Viewed during AFIFEST 2016 presented by Audi, Mifune: The Last Samurai, directed by Steven Okazaki, is a feature-length documentary about the life and films of legendary Japanese actor Toshiro Mifune. Okazaki utilizes archival clips, photographic stills and interviews with those who worked with Mifune. The film is narrated by Keanu Reeves.
Interestingly, the film is more of a creative interpretation of specific formative elements, both personal and cultural, that led to Mifune’s distinct personality. Okazaki presents Mifune is a non-linear fashion. He opens the film with the infamous rape scene from Rashomon. From there he discusses Mifune’s approach to some of his Rashomon scenes. Apparently, to embody the untamed animal instinct of his character, Mifune studied the movements and behavior of a lion. To add substance to such a claim, Okazaki shows, much to the audience’s delight, Mifune closing in on his samurai opponent in a lion-like fashion.
The 1950’s and 60’s were a Golden Age for Japanese Film. Iconic Japanese Director Akira Kurasawa had won the Golden Lion at Venice with Rashomon in 1951 putting Japanese films on the world scene. Kurasawa and Mifune would go on to collaborate on 16 films over an eighteen year period including renowned, classic films such of Rashomon (1950), Seven Samurai (1954), Throne of Blood (1957) and Yojimbo (1961).
Telling interviews from Kyoko Kagawa, Takeshi Kato, Haruo Nakajima, Yosuke Natsoki and Sadao Nakajima reveal Mifune’s ardent preparation for roles, painstakingly researching and laborious rehearsal processes. Kurasawa rarely, if ever, gave Mifune specific direction on creating characters. Other interviews came from American directors Martin Scorcese and Steven Spielberg revealing the admiration and respect Mifune garnered not only in Japan but in Hollywood as well.
With the advent of war in 1931 and Japan invading Manchuria every able-bodied Japanese male was conscripted into service including Mifune. Mifune and his parents were Japanese Nationalists living in China at the time. Mifune’s early experiences in the war consisted of a lot of beatings as his superior officers found his tone of voice off-putting and insubordination charges followed. By war’s end males as young as eleven years old were brought into the army and referred to as Little Citizens and Children of the Emperor. Mifune’s role became training the young men as Kamakazi’s. Both of Mifune’s parents were casualties of the war.
After the war, time were tough for the Japanese. Men sold their suits and women sold their socks just to have enough to eat. Mifune made himself a pair of trousers and a matching coat from his army blanket. Such a look, coupled with his strong voice, gave Mifune a big presence. He applied for a camera assistant position with a film studio and got the position. However, in 1947, Mifune made his entrance as an actor in Kurasawa’s Snow Trail. Kurasawa was impressed with Mifune’s work and began writing bigger and better roles for Mifune. Mifune would not go back to being a camera assistant.
Kurasawa was a well-known director in Japan before the war and continued filmmaking during the war years with propaganda films. The US banned swordplay films after the war for seven years. When the ban was lifted Kurasawa was ready with one of the great films in cinematic history, Seven Samurai, with Mifune playing a often humorous, wanna-be Samurai. Mifune’s father had been a photographer and young Toshiro often posed as a Samurai for photos.
Mifune became an inspiration for young actors who found his minimalist approach accessible. Often referred to as the John Wayne of Japan, Toshiro Mifune is The Last Samurai. Warmly recommended…a cinephile’s dream!
In 1960, Director John Sturges made the original Magnificent Seven, starring Yul Brynner and Steve McQueen, as an American Western. Sturges based his work on legendary Japanese director, Akira Kurosawa’s classic Seven Samurai. So in addition to being an end-of-summer blockbuster, Fuqua’s Magnificent Seven is a remake of a remake. Like Seven Samurai a good portion of Fuqua’s work takes place indoors and is evidenced by low-key lighting, heavy shadows and blackness.
This was Fuqua’s first attempt at a western although he claims to having had an affinity for them having watched many with his grandmother during his formative years. So when Metro Goldwyn Mayer approached him about making a western, Fuqua jumped at the opportunity. However, he wanted to make this his film with a theme to resonate with today’s audience. He didn’t have to look far to find a strong actor to lead up his core group of seven. Fuqua proposed Denzel Washington for the film’s lead, bounty hunter Sam Chisolm, having worked with Washington on Training Day and The Equalizer. Washington won an Oscar for Best Actor for his Training Day role and his on-screen partner, Ethan Hawke, received a Best Actor in a Supporting Role nomination. Like Fuqua Washington had never done a western and looking back at the success the two have had together quickly came on board. Chris Pratt was identified to play gambler Josh Faraday, Chisolm’s sidekick and first to join the seven. Pratt, too, leaped at the opportunity to play a cowboy.
Soon Fuqua had an idea for his version of The Magnificent Seven as he and Washington performed research into the Old West. They discovered a wide-range of nationalities including Russians, Mexicans, and Irish. Fuqua wanted his seven to reflect this so he collaborated with screenwriters Nic Pizzolatto and Richard Wenk to create an authentic cast of characters utilizing a diverse group of young actors in addition to Washington and Pratt: Ethan Hawke plays Goodnight Robicheaux; Vincent D’Onofrio plays Jack Horne, Native-American Martin Sensmeier plays Red Harvest; Mexican-American actor Manuel Garcia-Rulfo plays Vasquez; and South Korean headliner Byung-hun Lee plays Billy Rocks.
The film is set in the town of Rose Creek where a ruthless industrialist, Batholomew Bogue, played convincingly by Peter Saarsgaard, is attempting to roust the entire town with threats, murder and mayhem for his own personal gain. The desperate town folk are at wits end when a woman, Emma Cullen, played by a tough Haley Bennett, reaches out and convinces the seven hired guns to protect and defend them from Bogue’s army of mercenaries. The men come together and find within themselves not only the will to fight and win but also the moral fortitude to do something because it is right.
Interestingly, like Kurasawa, Fuqua employs a number of camera techniques to highlight his film’s narrative. Many of his Hollywood closeups are shot just below the chin emphasizing the actors’ strong jawlines. Mauro Fiore is credited as the Cinematographer. In addition, impressive, expansive panning landscape shots are used to introduce the film with a non-diagetic score started by the iconic film score composer James Horner. Horner had over 75 projects to his name, along with two Academy Awards, and worked with Hollywood heavyweights like James Cameron, Oliver Stone, George Lucas, Ron Howard and Steven Spielberg. Horner did not live to see the completed product before his untimely death in June of 2015. However, he did manage to complete seven themes based on the film’s script and his conversations with Fuqua. Composer Simon Franglen finished the film’s impressive score in a manner and style of James Horner as a tribute to Horner.
Throughout The Magnificent Seven Antoine Fuqua attempts to comment on today’s society and what he sees as overt acts of tyranny as he keeps with the Kurosawa thematic element of programming a film with societal mirrors and a political undercurrent. Notwithstanding, while Kurosawa used the unemployed samurai to form his seven, Fuqua finds a group of fringe characters with diverse backgrounds and nationalities. Still, both film’s characters do what is right and help those in need in spite of their own self-interest. My hat goes off to Director Fuqua for a valiant and noble effort. The Magnificent Seven is a fun film. It is well done technically with plenty of action and color. And, it is made in a similar vein as a world cinema masterpiece. Highly recommended.
(Featured photo courtesy of ASAC Images/Biennale Cinema di Venezia)
I will be analyzing the three films, Rashomon (1950), Seven Samurai (1957), and Ran (1985), in relation to how these Akira Kurosawa films represent men and their relationship to social structures, and to violence in reference to historical truth and to socio-economic realities. In Rashomon, Kurosawa breaks the traditional narrative mold of his earlier films with Arthouse Cinema depicting a murder of a samurai and the rape of his Lady by a bandit. The samurai is depicted as a clean cut, upright guardian as he walks carrying the reigns of the horse that his properly attired Japanese Lady rides upon in traditional ruling class attire complete with hat and facial netting protecting her delicate, porcelain-like skin from the harmful rays of the sun. The bandit, on the other hand, is dressed with tattered garb, no shirt, unshaven and a general unkempt appearance and he is frequently swatting and defending himself from the attention of big flies evidenced by his scratching and swatting at the loud buzzing of the flies. As the samurai and the Lady make their way through the woods, the bandit slowly watches like a snake watching his prey. Eventually, the bandit confronts the samurai in broad-action, sword dueling scenes and in hand to hand combats as daggers are brandished and eventually the bandit subdues the samurai and forcefully takes the Lady’s honor. (People: Akira Kurasawa)
The men this film is focusing on are men that take care of the weaker sexed women and use violence to get what they want and need. (Prince) The use of violence to protect the weak and to get what is wanted will be seen again and again in Seven Samurai, in Ran, as well as in the remainder of Rashomon, as four varying versions of the same crime are presented with one version containing a hidden secret. In my opinion, this film is a reflection of Japanese society in 1950. The Japanese samurai has been killed as democratization is the driving force behind the new society and that the new culture is at risk of becoming a society of thieves and bandits. (People: Akira Kurasawa)
Americanization has been taking place with a new constitution being implemented. Furthermore, the Japanese “sword,” the army, has been removed. It is my belief the four versions represent varying perspectives on WWII. Yet, by the end of Rashomon, an acceptance of the past has taken place and hope for the future is being put forth symbolized by the wood cutter’s willingness to trade the valuable, pearl-handled dagger he kept for himself, in return for the safety and well-being of the newborn. (Prince, The Warrior’s Camera: The cinema of Akira Kurosawa) This, in my opinion, is Kurosawa showing through the woodcutter’s action that there is there is hope for the future of Japan without the weapons of the samurai and the army.
With the 1955 film Seven Samurai, ten years have passed since the end of WWII. Japan is struggling to find it’s own identity. For the most part, Japanese society has all but turned its back on the samurai way and is leaning heavily toward a full embrace of Western ideals and economics. Kurosawa sees the ideals of the samurai as a way for Japan to embrace the past taking the strong, good ideals of the legendary samurai and reinventing the samurai as a present day, or contemporary figure as he fears Japan is losing its identity. (People: Akira Kurasawa) The film opens with the bandits coming to rob the peasant farmers of their grain and barley. The peasants can’t defend themselves and fear for their survival. They decide to hire a samurai to protect and help defend them from the marauding bandits. Interestingly, Kurosawa depicts the first samurai as out of work true to a struggling contemporary Japanese economy. The samurai prepares himself as a priest and rescues a baby from a crazed kidnapper. The kidnapper is impaled by a sword and stumbling from the hut and in slow-motion drops dead to the ground. The samurai emerges and holds the baby aloft. The samurai uses violence to protect and safeguard the baby. I believe Kurosawa uses the baby again here in Seven Samurai, as he did in Rashomon, to foreshadow a hopeful future for Japan.
The men in Seven Samurai, are distinctly drawn into two classes, the upper class samurai and the peasant farmers and bandits. Kurosawa depicts the samurai living almost exclusively by a code of loyalty, duty responsibility and honor. He embodies these men as transcending selfishness and individualism, sacrificing themselves to protect the peasants. In addition, he includes a peasant who was not born into the samurai class as the possibility of social mobility in post WWII Japanese society and through the samurai and the hard work, sense of duty and fighting loyalty of the peasants victory is possible. Kurosawa uses violence as abstract realism. The fight scenes are very physical, very kinetic. His use of the long lens and camera angles draws the viewer’s eye in and creates a very contemporary feel. (Giddens) Furthermore, in the final scenes, Kurosawa is linking the ideals of the samurai at the film’s end with the buried samurai on the hillside with the future of Japan. As Japan is struggling to find its identity Kurosawa is showing them a way through the abyss- the dirty, muddy fight scenes – through the surviving samurai tradition of loyalty, self-sacrifice and sense of duty. In the closing moments of Seven Samurai, the surviving samurai agree that they survived and that the peasant farmer’s are the ones who have won. Kurosawa is saying that the Japanese can have a better future if they are willing to reach for it and work for it.
With his final epic film, the Shakespearean Japanese interpretive, Ran, based on “King Lear,” Kurosawa has pulled away from such overt optimism of Seven Samurai, and the darker themes from his earlier Shakespearean Japanese interpretive, Throne of Blood, based on Shakespeare’s “Macbeth,” have taken hold. Kurosawa sees his government taking sides with huge corporations at the expense of the Japanese people. A truly authentic Japanese identity post WWII is becoming very difficult. Kurosawa has for all intents and purposes lost faith in the Japanese government and it’s chance at a more hopeful, authentic Japan based on the ideals of the samurai society. Kurosawa has seen the Japanese samurai ideals subverted almost entirely into the corporation. (Nolletti) His film Ran, (1965) is a white flag to the winds of fate – the lost hope of an independent, authentic Japan. (IMDB: Akira Kurosawa) The sons of Lord Hidetora are, in my opinion, representative of the sons of Japan after WWII. Not to be content with their individual kingdoms, each is driven to conquer, capture and unify the people by a woman, Lady Kaede who is hell bent on revenging her family’s demise at the hand of Lord Hidetora years earlier. A case can be made Japan had come full circle from the civil warring era that Kurosawa sets these films, with serfdoms battling one another and samurais waging the battles for the lord of the serfdom, much like the warriors that served the three castles and the Lord of each castle to the economic juggernaut that Japan became in the 1970’s and early 1980’s following WWII. (Prince, “Remaking Kurosawa: Translations and Permutations in Global Cinema”)
Seemingly, Kurosawa has thrown his hands up in the air with Ran, and has reached the conclusion that Japan is fated and his efforts to see his native country return to, or even evolve into, a strong, masculine state again will not be fulfilled. Japanese suffering is just the way the world works. Kurosawa conveys this with the image of a castle burning with horsemen rushing in and killing is everywhere. Moreover, the ending of Ran, depicts Taramaru on the top of his family’s burned out castle ruins. A drastic cut pull out gives appearance Taramaru is part of the ruin and poses the adage that Justice is blind. Seemingly, Kurosawa feels modern Japan, like, the Japan depicted in Ran, is being decided on the whims of a feminized bureaucracy attempting to avenge a humiliating defeat through the economic windfalls of hue corporations. Kurosawa’s films after this period moved into dreamlike states and fantasia.
The messages Kurosawa sets forth in these masterpieces are relevant today. Economically, Japan is struggling due to a global recession, a major earthquake and a resultant three-story tsunami (possibly fate) along with a nuclear release of radioactive material occurring at the Fukushima nuclear power plants. Notwithstanding, Japan as a culture, has succeeded in maintaining aspects of the samurai culture in its work ethic and in its value of loyalty. Nevertheless, as a nation, Japan did not invite the international community to participate in assessing and containing the nuclear spillage nor in rectifying the leakage from the Fukushima Daiichi reactor. As Kurosawa elegantly, and eloquently shows, the Japanese people are a people steeped in a strong, rich and powerful tradition. One can only hope that when they need to, they ask for help in overcoming an adversary to ensure the health and survival of its people despite class differences. In closing, I believe Japan still looks to the West before it charts its course for the future – much like Kurosawa’s western genre influence in these films. And despite the great film director’s dismay, the Japanese people and the strong ideals of the samurai remain vibrant, alive as they work, struggle and fight for a better future.
Prince, Stephen. The Warrior’s Camera: The cinema of Akira Kurosawa. Princeton University Press, 1999.
Giddens, Gary. Kurosawa in Action. 22 July 2015 .
Nolletti, Arthur. “”Perspectives on Kurosawa”.” Film Quarterly Summer 1996: 52-54.
Prince, Stephen. “”Remaking Kurosawa: Translations and Permutations in Global Cinema”.” The Journal of Japanese Studies 37.1 (2011): 229-233.
People: Akira Kurasawa. 19 July 2015 .
IMDB: Akira Kurosawa. 18 July 2015 .