Each Friday we travel back in time, one year at a time, for a look at some of the cultural goodies that may appear closer than they really are in The Rear-View Mirror. Join us on our weekly journey into the past!
When people think of Akira Kurosawa, many of them will think of samurai fighting first and foremost, and the face that they will think of most likely is that of Toshiro Mifune. It’s no surprise – Mifune was an actor of tremendous charisma, he had a crackling, mercurial quality that makes it difficult for the audience to take their eyes off him.
Mifune and Kurosawa were frequent collaborators, making sixteen films together. Which sounds like a lot – but Mifune wasn’t the actor that Kurosawa worked with most often. That honour goes to Takashi Shimura (1905-1982), who co-starred with Mifune in Seven Samurai. Mifune’s character and acting were more immediately noticeable, but Shimura and his character Kambei were as key to the film’s success.
I have to admit that I’ve only seen perhaps half a dozen of Kurosawa’s films – I’m still holding out for Criterion or another purveyor of highly addictive cinematic crack to bring out a collection of the director’s films in beautifully restored high-def – but you don’t need to see more than one or two films starring Shimura to know how valuable he was as an actor. In fact, anyone who hasn’t yet encountered Shimura’s work should go and watch two of his collaborations with Kurosawa, the aforementioned Seven Samurai and the beautiful, affecting Ikiru.
Seven Samurai (1954) is an easy film to recommend, even for those who haven’t yet gained access to black and white cinema or to films in languages other than their own. It still works brilliantly as an action adventure, though one that is driven and given heart by its characters. Shimura’s aging ronin, Kambei Shimada, is introduced in a riveting sequence where he rescues a young man held hostage by a thief, and Shimura’s performance in combination with Kurosawa’s filmmaking immediately convinces us of Kambei’s experience and skill, but also of his quiet charisma. He is not a braggard, he doesn’t need to shout; in fact he seems almost a bit bashful, yet it is also clear that he is a skilled leader of men and the right person to bring together the seven disgraced, masterless former samurai. He is the one left to mourn for the dead at the end of the film, and Shimura breaks the audience’s hearts with an understated ease.
The actor’s ability to be heartbreaking also shines through in a very different film. Ikiru (1952) tells the story of Kanji Watanabe, an aging bureaucrat who is nearing retirement. He is a widower and lives with his son and daughter-in-law, neither of whom seems to care much about this grey, mousy man. When Watanabe finds out that he has stomach cancer and less than a year to live, he is shook up and attempts to turn his life around in whatever small way is still possible.
Where Kambei was a leader and a man of decision and action, Watanabe is the opposite, a resigned nobody and a cog in the bureaucratic machinery, until the imminence of his death changes things. In less skillful hands, Ikiru could be saccharine, but Shimura, under Kurosawa’s direction, handles the sentimental aspects deftly. Again, his performance is not showy, but it is deeply affecting, and it is hard to imagine Watanabe being played as effectively by any other actor. Based on these two indelible performances alone, Kambei in Seven Samurai and Kanji Watanabe in Ikiru, Shimura deserves as much recognition for his inestimable contributions to Kurosawa as Mifune does.
As readers of this blog may be aware of (because I will mention it at any opportune and inopportune moment), I’m currently embarked on a journey through all of Ingmar Bergman’s films, and I also got Criterion’s recent collection of Agnès Varda’s films, but I am very much hoping that at some point I will be able to take a similar trip through the oeuvre of Akira Kurosawa – and I am already looking forward to revisiting Kambei, Kanji Watanabe, and to get to know Takashi Shimura in all his other facets.
The Rear-View Mirror will return every Friday, looking further and further into the past. Fasten your seatbelts: it may just be a bumpy ride.