“The Emperor and the Wolf: The Lives and Films of Akira Kurosawa and Toshiro Mifune” by Stuart Galbraith Review

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The Emperor and the Wolf: The Lives and Films of Akira Kurosawa and Toshiro Mifune

Author: Stuart Galbraith

Release Date: 2002

“The Emperor and the Wolf” is an ambitious dual biography that succeeds to varying degrees depending on what you are expecting from it. I think there are five main areas that the author attempted to cover in this 600+ page treatise:

1. The professional works of Akira Kurosawa
2. The professional works of Toshiro Mifune
3. Japanese Cinema from the 1940’s through the 1980’s
4. The personal life of Akira Kurosawa
5. The personal life of Toshiro Mifune

I’ve used numbers instead of bullet points, because the amount of time spent on each of these topics is very uneven, which seemed to be the author’s intention. For example, I would estimate that 45% of the book is about topic number 1, 30% topic number 2, 10% about topic number 3, 10% topic number 4 and 5% topic number 5. For that reason, if you are mainly interested in how the films of these two individuals were made, what they were about, how much the cost, and what the critical and audience response to those films are, this is certainly the book for you. If you are hoping for anecdotes about Kurosawa’s personal life, his parenting, or his suicide attempt, you will have to dig through copious amounts of information about the plots of films he co-wrote or the resumes of actors he used in small parts to get a glimpse of it.

There is also much more written about Kurosawa than Mifune in this book, which is likely to be expected considering their statures in the history of cinema. Even prior to their careers however, there is much more information on Kurosawa’s early life than Mifune’s, whose early years in China are tacked on to an extensive Kurosawa chapter as a seeming afterthought. Despite the disparity in content about the two, some interesting similarities were still present, such as both men being able to avoid conflict in World War II; Kurosawa by being medically ineligible, Mifune being stuck working with airplane cameras. Kurosawa was able to become a director much younger than many of his contemporaries that went into the field (at Toho, new directors apprenticed at being 2nd and 3rd assistant directors for years before being allowed to direct) by being recommended for an opening and taking advantage of it. Similarly, Mifune was able to jump to the front of the movie star line by earning Kurosawa’s favor at a “fresh face” audition (this was one of the better stories in the book, as Mifune’s anger confused the original judges on the panel, but Kurosawa saw it as potential unlike anybody else he had seen).

Both individuals early careers are often forgotten or unknown to casual fans of Japanese cinema, with only their massive successes together really permeating American culture (films like “Seven Samurai,” “Yojimbo,” “Sanjuro,” “Hidden Fortress” and “High and Low” have either been seen by cinema junkies or been programmed into our brains by their American remakes and homages). This book did a nice job of educating me on some of those earliest films, such as “Sanshiro Sugata” for Kurosawa and “Snow Trail” for Mifune. On “Snow Trail,” for example, Mifune believed he was only hired because it was a dangerous mountain shoot and he was expendable in case he died during the shoot; there may have been some truth to that as in addition to acting he had to carry 100lbs of gear up with him before they could film. While both individuals had fame and acclaim in Japan by the time films like “Scandal” were made, it was not until “Rashomon” was released that both became well known to international audiences as well.

The most interesting stories recalled in this book were related to “Seven Samurai,” my favorite Kurosawa film along with “Sanjuro.” A film that is about three hours long and tells the story of samurais recruited by farmers to protect their village, and ending with one of the most comprehensible battles scenes ever filmed was the end product of a 500 page script, detailing the history of every farmer, with details planned ahead of time as minute as cutting a characters hair in his first scene to illustrate the passage of time passed in the film by the regrowth of his hair in each subsequent appearance. Taking one year to film (by a company that routinely released over a hundred films a year), at the time it was released it was the longest and most expensive film in Japanese history.

While I enjoyed the detailed histories of the films, and the critical analysis of both figures (both at the time of their work and in retrospect), the lack of personal information about both men was a disappointment for me. Tidbits such as that Mifune would never use an assistant, preferred to do things himself on films, or that he was considered kind by his co-stars, and always knew his lines were interesting, but they tended to add more to what sort of actor he was than what sort of person he was. Similarly, a break from discussing films to discuss Kurosawa buying a new house after “High and Low” was actually jarring in that it deviated the book’s pattern of discussing pre-production, movie plot, production and critical reception.

The things I really wanted to know about these two men prior to reading this book involved their downfalls. Both enjoyed their largest successes working with each other, but despite that, they seemingly avoided each other for the last thirty years of their lives and had their worst critical and financial projects after going on their own. While definitive reasons and answers are never shared by either individual, the turning point for Kurosawa seemed to be his work on “Tora Tora Tora.” What was to be Kurosawa’s first work on an American picture ended up with him being removed and accused of having mental problems. Besides being his first American picture, it would have been his first picture in color and first with a new crew of non-Toho regulars. The result seems to be both a difficult situation for the director and a genuine breakdown on his part if daily set reports are to be believed. (In addition to that, he also had a dishonest translator dealing with the United States parent company). The result was Kurosawa’s temporary fall from grace, and by the time he was making films again, he believed that Mifune’s quality of work had slipped. Although scheduling problems was the official reason for the two not working together (and Mifune’s own production company certainly kept him busy) it seemed more likely it was Kurosawa’s resentment for Mifune appearing in (to his mind) subpar stuff like “Shogun” that disinterested him in his favorite leading actor.

Despite the massive scope of this dual biography, I think it could have benefitted from one substantial addition accompanied by a corresponding major subtraction. Instead of the extensive plot summaries of every movie in both individual’s filmographies, adding a third individual to the subject matter in the form of Takashi Shimura would have provided some excellent contrast. While Mifune gained acclaim by starring in 16 of Kurosawa’s 30 films, his co-star in all of them was Takashi Shimura who acted in 21 of Kurosawa’s films, including starring in “Ikiru” (one of Kurosawa’s masterpieces that is focused on significantly in this book) without Mifune. Shimura also continued to act for Kurosawa through “Kagemusha” and had as interesting of a career outside of Kurosawa’s films that Mifune did (appearing in more Zatoichi films than Mifune, two Godzilla films, and in successful Kurosawa-less Mifune films like “Samurai III: Dual at Ganryu Island”). In addition to that, he was a father figure to Mifune and was close enough to him that when Mifune was dying in a hospital, Shimura’s widow was one of only 2 non-relatives allowed to see him. More than any other person, I associate him with Kurosawa and Mifune, and while mentioned frequently in this book his depiction as just the most common of Kurosawa’s stock actors seemed to shortchange him from his role as the other face of Kurosawa’s best films.

4-star

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