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“The Seven Samurai” and Toshiro Mifune: 2012 TCM Summer Under The Stars Blogathon Post #2

August 8, 2012

This is my second post for the “2012 TCM Summer Under The Stars” Blogathon, hosted by Jill Blake at her blog “Sittin’ on a Backyard Fence” and Michael Nazarewycz at his blog “Scribe Hard on Film“, which runs through the month of August.

The history of Hollywood has been defined by many things, and one of them is director/star partnerships. From John Ford and John Wayne to Martin Scorsese and Robert De Niro, these partnerships almost always inspire both to do their best work. Of course, this isn’t limited to Hollywood; there have been great director/actor partnerships from all over the world, like David Lean and Alec Guinness, Jean-Luc Godard and Anna Karina, and Ingmar Bergman and Max Von Sydow (and Liv Ullmann, and Erland Josephson, and Harriet Andersson, and the list goes on). But perhaps my favorite of these partnerships was Akira Kurosawa and Toshiro Mifune. Starting from Drunken Angel in 1948 and ending with Red Beard in 1965, Kurosawa and Mifune made 16 films together (and Kurosawa made only one film in that period without Mifune, which was Ikiru). What’s more, aside from The Quiet Duel (which I’ve never seen) and their adaptation of Dostoevsky’s The Idiot (which, to be fair, was drastically cut, so it’s hard to judge it fairly), all of them are at the very least very good. And of those, I’d consider a few of them – Stray DogRashomonYojimboHigh and Low – to be, if not masterpieces, then pretty damn close. However, none of them come close in my opinion to The Seven Samurai. As I’ve written earlier, it’s on my all-time top 10 favorite film list, and it works on so many levels. For the purposes of this discussion, however, I’d like to concentrate on Mifune’s performance here, and what he brings to the role.

Originally, Kurosawa wanted to make a movie concentrating on one day in the life of a samurai, and the specifics of that day, with the same attention to detail as Kenji Mizoguchi, Kurosawa’s fellow countrymen and one of the directors he admired, brought to his films. However, he had to abandon the idea when he and his co-writers, Shinobu Hashimoto and Hideo Oguni, were unable to get enough detail to make it work (Hashimoto later used the research for Masaki Kobayashi’s drama Harakiri nearly a decade later). Next, Kurosawa tried the tack of essentially doing a movie about several fights in the lives of a few samurai, but eventually abandoned that idea as well. Finally, Kurosawa came across a story while researching about peasant farmers hiring a samurai to defend their village, and in talking with producer Sojiro Motoki, found out samurai would often work for food and lodging if they had no master. Finally, they had the story, which is, of course, pretty basic. When a farmer overhears a group of bandits planning to come back and attack the village he lives in, the other farmers in the village, spurred on by Rikichi (Yoshio Tsuchiya), reluctantly decide to hire samurai.

Both in the film itself and in the writing of it, there were originally only supposed to be six; Kambei (Takashi Shimura), the leader, Shichiroji (Daisuke Kato), an old friend of his, Kyuzo (Seiji Miyaguchi), a master swordsman, Gorobei (Yoshio Inaba), a veteran samurai who helps Kambei plan, Heihachi (Minoru Chiaki), a fatalist whose humor keeps everyone’s spirits up, and Katsushiro (Isao Kimura), the young samurai who comes of age. But Kurosawa realized they needed a more dynamic character to offset these six reserved and serious characters. That’s where Mifune came in. Originally, he was going to be cast as Kyuzo, and came around to visit Kurosawa and the other writers to discuss the script (the only actor to do so) and that part.  But when the decision was made to create Kikuchiyo, the more flamboyant character, Mifune took that part instead, and Kurosawa, who by that time had made six films with Mifune, encouraged him to help create it. And while this is an ensemble film, and Mifune doesn’t even appear until about twenty minutes into the film, it’s he who ends up making the biggest impression.

When we first see Mifune as Kikuchiyo, Kurosawa doesn’t even give him a grand entrance; we see his back first, as he’s watching Kambei prepare himself to get a bandit who’s taken a young boy hostage (Kambei shaves his head to disguise himself as a monk). It’s only when the green but eager Katsushiro rushes into the crowd to get nearer so he can see Kambei in action that Kikuchiyo looks back in annoyance, and we get our first look at Mifune. He turns back to watch Kambei disguising himself, and at first we think it’s one fellow samurai studying another. But then we realize it’s a look of confusion; he’s wondering, “What is this guy up to?” After Kambei rescues the child and kills the bandit, Katsushiro, Kikuchiyo and Rikichi (the farmer) all decide the same thing; Kambei is the man. Rikichi runs after Kambei as he walks out of the village, but Kikuchiyo rudely pushes ahead of him and gets to Kambei first. Yet when Kambei turns and asks what Kikuchiyo wants, all he can do is stand there and shake his head. Not only that, but when Kambei turns and starts walking away again, Katsushiro runs ahead of both Kikuchiyo and Rikichi and pledges to follow Kambei wherever he goes. Eventually, Kambei agrees to at least let Katsushiro walk with him, and Kikuchiyo just walks around in a circle, as if he can’t believe he just let a kid do that to him. And though he makes one more attempt at getting Kambei’s attention, it has the same result.

Several minutes pass until we see Kikuchiyo again, by which time Kambei has been joined by the other four samurai, and has reluctantly allowed Katsushiro to accompany them as well. He’s debating whether he should get one more, or simply go with six, when one of the people staying at the house they’re all lodged at tells Kambei about a samurai who’s just beat some people up in a fight even while drunk, and he’s heading towards them. Katsushiro gets by the door to ambush him (it’s a test Kambei devised on other samurai; one of them turned him down flat, but Gorobei immediately spotted the ruse), and when the samurai walks through the door, Katsushiro hits him over the head with a wooden sword. Turns out it’s Kikuchiyo; instead of being knocked out, he puts his hands over his head, cries in pain, and then drunkenly wonders, “Who hit me?” He then futilely lunges at Katsushiro while the other samurai look on in amusement, until he finally sees and recognizes Kambei. He tries to brag about he’s a real samurai and even pulls out a scroll proving his lineage, but Kambei recognizes if Kikuchiyo is who the scroll claims he is, then he’s really thirteen years ago, and he and the other samurai laugh.

The next day, the six samurai and Rikichi and one other farmer (the other two who came to help Rikichi plead his case have already gone to the village) head to the village. After walking a while, however, they begin to notice Kikuchiyo is following them, though every time they turn around, he pretends he’s not. When they stop at a lake to rest, they get the first indication Kikuchiyo isn’t all bluff; he actually catches a fish with his bare hands. But his true indication of character comes later, when they finally get to the village. To Rikichi’s bewilderment, and the consternation of the other samurai, no one is there to greet them (the farmers who came back are worried the samurai are going to take advantage of their women, and have panicked and hidden). Only Kikuchiyo is amused. The other samurai, at Rikichi’s urging, go see Old Man Gisaku (Kokuten Kodo), the village elder, who hints about how afraid his fellow villagers are, but before they can get too deep into that, an alarm sounds, and both the samurai and the villagers run out to the open square. While the villagers beg the samurai for their help, Kambei and the others try to figure out who set the alarm. Turns out it was Kikuchiyo, and as he dances around and laughs, he calls the villagers on their hypocrisy; they shun the samurai, yet beg them for help at the first sign of trouble. At this, Kambei and the others finally accept Kikuchiyo as one of their own.

But Kurosawa and Mifune aren’t finished yet with Kikuchiyo’s characterization. We see Kambei, Gorobei and Katsushiro walking around the village planning their defense strategy while the other four samurai train the villagers to fight. Kikuchiyo in particular is riding the farmers under his command (to the amusement of the children, whom he plays to) when he notices one of them has a rather nice spear. Turns out the farmers have a stockpile of weapons and armor that they’ve taken from retreating warriors (and even killed them for it), and Kikuchiyo brings them to Kambei and the others in triumph. Except Kambei and the others are furious the farmers would stoop so low; the normally unflappable Kyuzo even talks about killing the other farmers for what they’ve done. That’s when Kikuchiyo finally snaps, and gives the following speech:

What do you think of farmers? You think they’re saints? Ha! They’re foxy beasts! They say, “We’ve got no rice, we’ve no wheat. We’ve got nothing!” But they have! They have everything! Dig under the floors! Or search the barns! You’ll find plenty! Beans, salt, rice, sake! Look in the valleys, they’ve got hidden warehouses! They pose as saints but are full of lies! If they smell a battle, they hunt the defeated! They’re nothing but stingy, greedy, blubbering, foxy, and mean! God damn it all! But then who made them such beasts? You did! You samurai did it! You burn their villages! Destroy their farms! Steal their food! Force them to labor! Take their women! And kill them if they resist! So what should farmers do?

At this, Kikuchiyo falls to his knees and starts weeping, and after a long pause, Kambei gently asks him, “You were the son of a farmer, weren’t you?” Kurosawa apparently was descended from samurai who did rob a village this way, and this was his way of not only making amends, but also firming up Kikuchiyo as, in essence, a man without a country; someone with a foot in both worlds, but not belonging to either (it also makes Kikuchiyo easier to identify with). But in Mifune’s hands, this speech is more than just a tract; it seems like it’s being ripped from his very being. Plus, it illustrates him as a character. Except for the samurai who reject Rikichi and his fellow farmers when they try to approach him, the samurai who rejects Kambei when he tries to recruit him, and to a lesser extent Katsushiro – who can be excused because of his youth – Kambei and the other samurai are reserved and meditative. It’s not that they don’t laugh (they do that quite a bit) or get angry (they also do this, especially Kambei), but they don’t advertise their toughness, it’s just the way they carry themselves. Whether it’s because of whatever religion or philosophy they subscribe to, or simply because, like true tough guys the world over, they don’t feel they need to prove themselves, they are just not the type who swagger. Kikuchiyo, on the other hand, is, because he does need to prove to the others, and himself, he’s a real samurai. However, he also feels more deeply than the others, which also might explain why he acts out so much.

What’s more, we see that push-pull in Kikuchiyo throughout the rest of the film.  On the one hand, he’s good with the farmers in helping them prepare for the harvest, and when Rikichi gets angry about Heihachi telling him he should get a wife (we find out why later), it’s Kikuchiyo who says Heihachi should get him to talk things out. Kikuchiyo also shows himself to be a good fighter when the bandits attack, first by sending scouts (while Kyuzo knifes two of them with his sword, Kikuchiyo drops on the third one from a tree above), and then their full forces (Kikuchiyo is the first one to sense it when the bandits attack at night). And when he, Rikichi, Heihachi and Kyuzo go to attack the bandits at their hideout, it’s Kikuchiyo who comes up with the idea of smoking them out by setting the house on fire. On the other hand, we also see him as a figure of fun. Part of this is intentional, the way he not only puts on funny faces around the children, but also his undisguised glee when he sees the women the other farmers have tried to hide away (in fears the samurai will take advantage of them); he even volunteers to cut the wheat for one of the women. But most of this is due to him still being a figure of ridicule in some respects, such as when he tries to ride a farmer’s horse who turns out to be a tough ride; he ends up throwing Kikuchiyo, who has to chase the horse. More seriously, however, given he’s not a real samurai, he makes a number of blunders, such as inadvertently giving away to the scouts the fact the samurai are watching them. He also gets jealous easily; when Katsushiro sings the praises of Kyuzo for silently killing two bandits and stealing one of their guns, Kikuchiyo tells him to quit bugging him. This also spurs him to leave his post to sneak into the bandits’ camp so he can steal a rifle himself. In one sense, the mission is a success – he not only steals the rifle and kills one of the bandits, but also sees some of the bandits are getting desperate enough to desert, and the leader of the bandits has them killed – but the bandits end up attacking the village in retaliation, and it leads to heavy losses, especially at the post Kikuchiyo abandoned.

And yet, you don’t hate Kikuchiyo, not just because of the good qualities he has, but also, as I said, he seems to take things more personally than anyone else. When one of the samurai dies early on, it’s Kikuchiyo who makes the most fitting gesture by taking the banner of the samurai and planting it in his grave. Also, for strategic reasons, Kambei has the farmers abandon the three houses immediately outside the village, but Old Man Gisaku, who lives in one of the houses, stays there while the bandits attack because he wants to die there. When Gisaku’s family tries to intervene, everyone is killed except the daughter’s baby (she sacrificed herself to save the baby), and when Kikuchiyo rescues the baby, he tells Kambei in a tearful voice he was once just like that baby. Plus, he gets to fully prove his worth during the climactic battle.

In the six previous films Mifune had done with Kurosawa, he had played a variety of roles, from a belligerent if sickly gangster (Drunken Angel) to a young cop filled with guilt over losing his gun that later becomes a murder weapon (Stray Dog) to a painter who gets into a battle with a tabloid paper (Scandal) to, most famously at that point, a bandit (Rashomon). Kikuchiyo combines aspects of his roles in Drunken AngelStray Dog and Rashomon, yet Mifune doesn’t make it derivative, but his own, distinctive creation. This is also the first time Mifune has injected humor into any of his performances for Kurosawa, though not the last (Hidden Fortress and especially Yojimbo brought that out as well). It’s also an intensely physical performance. There are rare moments when he’s still (either when Kikuchiyo is brooding, or when he’s hunting), but most of the time, he’s moving around, particularly when he’s yelling at the villagers for hiding from the samurai. Mifune also has Kikuchiyo laugh out loud a lot, as well as yell (Heihachi even asks at one point, “Why do you have to yell?”), but he never lets the character tip over into boorishness. And he’s able to play the inherent sadness in Kikuchiyo as well as the comedy. Obviously, Mifune is not the only reason Seven Samurai is a masterpiece – Kurosawa’s supreme direction, the script that feels epic yet intimate, the action scenes, which were highly influential, and the other performances were all a plus, particularly Shimura – but Mifune is justly remembered as the best and most dynamic part of this great film.

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7 Comments
  1. Wow…just…wow. Your knowledge Japanese cinema is broad and deep. Regrettably, I’ve only seen one Mifune film: Rashomon. Currently my DVR is groaning under the strain as I’m recording lots of others today! I’ve never seen Seven Samurai before and very much looking forward to it after reading this. Thanks again.

    • Thanks, Joel! I have to demur slightly on the compliment; while I have seen all but one of Kurosawa’s films, there’s still a lot of Japanese cinema I need to catch up on (I’m currently on a Mizoguchi kick). Seven Samurai is long (close to three and a half hours), but it’s completely worth it.

  2. John Greco permalink

    Thanks for a fabulous look at a masterpiece! Having only seen a few Kurosawa films besides this one (Dreams, Rashomon and High and Low) I still need to dive in and see a lot more. I did record Yojimbo today.

    • Thanks, John! I love High & Low too; if they had shown that movie today, I actually would have written about it instead, because I think Kurosawa and Mifune were both stereotyped as only doing period films, when in fact their modern day set films were just as good. Yojimbo is a lot of fun, even if you’ve seen its remakes like A Fistful of Dollars or Last Man Standing.

  3. Sean,

    This is magnificent. I’m so glad you signed on for the blogathon because I found your fantastic blog. What a treat.

    Isn’t Stray Dog just fantastic? A favorite of mine.

    Thanks for this great piece.

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  1. 2012 tcm SUTS Blogathon Day 9: Toshiro Mifune « ScribeHard On Film

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