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Kurosawa & Mifune:

Together Again

At the American Film Institute National Film Theater Aug. 9 to Sept. 18

Together, Toshiro Mifune and Akira Kurosawa helped create one of cinema’s greatest archetypes: the don’t-give-a-fuck samurai. Mifune actually didn’t play the role that often; he wielded a sword in fewer than half the 16 films he made with Kurosawa, 12 of which will be reprised in new prints over the next six weeks at the American Film Institute’s National Film Theater. Their first two collaborations were contemporary stories, with Mifune wearing a suit and packing a gun. (They sort of had to be: During postwar occupation, American censors banned period movies as celebrating Japan’s bad old days.) But a handful of the duo’s costume pictures—notably Rashomon, Yojimbo, and Seven Samurai—created an indelible impression of Mifune as grubby, laconic, and explosive, an unprepossessing yet unbeatable hero.

Or, rather, antihero. Mifune and Kurosawa didn’t just put Japanese movies on the world map; they also created an existential action figure that Westerners couldn’t resist emulating. Writer-director Adam Low’s 2001 documentary Kurosawa observes James Coburn and Clint Eastwood watching Mifune play the scenes from 1954’s Seven Samurai and 1961’s Yojimbo that the actors imitated in, respectively, The Magnificent Seven and A Fistful of Dollars. The documentary, which is also featured in the AFI series (it screens Aug. 10, 18, 24, and 25, and Sept. 2), needn’t have stopped there. It could have shown other Hollywood stars doing Mifune, too, including Bruce Willis (in 1996’s Last Man Standing, another Yojimbo remake) or even Jamie Lee Curtis (in 1990’s Blue Steel, a dubious update of 1949’s Stray Dog). By the late ’60s, Kurosawa was criticized as being politically out of touch, but the germ of Easy Rider was contained in his rogues’ gallery as well.

In the caste-conscious Japan where he began his career—starting at Toho Studios in 1936 and directing his first feature in 1943—Kurosawa actually qualified as a samurai, or at least as the scion of a samurai family. He practiced both swordsmanship and calligraphy as a boy, then angered his father by choosing art as a career. (Swords, of course, would end up featuring prominently in his work.) Mifune, on the other hand, was always an outsider. Born to Japanese parents in China, he was considered a roughneck. In his Something Like an Autobiography, Kurosawa recalls intervening on Mifune’s behalf when the actor auditioned at a Toho call for “new faces.” Some of the evaluators were upset by the way Mifune glared at them.

Mifune was hired and began doing yakuza roles. That’s what he played in his first Kurosawa film, 1948’s Drunken Angel (Aug. 18-20 and 22), but he was a hood with a difference: Visiting a noble but alcoholic slum doctor to have a gunshot wound treated, the mobster learns he has tuberculosis, a condition that romantic literature long associated with sensitivity. A year later, with Stray Dog (Aug. 11, 14, 15, and 17), Kurosawa surprised his peers by casting Mifune as a cop, albeit an unpolished rookie who goes on a crazed crusade when his gun is lifted on a crowded Tokyo streetcar. For Kurosawa’s international breakthrough film, 1950’s Rashomon (Aug. 9, 10, 12, 13, and 15), Mifune went into historical costume, but not as a samurai: He played a thief accused of murder and rape in an incident shown from four different viewpoints, but never definitively.

Mifune starred in all but one of the films Kurosawa made from 1948 to 1965. Their stormy relationship—chronicled in Stuart Galbraith IV’s massive recent book, The Emperor and the Wolf—ended after the exhausting two-year shoot for Red Beard, another slum-doctor tale, but with Mifune as the physician. By this time, the actor had played defining roles in more than a dozen Kurosawa films, from the Japanese Macbeth in 1957’s Throne of Blood (Aug. 17-19 and 23) to the forerunner of Han Solo in 1958’s The Hidden Fortress (Aug. 9-11), one of George Lucas’ models for Star Wars. (It also features a princess and human antecedents of C-3PO and R2-D2.) Both Mifune and Kurosawa made good movies without the other, but their reputations remain forever entwined.

Kurosawa is noted for shooting scenes from multiple angles, often simultaneously, and then editing the various views into eye-popping action montages. Like his work, he can be seen from many vantage points: as the most “Western” of major Japanese directors, who both learned from and taught European and, especially, American filmmakers; as the unblinking reinterpreter of Japanese feudal history, who in films such as Yojimbo (Aug. 23, 24, 26, 27, and 29) and Sanjuro (Aug. 25-27) celebrated great skill and bravery even as he debunked the samurai code; as a social critic whose examination of Japan’s insider-driven business and political cultures (notably in The Bad Sleep Well, which screens Aug. 24, 25, 28, and 29) couldn’t be more relevant to the Bush-Cheney-Enron-WorldCom era; as a climatological master who palpably evoked heat (Stray Dog), rain (Rashomon), and mist (Throne of Blood); as a hard-boiled storyteller who, when he wasn’t contemplating the great burdens of humanity in films such as the nuke-struck I Live in Fear (Aug. 16, 18, and 20), loved to direct great cops-and-robbers yarns such as High and Low (Aug. 16, 17, 21, and 22) and Stray Dog.

Kurosawa was all those things, and whichever mode he undertook in any given film, Mifune was his finest instrument. That’s clear from just Seven Samurai (Aug. 30-Sept. 7, Sept. 9-12, and Sept. 15-18) or The Bad Sleep Well, but anyone who loves movies must see all 12 of these collaborations. As for the people who are lucky enough to have already seen them, they already know all the reasons to view them again.

If China is a plucky young woman, as she often is in Zhang Yimou’s films, then the country is in dire condition. At the end of Happy Times, blind 18-year-old heroine Wu Ying faces an even more precarious fate than those of the protagonists of Zhang’s two previous films, Not One Less and The Road Home. But where Wu ends up is no less surprising than where the film begins.

In outline, Happy Times seems to resemble Zhang’s 1997 film, Keep Cool, which was not released in the United States (and which I haven’t seen). Both are contemporary urban comedies, distant in period, location, and production values from Red Sorghum, Ju Dou, and Raise the Red Lantern, the visually stunning epics that made the director’s reputation. The new movie’s story begins with a setup familiar from both Asian films and English novels: A single man in possession of a good fortune is in want of a wife. Fifty-something Zhao (Zhao Benshan) finds a willing prospect in an obese, unnamed divorcee (Dong Lihua) with a teenage son (Leng Qibin) who’s even fatter than she is. The woman’s household also includes a scrawny, barely tolerated stepdaughter, Wu Ying (Dong Jie), who could tell Cinderella a thing or two about evil stepmothers.

Alas, Zhao was lying about the good fortune part. Like most of his friends, he’s a laid-off worker from a defunct factory, and he has no idea how to infiltrate China’s new capitalist economy. Then one of his pals has a flash of inspiration: They’ll fix up an abandoned bus and rent it out as a trysting spot for lovers. The guys even coin an auspicious name for the place, the Happy Times Hotel. When Zhao tells his fiancee that he’s a hotel manager, however, a new problem arises: She wants him to hire Wu as a masseuse in his hostelry. Zhao reluctantly agrees, only to find the bus being hauled away. Rather than send Wu back to her stepmother to report that there is no hotel, Zhao persuades his friends to build a massage room in an empty factory, where they can pose as affluent hotel regulars seeking Wu’s services. Real happy times ensue, but is Wu actually fooled by the sham? And is contemporary Chinese capitalism no more solid an edifice than Zhao’s imaginary hotel, tellingly built in a relic of Maoist industry?

At first, Gai Zi’s satirical script seems a bad fit with Zhang’s gentler sensibility. The humor of the film’s opening sequences is too broad, and the fat fiancee and her hateful son are overly grotesque embodiments of the grasping new China. The mood shifts, however, when it becomes clear that Happy Times is about Zhao’s relationship with Wu, not with her stepmother. Like the director’s previous teenage heroines, Wu is quietly indomitable and more in touch with China’s real values—or at least Zhang’s real values—than the rich and powerful people who abuse or simply ignore her. And this time, it turns out that the enemy of the people is not an arrogant bureaucrat but an everyday Haagen-Dazs ice-cream-shop clerk. That shift suits both China’s booming but not so happy times and the tone of this charming yet anguished film. CP