the 1st & 7th samurai: a brief tribute 08/10/2010
When one chooses to delve into an auteur's entire filmography, certain qualities of the filmmaker’s style become more apparent. When that filmmaker is Akira Kurosawa this occurrence is exemplified. Having had the opportunity to see all of his 30 features in a retrospective here in Vancouver (as of writing this, I still have one film to go) I’ve been privileged with being able to fully appreciate this master’s complexity. While certain poetic qualities of his style stand out, I must say one of the greatest aspects of the experience has been seeing the various roles of his recurring actors, most notably Takashi Shimura & Toshiro Mifune.
Of course, before seeing the retrospective I had already admired these performers in major works such as Seven Samurai and Rashomon, but I had to yet to fully appreciate their versatility and the true weight of their presence. I once thought Mifune was a great entertainer, with his over-the-top work in the aforementioned classics, but didn’t necessarily consider him to be a great actor. It was not until seeing his restrained work in films such as Drunken Angel or The Bad Sleep Well. From his work in Ikiru, I had considered Shimura to be very impressive, but I underestimated the value of his presence, which like Chishu Ryu in the films of Ozu, has such a strong affect on the familiar viewer, something like a calming or consolation. Perhaps the greatest reward is in the shifting dynamics of these players. In Seven Samurai, Shimura is the first samurai, wise and contemplative, whereas Mifune is the last to join the group, a farmer posing as a samurai, full of shame and false pride who learns to live with honour. Later in their careers, in I Live In Fear, Mifune is a fearful old man, with Shimura as a simple person who learns from him.
This is a wonderful testament to one of the many unique properties of cinema, which is the special rapport a viewer can gain with the recurring actors on screen, who while always in character, contribute some of their essence in each film they appear in. Of course, Kurosawa is the definitive artist of his works, and the actors contributions may seem meager in comparison, but Mifune and Shimura appeared in a combined 20 films of Kurosawa’s 30, including (having ranked the films throughout the retrospective) what I consider to be the auteur’s 10 best. Akira Kurosawa’s work in cinema is invaluable, but it is difficult to consider his films without the power of these beautiful collaborations.