Takashi Shimura & Toshiro Mifune
Today marks the one year anniversary of my blog. I felt compelled to start this blog, when I did, from my love of Akira Kurosawa. I knew then that this was going to be the blog I would post on this day, devoted to the two actors who appear in a vast majority of Kurosawa's work. Takashi Shimura (03/12/1905 - 02/11/82) and Toshiro Mifune (04/01/20 - 12/24/97) have become two of my all-time favorites. Whenever I watch a Kurosawa film, and neither of them appear, I do miss their presence. For me, it is incredibly hard to assign a definitive performance to either of them, the same way I find it difficult to assign Kurosawa with one definitive masterwork. Consensus would seem to tell us that Seven Samurai would be the one definitive work, and how could I argue with that?
Before Kurosawa made Seven Samurai, he made a film about contemporary Japan (1952), with Shimura in the lead role. Mifune was not to appear. The film was Ikiru. Shimura plays an aging bureaucrat who is diagnosed with stomach cancer. He is very slow moving and weakly throughout the picture, and totally believable in the role. That makes his role in Seven Samurai all the more impressive, as Shimura plays the leader of the samurai. Again, 100% convincing in the part, and he completely springs to life. A complete transformation that must be considered one of the finest in history. He is also fondly remembered for his non-Kurosawa role in Godzilla. Shimura usually played the older, wiser characters in Kurosawa's films, and really specialized in that role. He plays mentor to Mifune's character in several pictures, including Mifune's first picture with Kurosawa, Drunken Angel.
Drunken Angel is a great showcase for both actors, Shimura got to display his reserved wisdom while Mifune was encouraged to play off that and be explosive. Donald Richie says that the Japanese audience found Mifune to be a bit of a ham actor at the time because he infused so much physicality in his roles. Mifune was a strong physical presence which made him perfect for the long list of samurai roles that Kurosawa and others had for him. His physical style also makes him incredibly entertaining to watch. For each role, he often came up with some physical gesture that would almost act as a motif. So he is constantly seen swatting at flies or scratching his neck. Howard Hawks used to say, if you wanted your film to instantly become more violent, you cast John Wayne. Same could be said of Mifune. In one of his samurai roles - he was violence. Mifune was George Lucas' first choice for the role of Obi-Wan Kenobi. As time went on, he took Shimura's place as the older wiser mentor.
When I am asked about who my favorite actors are I usually give a list of current actors, classic Hollywood actors, and I make sure to mention Takashi Shimura and Toshiro Mifune. Two fantastic actors in their own right, and when together, and when with Kurosawa, that's synergy that can't miss. They were as versatile as any actor I've seen. Their performances would make you run through the gamut of emotions effortlessly. If you get a chance, throw on Rashomon, Drunken Angel, Stray Dog, Ikiru, or Seven Samurai, and soak up their marvelous brilliance.