Akira Kurosawa (1910-1998) made about 30 movies over a period of 50 years, and he was a major influence on the Spielberg-Coppola-Lucas-Scorsese generation of filmmakers. But it's difficult to think of Kurosawa without Toshiro Mifune coming to mind since together they constitute what is arguably the greatest pairing of director and actor in cinema history. Ordered by theatrical release date, here's my list of the top 10 Kurosawa films available on DVD, and Mifune appears in eight of them:
Rashomon was the first Japanese film to be widely seen by Europeans and Americans, and it remains the best-known classic Asian movie in the West. The heart of the film is taken up by a legal proceeding inquiring into the death of a samurai, and conflicting testimony is given by four people: a woodcutter, a bandit (Mifune), the samurai's wife and the dead man (speaking through a medium). A key idea is that participants in emotionally charged events give inconsistent accounts of what took place.
The main character in Ikiru (To Live) is Watanabe, an aging, lonely paper-shuffler at the bureaucratic Tokyo City Hall. But when Watanabe learns he has a terminal illness, he sets out to make the most of the time he has left. He begins with a night of debauchery in Tokyo's lively amusement district and goes on to develop a painful relationship with a vivacious young woman. Then the movie leaps ahead to Watanabe's wake, where we learn through flashbacks what he did during his final five months.
'Seven Samurai' (1954)
One of the greatest films of all time, Seven Samurai combines realistic action sequences with absorbing social interactions and individual characterizations. The story is about a group of warriors who defend a village of peasant farmers against a gang of bandits. After the battle, the samurai leader says, "The winners are those farmers. Not us." Mifune is unforgettable in the role of the peasant's son who transforms himself into a samurai. Hollywood remade the tale as The Magnificent Seven.
'Throne of Blood' (1957)
The plot in Throne of Blood is taken from Macbeth, although the setting is transposed to Japan circa 1500 and there is no character corresponding to Macduff. All of Shakespeare's language is discarded, and Kurosawa supplies the poetry in visual terms. The music and stylized acting evoke classic Japanese theater. The aesthetics and worldview in the movie are quite different from those of the Bard's. As Washizu, the character corresponding to Macbeth, Mifune gives one of his finest performances.
'The Lower Depths' (1957)
When Kurosawa adapted Gorky's play The Lower Depths to the screen, he kept its structure, but transplanted the setting from 1902 Russia to mid-19th-century Japan. The stage origins are honored, so this is a very theatrical movie with lots of dialogue, yet the filmmaking is brilliant. It's an ensemble piece about people living in a flophouse, and a dozen actors have roles of roughly equal importance. The Lower Depths is one of Kurosawa's most profound works, but be advised that it's challenging.
'The Hidden Fortress' (1958)
A lighthearted adventure yarn, The Hidden Fortress is set in war-torn feudal Japan. Kurosawa first shows us a hellish world as seen through the eyes of a pair of goofy peasants. But the peasants soon encounter a wily general (Mifune), who wants to get a haughty, tomboyish princess to safety. The general, the princess and the two peasants end up trying to sneak through hostile territory carrying a load of gold. It's easy to see that this movie gave George Lucas some of his ideas for Star Wars.
In Yojimbo (The Bodyguard), Kurosawa planted his tongue firmly in his cheek and satirized samurai movies. The hero is an unemployed samurai called Sanjuro (Mifune) who wanders into a town to find deserted streets except for a dog that trots past with a human hand in its mouth. Sanjuro soon learns that a pair of rival gangs has turned the town into a miserable place, and he embarks on a course of action to set things right. Yojimbo was later remade as the spaghetti western A Fistful of Dollars.
'High and Low' (1963)
Based on Ed McBain's police procedural novel King's Ransom, High and Low is an oddly structured, bleak crime drama set in 1962 Yokohama. Here Kurosawa uses a detective story to examine the interactions between individuals and society. The film initially focuses on a rich industrialist (Mifune) caught up in a kidnapping, then follows the police as they track down the impoverished perpetrator. The movie ends with a meeting between the industrialist and the criminal that makes the viewer ponder.
'Red Beard' (1965)
Set in the mid-19th century, Red Beard is a richly textured, warm human drama. It centers on Yasumoto, an arrogant young physician who aspires to be on the shogun's staff, but is forced to intern at a public clinic. There he is almost killed by an insane woman, then watches two other patients die under heartbreaking circumstances. But mentored by the dedicated clinic director (Mifune), Yasumoto finds himself when he rescues a 12-year-old girl from prostitution, leading to an uplifting ending.
Lavish production values and a painterly use of color distinguish Ran (Chaos), Kurosawa's masterpiece of his later years. Set in 16th-century Japan, the film is inspired partly by Shakespeare's King Lear, although the ruler's offspring are switched from daughters to sons. In Ran, aging warlord Hidetora Ichimonji turns the running of his domain over to his three sons, giving rise to bloodletting that destroys the entire Ichimonji clan. The movie presents a deeply pessimistic view of humankind.