Thursday, July 16, 2009

Toshiro Mifune: The Face of Acting

During a recent viewing of Akira Kurosawa's Throne of Blood, I recalled a slightly hazy memory from my last screening of Rashomon, about six years ago. I would venture to guess that this happens more often than not for most film aficionados--a burst of memory from a terrific line or dialogue or a particularly well-acted, well-shot scene. I was around twenty when I saw Rashomon, and was awed for typical reasons: the beautiful cinematography, the frankness of the plot, and the twisting narrative structure. I do plan on watching it again very soon, and I'm positive that I will be just as affected by the scene now as I was at that time. I don't recall the dialogue, but the scene I've been alluding to depicts the interaction between Toshiro Mifune's criminal and his rape victim. His hands are tied behind his back, and he squirms and laughs excitedly in her direction. At this time, there are more Mifune films that I have not seen as opposed to ones that I have seen; however, that particular moment in Rashomon spoke volumes about his acting talent and placement among the best in international cinema through the years. The force of his laugh, his violent movements despite being tied up, and the complete lack of redemption of his character would be virtually impossible to re-create with anyone else.

I didn't realize this at the time, but that scene transcended a line between great acting and an almost unnerving embodiment of the character. In addition to possessing a gifted range of acting, Mifune was endowed with a face that seemed to express more than any other actor or actress could hope for. Acting is a skill that can be practiced, honed, and matured; a face that adds nuances and seemingly metaphysical realism is a gift of genetics that Mifune used to his advantage, always with stunning results. While what I'm discussing is more or less intangible, this is not to be confused with the definitions of Method acting, a style that gained prominence in 1950s American theater and cinema. The Method involves an actor or actress "becoming" a given character, to the point of obsessively studying and losing oneself in a performance. The examples are well-known in film history, whether it involved Johnny Depp living with Hunter S. Thompson to prepare for Fear and Loathing in Las Vegas, or Joaquin Phoenix insisting on being called "Mr. Cash" on the set of Walk the Line. In my opinion, this has nothing to do with Mifune's disappearance into his roles, since my argument is that he developed his characters naturally through both acting and facial ranges. However, watching him portray a vile rapist or a conflicted samurai, a novice could not be faulted for assuming that Mifune used variations of Method acting.

Keeping with this physical idea of the face, a wildly different yet semi-related example would be Julia Roberts. I very well may be in the minority with this opinion, but I've never considered her to be a great actress. She's not bad by any stretch, but for me, there's always a subconscious understanding of "That's Julia Roberts on film" instead of "that's [insert character name]." However, it's virtually impossible to deny the radiance of her face, no matter which one of her films is being discussed. Again, this is not on the same level as Toshiro Mifune's portrayal of emotions by expression, but there is a connection. Roberts can always be counted on to be the center of attention on film, because she's blessed with a face that demands said attention. Mifune's face also demands attention, because it always had the opposite effect. It could twist wildly from one emotion to the next, whether conveying depression, complete anger, disgust, or even happiness. Even at his happiest on film, there's almost always something darker lurking behind his sneering smile, especially when playing a faulted character.

Let's return to his performance in Throne of Blood, Kurosawa's retelling of Macbeth in feudal Japan. Granted, this is not a textbook interpretation or adaptation, but consider the characteristics of Macbeth in William Shakespeare's play. In the course of the acts, Macbeth is heroic, noble, cunning, delusional, homicidal, emasculated, and eventually meets a tragic demise befitting the true definition of "tragic hero." Just looking over these generic adjectives, Mifune's portrayal of Washizu in Throne of Blood gives film audiences the most realistic interpretation of Macbeth, even with its fantastical, supernatural elements. Screencaps simply do not do these ideas justice, but they help to some extent. Mifune gives a legendary performance in every sense of the word, but his face does just as much acting as his words and body language. When Washizu first encounters the spirit in the forest, he is skeptical, cautious, and challenging. However, Mifune's eyes give just a tint of fear and uncertainty about what the character is actually seeing. This is fear that, on the outside, would not be admitted or completely apparent in a Japanese warrior returning from a battle.

The scenes between Washizu and his wife Asaji (Isuzu Yamada) are not only excellent imaginings of the relationship between Macbeth and Lady Macbeth, but they also skew understood notions between men and women, social and gender-based understandings of the time that more or less stated that women were inferior to men. In Macbeth, there's no doubt that Lady Macbeth calls the shots, keeping her husband under complete control. In Throne of Blood, Washizu presents the air of being in control, but it's obvious that his wife gets her way when she sees fit. Mifune's eyes depict a wariness and a reluctant, atmospheric submission to Asaji's whims. Washizu is all bravado and leadership, but he simply has no way around Asaji's ideas of further advancement. There are a few scenes in which it appears that he will lash out at her, either physically or verbally, but no matter how agitated Washizu gets, there's a barrier that he cannot cross. His face drops, and his eyes dim powerfully.

I could not find a screencap that fully illustrates the power and range of the banquet scene; however, the death scene below helps to show Washizu's descent into madness, loss of power, and ultimately defeat, which has its first stirrings when he sees the ghost sitting to his right. In the banquet scene, Mifune does an astounding job of showing the guilt and insanity of Washizu's mental state. There could have been the potential to over-act, yet the more Mifune puts into the scene, the more powerful it becomes. His eyes widen, his teeth are bared, and his facial muscles seem to stretch. The fear and doubts that his eyes merely hinted at in the film's beginning now register without any doubt or reservation. Washizu is at his end, both emotionally and physically. Before being ambushed by his subjects, he animatedly assures them of his (supposed) victory, yet this pride and assurance is clearly mixed with the delusions and madness that have not gone away. Mifune's face does everything to show this. Look at his eyes in the death scene below. In my opinion, no other death scene in cinema history could have been better portrayed. Mifune was more than just a terrific actor. He was a man who could become a character by sheer force of his body language and facial tics, almost to the point of his acting merely accompanying his body. The combination of his talent and physical makeup remain unmatched to this day.


Cassandra said...

Hey I LOVED Mifune and loved this write-up on his acting. Thanks.

James Yates said...


Thank you for your compliment! I'll undoubtedly write about him again, since I do have some Kurosawa posts in mind for the future. Keep checking back!

shambhu said...

Great observations!Especially where you said about the way Mifune creates the under current of real intentions behind the apparent expressions. I have heard that the arrows of the death scene were really shot onesthough I am not certain about it's truth, Thank you!

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