Much has been written about Akira Kurosawa, whose centennial is celebrated by the DVD release of a box set of his first four films and big screen revivals of most of his works in cinematheques around the world (including the Museum of Fine Arts, Houston). His storied pairing with Toshiro Mifune is branded in history, while his lifelong partnership with another actor, Takashi Shimura, has been relatively untold.
Trained as a stage actor, Takashi Shimura started his silver screen career in 1936, the same year Kurosawa began his apprenticeship under director Kajiro Yamamoto. Shimura made a career out of supporting roles when he was cast in Akira Kurosawa’s directorial debut, Sanshiro Sugata, in 1942. With heavy makeup and a distinguished moustache, Shimura plays Murai, an aging judo master who has been arranged to participate in a death match with the film’s eponymous hero, played by Susumu Fujita. It would sound ridiculous to classify Kurosawa’s first film as a martial arts feature, since the fight scenes are characterized by long periods of suspenseful tug-and-hold that are common in judo, followed by only a flash of a violent throw. Like many of Shimura’s later Kurosawa roles, Murai displays gentleness and hope even in the face of the most dire circumstances. Despite the loss of seventeen minutes from the original cut in today’s remaining version of the film, Kurosawa displays a keen understanding of narrative and visual construction with his use of high-angle shots and quick cuts. The pleasing subplot of the relationship between Sugata and Murai’s daughter plants a seed for the hero’s later moral dilemma.
Sanshiro Sugata’s success had Toho studio coming back for more, even though Kurosawa was less than enthusiastic about making the sequel. Opportunities didn’t come easy at the time as the Pacific War waged on. Every Japanese production had to meet the criteria of advancing the militarist government’s nationalist and imperialist agenda. As a result, Kurosawa’s second project, The Most Beautiful, is an obvious propaganda film. Set and filmed in an actual factory, the 1944 movie champions the self-sacrificing female workers in a military optics factory, in which Shimura has a bit part as the cheerleading factory director. The insufficiency of resources during wartime also meant smaller films. Drawing influences from the theatrics of traditional kabuki and Noh, Kurosawa infuses his own wit in the fable-like The Men Who Tread on the Tiger’s Tail by having the Chaplin-esque Kenichi Enomoto jest his way through the suspenseful costume drama.
Kurosawa withstood the test of the trying times and emerged as the leading force in post-war Japanese cinema. His collaboration with Shimura hit its first stride with 1948’s Drunken Angel, which is hailed as the best among Kurosawa’s early works. This was also supposed to be a breakthrough for Shimura, who plays the film’s flawed hero— an alcoholic doctor who tussles with an arrogant gangster dying of tuberculosis. Shimura’s portrayal of the brash but compassionate physician is deeply moving, but the young actor who plays the stubborn hoodlum steals the show. In his first Kurosawa film, Toshiro Mifune impressed the director with his manic intensity so much that it led to a rewritten script to enlarge his role.
The sparks of this successful acting duet led Kurosawa to pair up his two favorite actors for much of the next decade. Aside from the dashing good looks required for leading men, Mifune is a force of nature— his animalistic presence in Rashomon, his mischievous banter in Yojimbo and even the restrained energy in High and Low command absolute attention. Few actors, with the exception of Takashi Nakadai (High and Low), were able to share the spotlight with Mifune the way Shimura could. The two are often at the heart of the didactic relationships in Kurosawa’s films— Mifune’s anxious rookie cop is partnered with Shimura’s sly and confident veteran in Stray Dog; Shimura’s shady attorney helps Mifune’s confident painter in a case of libel against a tabloid in Scandal; the sage samurai portrayed by Shimura leads the pack including the unruly swordsman embodied by Mifune in Seven Samurai.
Though Rashomon’s innovative narrative structure has been imitated by generations of filmmakers and Mifune’s unhinged bandit is a career-defining performance, Kurosawa’s 1950 magnum opus would not have reached its emotional heights without the redemption of Shimura’s lowly woodcutter. It is this meek and unassuming character, which Shimura often plays so well, that brings this ambitious film full circle. However, the unequivocal Kurosawa-Shimura movie has to be Ikiru, which means “to live” in Japanese. In this character study, Shimura personifies lifelong bureaucrat Watanabe who questions his life’s purpose and legacy after being diagnosed with terminal cancer. Kurosawa, known for his admiration for Russian writer Fyodor Dostoyevsky, would probably have rejected the existentialist label but humanistic allegories and quests to comprehend one’s existence have come up repeatedly during his career. Ikiru is certainly the most eloquent and direct example in the Kurosawa canon. Watanabe’s predicament as a common man who is forced to re-examine his monotonous life as a slave to his desk job resonates with audiences universally. Shimura possesses the commonness and tenderness to play a man who, upon hearing a nostalgic lullaby in the middle of an indulgent night out, reckons his void cannot be filled by the fleeting pleasure of boozing and partying— the scene remains my personal favorite in the Kurosawa oeuvre.
The masterful Kurosawa had his fair share of professional highs and lows. His professional relationship with Mifune ended bitterly after Red Beard in 1965 and he attempted suicide not long after the failure of his 1970 film Dondes’ka-dan. The humble Shimura was quietly committed to his craft till the very end (his last Kurosawa appearance, a scene the filmmaker wrote specifically for him in Kagemusha, was cut from the original North American release and has since been restored). For the director and the star of Ikiru, to live is to find purpose in what one does regardless of what one is remembered for. By that standard, they did more than just fine.
The First Films of Akira Kurosawa is a newly released DVD boxset and the MFAH is featuring Kurosawa revivals from September to December.