Most movie lovers usually picture Toshiro
Mifune with his weapon at the ready and a scowl on his face:
the intensely serious samurai swordsman.
And it is true that in several of the classic films he starred in for director Akira Kurosawa - including the masterpieces "The Seven Samurai," "Yojimbo" "Rashomon" and "Sanjuro" - Mifune did look and act just like that, and brilliantly.
But Mifune was much more than a poker-faced, sword-wielding avenger, as the BAMCinematek series "The Return of Kurosawa and Mifune" (Aug. 1 -29), makes abundantly, entertainingly clear. Over the course of 16 films in 17 years - 13 of which will be shown in the series - Mifune became Kurosawa’s onscreen alter ego: not because of any physical similarity, but because Kurosawa learned to trust Mifune to handle any major role.
The series, which opens with "The Lower Depths" (1957; Aug. 1 and 3), gives viewers a chance to see Mifune as they probably haven’t seen him: the beauty of Mifune’s acting, coupled with Kurosawa’s directing of him, is that no matter the role - swordsman or doctor, gangster or detective - the characters became larger than life, even mythic, without sacrificing their modest, human qualities.
Take "Red Beard," the final collaboration between director and actor in 1965 (showing Aug. 27). In this long, deliberately paced, contemplative melodrama, Mifune plays a no-nonsense doctor who has practiced medicine for the destitute and downtrodden over the years. When his polished new assistant arrives, they butt heads over how best to help the helpless.
Mifune’s characterization is one of steely resolve underneath a calm veneer; for three hours he rarely raises his voice, instead letting silence - and his piercing eyes and minute facial movements - speak volumes. That Kurosawa trusted Mifune alone to carry a film that was atypical for both men (thrilling visceral action is part and parcel of nearly all their other collaborations) also speaks volumes about their artistic relationship.
"Red Beard" is by no means the only such anomaly in the series. In "I Live in Fear" (1955; Aug. 6-7), Mifune’s remarkable transformation into an elderly patriarch driven to madness by the impending threat of nuclear annihilation is one of his most memorable characterizations. "Drunken Angel" (1948; Aug. 4-5) and "Stray Dog" (1949; Aug. 12) present vivid critiques of post-war Japanese society while Mifune moves through them as, respectively, a petty mobster dying of tuberculosis and a green cop whose stolen gun becomes catalyst for a murderous spree.
Although Kurosawa and Mifune worked superbly together in films set in modern Japan - with the acme being "High and Low" (1963, Aug. 13-14), with Mifune as a rich businessman whose son is kidnapped; and "The Bad Sleep Well" (1960; Aug. 25-26), a modern-day "Hamlet" with Mifune as a rising young exec who must come to terms with his father’s death - it was in grandly scaled period pieces that the pair found their greatest critical and commercial successes.
In addition to the epic swashbucklers "Seven Samurai" (1954; Aug. 28-29), "Yojimbo" (1961; Aug. 10-11) and "Sanjuro" (1962; Aug. 19-21), the BAM series includes Kurosawa’s singular transposition of "Macbeth" to feudal Japan, "Throne of Blood" (1957; Aug. 8-9), and his timeless action-adventure, "The Hidden Fortress" (1958; Aug. 15-16), George Lucas’ admitted inspiration for his own "Star Wars."
In "The Hidden Fortress" - Kurosawa’s first Cinemascope movie and one that’s sure to look ravishing in a new print at BAM (all of the films in the series have been restored) - Mifune plays a general who fights his way through enemy territory with a threatened princess and two bumbling low-lifes by his side. Think Han Solo, Princess Leia and the robots C3PO and R2D2 - but Kurosawa’s story is far wittier, more compelling and filled with stupendous action.
Mifune’s indelible performance in "Throne of Blood" is one of his richest: as the samurai who becomes Grand Lord through treachery, duplicity and an equally scheming wife, Mifune paints a portrait of blind ambition as masterly as anything in the best of Shakespeare.
The ending of "Throne of Blood," with Mifune caught in a hail of arrows as he desperately tries to escape, shows both artists at their peak: Kurosawa’s kinetic rhythms in the scene are matched by Mifune’s wide-eyed madness as he flails about until an arrow finally rips through his throat. It’s an amazing display of sheer cinematic adrenaline, and even more amazingly, only one of dozens of such highlights throughout this superlative series.
"The Return of Kurosawa and Mifune," a series of films directed by Akira Kurosawa and starring Toshiro Mifune, will be shown Aug. 1-29 at BAMcinematek, 30 Lafayette Ave. at Ashland Place in Fort Greene. Tickets are $10, $6 seniors. For more information, call (718) 636-4100 or visit the Web site at www.bam.org.