Kurosawa’s Samurais

Toshiro Mifune was an aerial photographer for the Japanese Imperial Army, where he saw numerous eighteen-year-old conscripts fly off on kamikaze missions, an experience that gave him a lifelong hatred of the war. Later in his career, when he was typecast as an Imperial military officer, he was asked in an interview what he personally thought of the war. Departing from his on-screen persona, but still remaining true to his style, he said curtly “That war was nothing but pointless genocide”.

He was infamous as an insubordinate soldier, talking back to his superiors and exposing their contradictions. That tells you something about Mifune’s balls. Not many people had the guts to talk back to an officer of the Imperial Army during the Second World War. Needless to say, he got (and bravely took) the consequences that inevitably came to him. He also built a substantial name for himself as a photographer in the army. After the war, he applied for a job as an assistant photographer at Toho studios. What happened next is a matter of legend. For one reason or another (there are several theories) he got into the wrong interview. It was an audition to select a new batch of fresh actors for the studio. He was seated in front of a panel of judges and was told to smile, to which he replied “I have nothing to smile about”. The judges were not amused. But the soon-to-be-famous actress Hideko Takamine was electrified. She ran to Akira Kurosawa, who was filming in a nearby soundstage, who came in and saw the same thing the actress saw. The young assistant director made a case for Mifune and the reluctant applicant was hired as an actor.

You cannot separate the careers of Mifune and Kurosawa. Kurosawa made Mifune and Mifune made Kurosawa. When the two had a falling out, it had ill effect on both their careers. Kurosawa became the entry point for almost everyone in the West who is interested in samurai fiction and Japanese history. Yet only eight of the movies they made together are historical period pieces. One, Rashomon, depicts the Heian era, a time before the samurai class even existed. One, Red Beard, is about doctors (though technically they belong to the samurai class). That leaves six, and Mifune plays a samurai, or a sort of samurai, in only five. These five movies, more than any other medium, projected the concept of the samurai to the rest of the world. They were The Seven Samurai (1954), Throne of Blood (1957), The Hidden Fortress (1958), Yojinbo (1961), and Sanjuro (1962). In all five movies, Mifune plays an unconventional samurai, leaving his co-stars like Takashi Shimura to play the straight, by-the-book type of samurai.

So much has been written about Kurosawa movies, it is pointless to add any more movie criticism. But what these movies said about the samurai shaped the image of the samurai the world over. In The Seven Samurai, the Sengoku era is nearing the end and warriors are unemployed and impoverished. Some have turned to robbing farmer villages and some are hired by farmers to protect them. Each must struggle to maintain their dignity in their circumstances. In Throne of Blood, an adaptation of Shakespeare’s Macbeth, the main character, played by Mifune, throws his loyalty to the wind in order to attain his ambition only to see the loyalty of his own men erode in the end. In The Hidden Fortress (aka the inspiration for Star Wars) a noble samurai of a defeated clan must live disguised as a bandit in order to transport the princess and her treasure to safety. In Yojinbo and its sequel Sanjuro, Mifune plays a masterless samurai traveling on foot across Japan. He has no destination. When he comes to a crossroad he tosses a stick in the air to decide which road to take. When he finally finds employment, he abandons it without taking so much as a new set of clothes. In every movie, the samurai were fallible men struggling, and sometimes failing, to live up to their ideal. But the ideal is always there, and very palpable in every movie. So why did the image of Kurosawa’s samurai captivate Western audiences so much? How did his heroes cross the cultural barrier and project an unique identity different from any other?

Let me digress for a moment and give you a description of an American hero.

There’s this guy. World-renowned billionaire. Tech genius. Inventor and entrepreneur. Athletic and talented and handsome with a jaw so chiseled it looks like Zeus came down from Olympus and carved the fucker himself. This guy’s got a small fleet of sports cars, a few yachts, and when he’s not giving millions of dollars to charities, he’s changing out supermodel girlfriends like other people change their socks. This guy’s smile can melt the damn room. His charm is so thick you can swim in it. Half of his friends were TIME’s “Man of the Year.” And the ones who weren’t don’t care because they could buy the magazine if they wanted to. When this guy isn’t jet setting around the world or coming up with the latest technological innovation to save the planet, he spends his time helping the weak and helpless and downtrodden.

This is Mark Manson’s description of Bruce Wayne, aka Batman. And Batman is the imperfect, damaged, dark counter-hero to Superman.

Western heroes are perfect. The Knight in Shining Armor does not have a kink in his chainmail. Prince Charming does not have cavities. The Marlboro man never falls off his horse. Is there someone out there struggling desperately to live up to the ideal of the Marlboro man? If there is, he is an imposter. Perhaps an actor hired to play him. But then again, part of being an American hero is that they don’t give a fuck. They never aspire to be something they are not. They just are.

The samurai are people burdened with impossibly high expectations. And they are educated from birth to trudge on and live up to those expectations even when it literally kills them. This is probably deliberate because if you are the sort of person who will give up battling impossibly tough demands heaped on you by your friends and family, how can you be expected to fight an impossible battle with a deadly enemy?

This part of the samurai code still lives on in Japan. This is why, when after the great earthquake and tsunami of 2011, when whole cities were leveled yet none of the survivors looted or rioted, and people who found cash wash up on the beaches delivered a total of tens of millions of dollars to police stations, people of Japan are still bemoaning that the general morality of the Japanese public is not up to par. And they are serious.

The unspoken code is, it is impossible to be perfect, but you must never forgive yourself for not being perfect. Westerners would call such a futile quest tilting at windmills. The Japanese call it bushido.

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