Oct/Nov 2002 Book Reviews

The Emperor and the Wolf: The Lives and Films of Akira Kurosawa and Toshiro Mifune

Stuart Galbraith IV
Faber and Faber 848 pages

reviewed by Allen Gaborro

Some have argued that Japan's most notable exports to the world are not to be found so much in the domains of industry, technology, or in cuisine, but more so in the realm of the cinema. For several extraordinary years during the post-World War Two period, Japan was vibrantly represented to the world in the films produced by two legendary individuals: film director Akira Kurosawa and actor Toshiro Mifune. The two men made sixteen movies together, several of them being the finest motion pictures ever to grace theater screens throughout the world.

In The Emperor and the Wolf: The Lives and Films of Akira Kurosawa and Toshiro Mifune, a bulky volume of a tome by author Stuart Galbraith IV, we read extensively about how the movie careers of both Kurosawa and Mifune developed over the years, of how they both started out in the movie-making business with the scantiest of cinematic experience, and about their memorable collaboration which brought the once undistinguished Japanese cinema industry into the global spotlight. However, Galbraith's books also chronicles the endless trials and tribulations, both professional and personal, that Kurosawa and Mifune endured as their fame grew enormously during the 1950's to the 1960's, and as it waned at the start of the 70's.

One ironic fact that The Emperor and the Wolf points out is that by the late stages of their careers, both Kurosawa and Mifune continued to enjoy broad popularity and veneration outside of their home country of Japan, but were for the most part disregarded within in it. Kurosawa, as Galbraith writes, who was "so admired in the West," was "all but rejected by his own country" during the 1970's to 1990's. Galbraith goes on to say that "For many Japanese critics, Kurosawa simply had nothing new or substantial left to say," even as he directed Ran, arguably one of his best movies, in 1985.

As for Mifune, most Japanese audiences and critics, although conveying upon him respect for his past works, considered the actor to be washed up as a star attraction by the 80's and 90's. For the most pessimistic of critics, Mifune's downfall as a big name in the industry began even as far back as the completion of his last movie with Kurosawa, Red Beard, in 1965. Galbraith writes that in the view of Japanese critics, Mifune was an "active, familiar presence, but also a has-been who remained lost without Kurosawa." The author also says that "though he would star in a few interesting Japanese features here and there, Mifune spent much of the rest of his career... frittering away his talents in small roles in mediocre international productions." By and large neglected by their own country, both Mifune and Kurosawa would rely, to varying degrees, on foreigners and their resources to help them regain a sense of general recognition and self-respect as meaningful artists.

But before the calm, there was a storm. The 1950-1960 period is deemed by a consensus of film historians to be the apex of Kurosawa's and Mifune's careers, both making such classics as Rashomon, The Seven Samurai, Throne of Blood, Yojimbo, Sanjuro, and Red Beard during this time. Galbraith gives special attention to The Seven Samurai, praising this film as one in which Kurosawa "creates a world so believably real and lived-in that it becomes contemporary... Kurosawa's greatest success with the film is that he puts us in the thick of it." Seven Samurai would become a widely-acclaimed masterpiece both in Japan and around the world. Galbraith writes that the movie expressed "a world of uncompromised, chaotic violence, with deeply flawed, emotionally scarred characters choosing to fight and endure in the harsh world in which they live," something that could be said for much of Kurosawa's oeuvre. Galbraith believes that Kurosawa and Mifune, despite their many other outstanding collaborations, would never do another film together that transcended the excellence of Seven Samurai.

It was during this "golden age" that Mifune would become the cinematic embodiment of how people around the world would perceive to be what Galbraith refers to as the "postwar Japanese ideal." Mifune, thanks to his marvelous portrayals of characters like Sanjuro in Yojimbo and Kikuchiyo in Seven Samurai, would symbolize what one American critic saw as the "inscrutable, unscrupulous, and ready for battle" Japanese. Galbraith calls Mifune an "Asian knockoff of the Duke (John Wayne)... the archetypal screen samurai." When foreigners thought of Japan, they would see in their minds the recognizable and yet enigmatic image of Toshiro Mifune slashing away relentlessly with his sword, cutting down opponent after opponent, all the while exuding a terrific intensity and a boundless energy. But this stereotype did not constitute the actor's totality on the screen. As Galbraith mentions in the The Emperor and the Wolf, Mifune possessed astonishing scope as an actor, playing such diverse roles as a fierce bandit, a taciturn race car magnate, a pacifist admiral, a traitorous general, a Mexican peasant, a hard-nosed businessman, a compassionate doctor, and an old man terrified of nuclear destruction.

Kurosawa meanwhile, was given the Japanese moniker "Tenno" or "emperor" in English. And for good reason. The monarch of the Japanese cinema was truly an authoritarian when it came to directing, part and parcel of his obsessive drive towards perfectionism in his movies. Kurosawa for example, notorious for having a short temper, would isolate particular actors and berate them incessantly until they got the role right. Galbraith quotes one Japanese actor who worked under Kurosawa. The actor's quote testifies to the director's tyrannical mindset: "what he said and did was always right, The word 'compromise' didn't exist in his dictionary."

Kurosawa's unwillingness to compromise carried over when it came to establishing his own artistic and technical standards in his movies. This stubbornness only fed into Kurosawa's "emperor" image as he constantly battled with studio executives to retain as much independence in his movies as was possible. From his very first movie Sanshiro Sugata in 1943, to his last, Madadayo in 1993, Kurosawa largely prevailed in making movies his own way with a bare minimum of outside interference.

But such perfectionism and dogged insistence on absolute control would come at a price. Kurosawa's health in all the years that he directed was always in question. He suffered from a variety of physical illnesses as a result of stress and overwork. Mental problems were not too far off either. Kurosawa attempted suicide after the disappointing performance at the box-office of Dodes'ka-den in 1971 and after he was degradingly fired earlier as the director of the Japanese segments of the movie Tora, Tora, Tora. Depressed to the point where many thought he was finished as a moviemaker, Kurosawa would not direct again until he made his comeback in the Soviet Union-produced Dersu Uzala in 1975.

Kurosawa's revival in the mid 70's proved that he could not stay away long from what he loved most: making movies. In providing us with an excerpt from a text written by Kurosawa, Galbraith shows us how much movie-making meant to the director. It essentially meant everything: "If I were to write anything at all, it would turn out to be nothing but talk about movies. In other words, take 'myself,' subtract 'movies,' and the result is 'zero.'" True to his words and intractable character, Kurosawa would continue to direct motion pictures well into his eighties, almost until his very passing.

Incredibly, Kurosawa and Mifune never worked as director and actor again after Red Beard in 1965. Mifune's launch of his own movie production company created an artistic and personal estrangement between the two men that would not be breached for the rest of their lives. This falling out was perhaps a foreshadowing of the divergent fates that both men would ultimately come to in the end. Kurosawa would regain his status as a great director before passing away in 1998, while Mifune lapsed into relative obscurity, never to experience genuine stardom again before his own death, just nine months earlier than the emperor's.

Stuart Galbraith IV does a wonderful job in recounting the careers and lives of Akira Kurosawa and Toshiro Mifune in The Emperor and the Wolf. He should be commended for doing highly-extensive research on the two men and their works. Indeed, the author's meticulousness and keen attention to detail, as well as his thoughtful insights and analyses, is on display throughout the book. The Emperor and the Wolf is a challenging book for the average reader in terms of its length, some 800-pages. But Kurosawa's and Mifune's fascinating histories and impact on the cinema make the book's length just and necessary. Anything less for these two men would be nothing less than a travesty.


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