I first encountered Toshiro Mifune and Akira Kurosawa when I watched Rushomon in high school. I think at the time I was much too young for the film, because I hated it. The one thing I hated the most about the film was Toshiro Mifune, this man who was supposed to be one of the greatest actors of all time. He was bombastic when I thought he should be quiet. He was overly physical when I thought he should only be moving his face. He did everything I thought at the time an actor should not do in order to be convincing. But I as I evolved in my film education, I began to see why he chose the choices he did in that performance. I learned that he was following a rich tradition of Kabuki acting and breathing new life into it. I also began to understand why people lauded Toshiro Mifune. He was able to disappear into his roles with ease.
A couple of weeks ago, Criterion decided to honor Toshiro Mifune by letting us see some of his lesser known work for free on Hulu. The next three entries, this one included, will focus on Mifune and the myriad of roles he played for Kurosawa and other prominent directors. So let’s get into it… shall we?
Mifune wasn’t the only great actor Kurosawa was known for using. He also used a man Takashi Shimura. Shimura’s great role came with Ikiru, playing a beautiful older man struggling with cancer. But Shimura and Mifune were often played off each other in other great Kurosawa movies as well. In this film, Shimura plays a dentist, Dr. Harada, who is appointed to as councilman to a civil court. Dr. Harada and his two comrades hear and decide on cases between families when they can’t make decisions for themselves. One afternoon, Dr. Harada is called to hear a case on about the sanity of a paternal figure. The family thinks that his paranoia about impending nuclear fallout is affecting his ability to make decisions. This old man is played by Mifune, who was made up to be seventy although in real life he was only thirty-five. You see this old man owns a lucrative foundry but he is squandering his earnings by investing in land to trade for a farm in Brazil. Brazil he believes will be the only safe spot if the H-bomb would ever drop again. However his family do not care for these plans. They want him deemed incompetent so the sons of the family can take control of the finances. The council hears from both sides and deems the old man incompetent. But Dr. Harada is skeptical of the decision. Is paranoia about nuclear fallout really that insane? Everyone who are central figures in the drama were alive when the atom bombs were used on their own country to stop a war. If it happened once, then surely it will happen again.
Dr. Harada keeps tabs on the old man as he spirals deeper into his paranoia. The old man still makes essential plans to forge ahead despite the ruling. At one point he even sets fire to his own foundry in order to get his family to realize they must move on. This cements his insanity in the eyes of his family and he is committed to a psych ward. Dr. Harada visits him and the doctor talks about doubting his own sanity when seeing the man. This is a quote from the psych ward doctor: “I somehow feel oddly anxious although I am supposed to be the sane one. Is he crazy? Or are we, who can remain unperturbed in an insane world, the crazy ones?” I feel this these sentences sum up the film’s themes the best. Dr. Harada sees the old man in his most dissociative stage yet. The old man believes that he is on a different world and that he can see the Earth burning. It is heartbreaking to watch a man who was so strong in his beliefs succumb to it so completely.
Mifune completely transforms himself into this old man from the first moment you see him. He stands in the court office bent over with old age, slapping a fan against himself and then shut again to show his anger at the situation. Kurosawa plays these two men against each other very masterfully by juxtaposing a scene with the old man in the foundry negotiating a price for coal against Dr. Harada eating lunch with his son and wife. But you can also see why Dr. Harada becomes invested in the old man’s situation. He is drawn to him almost instantly. He wonders if he is actually insane for not thinking about nuclear war.
Kurosawa was able to capture the fears of the time in a way that other films about nuclear war failed to do. While Godzilla shows what the damages of nuclear war would look like, Kurosawa shows what the threat of nuclear war looks like. Maybe an internal struggle with sanity is more devastating to a people than a fake rubber lizard is.