Tuesday, March 16, 2010

Shimura and Mifune, Kurosawa's Beautiful Pair

Toshiro Mifune, left, battles it out with Takashi Shimura, right, in Drunken Angel

You know sometimes I wonder what exactly it would be like to work with Akira Kurosawa. Let's be honest we all know he's a perfectionist, but at the same time he was able to crank out 1-2 films a year between the late 40's and through the mid-60's. So, could it have been that incredibly difficult? Yeah, I bet so.

But that's not really my point here. You see through all of his films I get the feeling Akira Kurosawa liked to keep things consistent. And perhaps the premium example of this is that Kurosawa worked with the same actors over and over again, and I mean it. And no two people better personify that than Takashi Shimura and Toshiro Mifune. Perhaps the only other one who would even come close is Minoru Chiaki at 10 films, but in this game, that's kids play. So, on with the comparison:

First up we have Toshiro Mifune. Mifune appeared in 16 of Kurosawa's films during his 17 year run as Kurosawa's highlight actor. Mifune was almost always the leading man, or the standout character in these roles. In addition Mifune was obviously the standout star. His work with Kurosawa paved way for him to perform in American film roles, though he was always dubbed. Not to mention, Mifune was even considered for the role of Obi-Wan Kenobi by George Lucas. It's safe to say in many respects Mifune became the legend born of Kurosawa's skill.

Next is Takashi Shimura. His frail frame, and undominating personality may lead you to think he's an underdog in this fight. But if Seven Samurai proved one thing: Takashi Shimura can outwit and sword you whenever he feels like. Takashi Shimura's first appeared in Kurosawa's very first film in 1943, Sugata Sanshiro. His last film with Kurosawa you ask? Well take a journey with me all the way to 1980 and the film: Kagemusha. 1943 - 1980. That's a 37 year working relationship! Now now I know they didn't work on every film together (neither did much work between 1965 and 1980, and none with one another), but really, I think that's quite amazing, especially for an ego driven field like acting and directing. 18 films in all together! Still, with the exception of a handful, Shimura was never the leading man. But when he was, Ikiru and Seven Samurai cases in point, boy did he ever dominate.

Still, for all my biased Shimura love, it's hard to argue he really wins this battle. Mifune got the fame, the roles, the career. And well, Shimura got the love of those Kurosawa elitist, like myself, who fully treasure every minute moment he spends on screen. Toshiro Mifune just has that umph. It's a gift, you see it in actor's like Robert Mitchum and Gregory Peck. Even when they're downtrodden, they overshadow all those who dare share the same screen. It's a certain power they have, few can handle.

Shimura is the reason it worked though. He wasn't a giant trying to battle for screen-time, he was the consummate king of the background. Even in Ikiru you'd hardly notice his craft if Kurosawa didn't show it to you so carefully. It's why when those two are on screen together, nothing but pure magic shows. They were the ying to the other's yang. The perfect counterpoints. It's just a shame they couldn't work more on screen together.

Granted, I think Kurosawa deserves much love for putting them together to begin with.

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