Everyone remembers their first time with Toshiro Mifune. With almost anyone else, such a first would be recollected with a shrug or a casual “it was . . . fine.” But Mifune induces delirious and perfect recall: of him flat on a haystack in Sanjuro, rolling in the mud in Rashomon, hotly tucked in a train bathroom in High and Low. In severe cases, numbers enter the conversation, as in: let’s rank all sixteen Mifune-Kurosawa collaborations, or “he’s like a seven in his early noirs but a solid nine in Yojimbo.” That Mifune still prompts such possessiveness might seem a little excessive. I said so to a friend, who informed me that the only acceptable and human response to Mifune is to want him supine.
For most of the past century, when people thought of a Japanese man, they saw Toshiro Mifune. A samurai, in the world’s eyes, has Mifune’s fast wrists, his scruff, his sidelong squint. Postwar Japanese cinema—led by Kurosawa, Mizoguchi, Naruse, Ozu, Kobayashi—featured many men who were bores and disappointments, and actors such as Chishu Ryu, Tatsuya Nakadai, and Takashi Shimura infused that stoop of failure with inevitability, resonance, depth. Mifune, meanwhile, embodied a different kind of failure, one that looked sexy. He may have played warriors, but they weren’t typical heroes: they threw tantrums and fits, accidentally slipped off mangy horses, yawned, scratched, chortled, and lazed. But when he extended his right arm, quick and low with a blade, he somehow summoned the tone of epics.
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