDTV.