No, it’s not an April Fool: Turner Classic Movies really is celebrating the centennial of Toshiro Mifune’s birth Wednesday with an all-day, all-night marathon of the iconic Japanese actor’s collaborations with the great Japanese filmmaker Akira Kurosawa. There are ten titles in total — I wish they’d had room for The Bad Sleep Well, but let’s not be greedy — and here is a guide to my five favorites in the lineup.
THE HIDDEN FORTRESS (1959) — At once a straight-faced spectacle and a mischievously sly put-on, The Hidden Fortress follows a fugitive princess (Misa Uehara) and her loyal general (Toshiro Mifune) as they maneuver through enemy territory during the civil wars of the 1500s. Skillfully employing wide-screen compositions for the first time in his career, Kurosawa alternates between elaborate set pieces — a slave revolt, chases on horseback, fire-festival celebrations, hairbreadth escapes —and broadly played comic relief. Much of the latter is provided by two bickering bumpkins (Minoru Chiaki, Kamatari Fujiwara) who go along for the ride without knowing the princess’ true identity — and who greedily plot to steal the gold hidden among the firewood transported by the general.
George Lucas has made no secret of his drawing upon Hidden Fortress as an inspiration for Star Wars. The bumpkins, of course, are precursors of R2D2 and C3PO, just as the headstrong heroine — who looks like a rough draft for Lara Croft of Tomb Raider fame — is the model for the feisty Princess Leia. (It requires a bit of stretch to see Mifune’s general as Han Solo, but never mind.) Lucas learned some important lessons from the master, enabling him to create his own masterwork. But as critic David Ehrenstein has reminds movie buffs in home-video liner notes, Hidden Fortress stands on its own merits as a rousing adventure set “a long time ago’ in a land “far, far away.” (10 am ET/9 am CT)
HIGH AND LOW (1963) — After finding inspiration in the classics of Shakespeare and Dostoyevsky, Kurosawa turned to a decidedly more contemporary source: King’s Ransom, Ed McBain's 87th Precinct thriller about the kidnapping of a Manhattan businessman’s young son. With the aid of three co-screenwriters, Kurosawa transferred the story to Japan, and infused it with his vision of a modern society undermined by the erosion of traditional values. But even while the film can be appreciated as an absorbing morality play, High and Low also can be enjoyed as a first-rate, noir-flavored police procedural.
The astoundingly versatile Toshiro Mifune is Kingo Gondo, a lordly shoe-company executive who mortgages everything he owns to launch a hostile takeover of his own firm. Pride, not greed, his motive — he’s determined to defeat rival board members who want to produce cheaper shoes for higher profits. But before he can complete his risky stock deal, Gondo gets a call from a stranger who claims he has kidnapped the businessman’s only son. The good news: The kidnapper mistakenly abducted the son of Gondo’s chauffeur. The bad news: He demands a 30-million-yen ransom anyway. “You're a fool to pay,” he cruelly taunts the bound-by-honor Gondo. “But you will.” And he’s right.
Kurosawa skillfully intensifies the tension inside Gondo’s lavishly-appointed mansion by evoking a sense of claustrophobia. Some individual widescreen shots are framed so that even while other characters — policemen, the anxious chauffeur, Gondo’s loyal wife — circle the businessman, he remains apart in the terrible isolation of his moral dilemma. When Gondo finally leaves his home to deliver the ransom, the movie switches gears to become a visually eloquent and dramatically gripping account of the manhunt for the kidnapper, an embittered medical student who views his crime as fair play in class warfare. Ginji Takeuchi (Tsutomu Yamazaki), the villain of the piece, remains a baffling enigma until his climactic confrontation with Gondo. Takeuchi made a conscious decision to commit evil, he tells the businessman he has bankrupted, because he felt he already was living in hell. In the end, nothing — not his eminent execution — terrifies him as much as the possibility that he was mistaken. (5:30 pm ET/4:30 pm CT)
SEVEN SAMURAI (1956) — Kurosawa’s stunning epic is one of those rare indispensable films that practically everyone has heard about, regardless of whether they've actually seen it. Indeed, even if you haven't, you may think you've seen it, given its strong influence on so many other films and filmmakers. Directors ranging from John Sturges (who remade it as The Magnificent Seven) to John Sayles (who borrowed the basic plot while writing a cult-fave Roger Corman B-movie called Battle Beyond the Stars) have drawn from this tale of honor among warriors in 16th-century Japan.
By turns sage and savage, avuncular and authoritarian, Takashi Shimura is Kambei, an unemployed samurai who agrees to help peasants defend their village against marauding bandits. Even though the pay is meager — a few handfuls of rice — Kambei is able to recruit other hired swords who have little else to do after being cast adrift by the lords they once served. By appealing to their pride and sense of justice, he attracts such tough customers as Kyuzo (Seiji Miyaguchi), a taciturn professional who never wastes a word or gesture, and Kikuchiyo (Toshiro Mifune), a bearish hot-head who takes great pains to hide his less-than-noble ancestry.
Seven Samurai shows Kurosawa at the top of his form, demonstrating an absolute mastery of his medium with an inspired balance of formal precision and kinetic exuberance. His epic opens with fast pans of bandits riding over hills, and climaxes with the chaos of a rain-soaked, mud-and-blood battle. In between, there is scarcely a single shot that does not contain motion. Even when people within the frame are stationary, the camera itself glides, thrusts and recoils. More than a half-century years after its initial release, Seven Samurai makes most other action movies seem positively pokey. (8 pm ET/7 pm CT)
RASHOMON (1950) — A bandit subdues a nobleman in a secluded woodland, and forces himself on the nobleman's beautiful wife. The nobleman dies, the wife flees, the bandit is captured -- and everything else in Rashomon remains open to conjecture. Decades before The Usual Suspects warned moviegoers not to accept subjective testimony as verifiable fact, Kurosawa’s breakthrough masterpiece suggested that no eyewitness can be entirely trusted, that truth itself may be forever elusive.
Four different accounts of the crime — including one offered by the late nobleman through a court-ordered medium — are considered by three strangers stranded under the Rashomon gate by a raging thunderstorm. Was the nobleman truly a man of honor? Is his wife an innocent victim or a guilty participant? Could the bandit (Toshiro Mifune at his most swaggeringly uninhibited) be twisting the truth for a selfless reason? The possibilities are perplexing. Each testimony is dramatized in flashback, and none seems more credible than the others. Indeed, Kurosawa strongly hints that all four stories are, to varying degrees, deceptions born of self-delusion. “Human beings,” he wrote in his memoir, “are unable to be honest with themselves about themselves.”
Rashomon has spawned many imitators, including director Martin Ritt’s 1964 Americanized remake, The Outrage, a Western with Paul Newman filling in for Mifune as a Mexican outlaw. But Kurosawa’s film continues to be paradigm for this sort of beguilingly simple but provocatively complex drama. Even now, the title is used to describe anything from Senate hearings to Seinfeld episodes in which a story is told from multiple — and often contradictory — points of view. (11:45 pm ET/10:45 pm CT)
YOJIMBO (1961) — The steely-eyed stranger rides into a lawless town where bad men rule, loyalty is bought and sold, and the coffin-maker never sleeps. With equal measures of ruthless cunning and lethal proficiency, he cuts a bloody swath through the corruption. In the end, as he prepares to ride off to another adventure, he takes a moment to appreciate his handiwork: “Now it will be quiet in this town.” No kidding: Thanks to the stranger, just about everyone who once lived there is dead.
Yojimbo, Kurosawa's darkly comical Samurai Western, takes the hard-boiled premise of Dashiell Hammett’s novel Red Harvest — a tarnished hero encourages two rival gangs to destroy each other — and outfits it with the trappings of traditionally Japanese jidai-geki. But there is nothing traditional about the cynical tone or the sardonic humor of this gleefully savage self-parody. Sanjuro, the sword-slinging anti-hero played by Toshiro Mifune, is prepared for the worst upon his arrival, when he sees a stray dog trotting down the dusty street with a human hand in its mouth. Later, after he temporarily signs on as a yojimbo (bodyguard) for one of the town’s two warring clan leaders, he overhears the leader’s shrewish wife urging her feckless son to kill Sanjuro: “Do it from behind, and it’ll be quite easy enough!” When Sanjuro finally gets around to pitting one clan against the other, he isn’t motivated by moral outrage. Rather, he simply delights in exploiting the villainy of lesser men to produce an amusing spectacle. The one time Sanjuro performs a selfless act — he reunites an enslaved woman with her husband and young son — he pays dearly for generosity.
Yojimbo has been remade twice, with Clint Eastwood (A Fistful of Dollars) and Bruce Willis (Last Man Standing) filling in for Mifune as the impassive protagonist. But even though each of the recyclings has something to recommend, the original remains in a class by itself as an exuberantly misanthropic masterpiece. And by the way: Yes, this is the movie that Kevin Costner takes Whitney Houston to see in 1992’s The Bodyguard. (1:30 am ET/12:30 pm CT)