- The Washington Times - Saturday, August 10, 2002

"Kurosawa & Mifune: Together Again," a dual retrospective tribute that will dominate programming at the American Film Institute Theater for the next five weeks, consists of 12 of the 16 movies that were directed by the late Akira Kurosawa and memorably enhanced by the starring presence of the late Toshiro Mifune.
Theirs was an extraordinary blend of filmmaking and performing prowess made familiar in such historically evocative classics as "Rashomon," "Seven Samurai," "Throne of Blood," "Yojimbo," "Sanjuro" and "The Hidden Fortress." The partnership began in 1947 and endured through 1965. The men died within a few months of each other, Mr. Mifune on Christmas Eve 1997 at age 77 and Mr. Kurosawa in September 1998 at age 88.
The AFI series, which boasts new 35mm prints with a fresh generation of subtitles, provides the opportunity for a compact updating that eluded admirers for decades when the subjects were alive and active. As a rule, one was obliged to catch up with numerous titles at intervals of five years or so: after "Rashomon" made an impact in the early 1950s, duplicated by "Seven Samurai" in the mid-1950s and then "Yojimbo" in the early 1960s.
For example, the first Kurosawa movie to feature Mr. Mifune, the slums-of-Tokyo crime melodrama "Drunken Angel," debuted in Japan in 1948. It didn't reach American art houses for another 12 years. Their follow-up urban thriller, "Stray Dog," played Japan in 1949 and lollygagged to North America in 1963.
So consider yourself privileged to have the AFI Theater series conveniently concentrated within a matter of weeks in a single location. People used to resign themselves to lifelong patience before missing pieces of the Kurosawa-Mifune collaboration could be tracked down.
The missing titles are a set of topical melodramas, "The Quiet Duel" and "Scandal," and a set of literary adaptations derived from famous Russian sources: Feodor Dostoevski's novel, "The Idiot," and Maxim Gorki's play, "The Lower Depths." The first set was shot right after "Drunken Angel" and "Stray Dog," and generally are conceded to be inferior to them. The Russian beau gestes were self-evident labors of love, criticized for becoming "talky" to a fault. A presentable video copy of "The Lower Depths" seems to be in circulation if you crave an even closer approximation to a "complete" Kurosawa-Mifune retrospective.
Instead of the customary one or two performances, the AFI series will offer each title at least four times. The magnificent "Seven Samurai," the concluding selection, gets 18 screenings between Aug. 30 and Sept. 18. In addition, a documentary feature titled "Kurosawa," completed in 2001, will be shown as a 13th title. Its first performance is today at 6:15 p.m., in case an early immersion is convenient. It will be preceded by "Rashomon," the great breakthrough movie for the postwar Japanese film industry in 1951, and followed by "Red Beard," the last of the Kurosawa-Mifune pictures. So the sweep of the partnership could be recaptured with admirable efficiency within a seven-hour span beginning at 4:30 this afternoon.
Mr. Kurosawa was the seasoned hand. He had served as an assistant director on about two dozen movies before making his feature debut in 1942. After becoming the chief assistant to a prominent director named Kajiro Yamomoto, he was also actively writing screenplays, several of which were eventually directed by colleagues. One of these, "Snow Trail," a crime melodrama about bank robbers who escape into a mountainous region of the country, became the first Mifune feature, directed in 1947 by Senkichi Taniguchi, regarded at the time as a promising newcomer in his own right.
Mr. Kurosawa eventually directed 31 films. The current series excludes titles belonging to the early and final phases of his career. "Drunken Angel" was his eighth feature." It was Mr. Mifune's third, and he eventually appeared in about 120 features. Although no one doubts that a preponderance of his great work was done with Mr. Kurosawa, it's not unreasonable to suspect that in some ways, we barely know Mr. Mifune.
He was playing leads from the outset, having drifted onto the Toho studio lot as a demobilized Air Force photographer looking for an assistant's job in the camera department. None was available, so he reluctantly settled for an acting audition as part of a Toho "new faces" campaign that did replenish the studio for another generation. A hostile participant when asked to laugh by the screening committee, Mr. Mifune became more cooperative when encouraged to mime drunken fury. Alerted to the presence of something unique and uninhibited, Mr. Kurosawa arrived in time to catch the improv and recognize that some kind of natural had wandered in off the streets.
Accounts of the Mifune audition tend to parallel descriptions of Marlon Brando when appearing in a Maxwell Anderson play titled "Truckstop Cafe" at about the same time. Some witnesses weren't sure if he was acting or convulsing. For Mr. Kurosawa and other directors who didn't place much stake in decorous behavior, the arrival of Mr. Mifune became a harbinger of postwar change and promise.
Although Mr. Mifune dedicated himself to the profession after perceiving his aptitude for the screen, he always seems to have doubted the fundamental strength of his vocation, since he had never trained for the stage and would no doubt have settled into the camera department if things had gone as he planned.
Both men were, of course, fortunate to have survived World War II. In the postwar crucible, they were able to seize opportunities for fame and artistic fulfillment. Although the youngest in his family, Mr. Kurosawa was the only surviving son among four boys and four girls by the time war between Japan and the United States began. He was classified 4-F, perhaps out of consideration by a doctor who knew and respected his father, a retired physical education instructor with the Japanese Army.
Destined to become a cinematic paragon of samurai wiles and virtues, Mr. Mifune never set foot in Japan before 1940. His parents lived in a Japanese settlement in a Manchurian seacoast town, where his father owned a photo shop and specialized in portraits. The family flair for photography seems to have kept Mr. Mifune with aerial training units throughout the war. He was never transferred to a combat wing.
There are seven period films and five modern ones in the series. The modern-dress Mifune is probably the less familiar figure to moviegoers, so the lean and hungry newcomer who plays a desperate hood in "Drunken Angel" and a desperate cop in "Stray Dog" and then the smoldering managerial types of "I Live in Fear," "The Bad Sleep Well" and "High and Low" may have a greater novelty interest than the near-savage bandit of "Rashomon," the fabulous, feral peasant-samurai of "Seven Samurai" and the crafty lone-wolf samurai of "Yojimbo" and "Sanjuro."
Be prepared to invest a major bloc of time in "Seven Samurai," "Red Beard" and "The Bad Sleep Well," which run 210, 185 and 150 minutes, respectively. Inevitably, the high-minded "Red Beard" will stir speculation about why the collaboration had to end there. Mr. Kurosawa confronted professional setbacks in the late 1960s and early 1970s. Mr. Mifune experienced them as severely later in his career. But it seems a pity that a reunion project of some kind could not be arranged.
One of the peculiarities of a Kurosawa-Mifune retrospective is that it's bound to become a Takashi Shimura retrospective, as well. Best known for his performances as Kambei, the leader of the "Seven Samurai," and as the self-effacing bureaucrat who achieves a hard-fought victory against red tape and inertia in "Ikiru," Mr. Shimura died in 1982 at age 77. He and Mr. Mifune were frequently co-starred, beginning with Mr. Taniguchi's "Snow Trail" and continuing with Mr. Kurosawa's "Drunken Angel" and "Stray Dog."
Art-house patrons who discovered "Rashomon" and "Seven Samurai" more or less promptly had no reason to anticipate a Mifune emphasis in the evolving Kurosawa stock company. As far as one could tell, Mr. Mifune and Mr. Shimura provided a reliably striking stellar contrast, rather like Max von Sydow and Gunnar Bjornstrand in the Ingmar Bergman movies of the 1950s. Although the size of his roles dwindled, Mr. Shimura eventually appeared in 21 of Mr. Kurosawa's movies.
As a practical matter, there cannot be a Kurosawa-Mifune festival that overlooks the invaluable Mr. Shimura.

WHAT: "Kurosawa & Mifune: Together Again"
WHERE: American Film Institute Theater at the Kennedy Center
WHEN: Today through Sept. 18
SUBJECT: Film retrospective consisting of 12 films directed by Akira Kurosawa and starring Toshiro Mifune, originally released in Japan from 1948 to 1965; also a documentary feature, completed in 2001, about the career of Mr. Kurosawa.
TICKETS: Admission is $6.50 for the general public and $5.50 for AFI members at the theater box office.
PHONE: Call 202/785-4600 for information about reservations, membership and programs.

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