The more I see of Kurosawa's films, the more I appreciate his favorite actors, the ones who appear in film after film, often in vastly different parts.  In his golden years, Kurosawa built up a stock company equal to that of Preston Sturges or John Ford.  I dub them The Kurosawa Players.  Part one covers the three most famous stars to have appeared in Kurosawa films. - JB


Takashi Shimura    The most versatile of Kurosawa's stock company members, Takashi Shimura is also one of Japanese Cinema's most instantly recognizable faces to Western audiences thanks to one role - the kindly Dr. Yamane in Ishiro Honda's original GODZILLA (GOJIRA in Japan).  A dedicated actor who came to film from the stage, Shimura could play just about any part convincingly, an alcoholic doctor (DRUNKEN ANGEL), a detective and family man (STRAY DOG), a poor woodcutter (RASHOMON) and dying old man (IKIRU) among them.  But his most famous role outside of GODZILLA was Kambei, the strong and moral lead ronin in Akira Kurosawa's SEVEN SAMURAI.  Japan's most famous character actor, Shimura began his career in 1935 and was rarely out of work for the six decades.

     He was often teamed with Toshiro Mifune in Kurosawa's early films (DRUNKEN ANGEL, STRAY DOG, SCANDAL) and the Mifune-less IKIRU is considered by some to be Kurosawa's first real masterpiece, not only for the obvious maturing of the director's style, but also for Shimura's heartbreaking yet heroic performance as the dying bureaucrat who wants to do something worthwhile in the six months he has left to live.

     Shimura appeared in an astounding 22 out of 30 films directed by Kurosawa, more than any other actor, including Toshiro Mifune.  However, after SEVEN SAMURAI, his parts were often small and little more than cameos.  Although his work with Kurosawa was his most notable, Shimura truly lived the life of a character actor, appearing in scores of movies, good and bad, throughout his long career.

     He died in 1982, just two years after appearing in his final film for Kurosawa, KAGEMUSHA.

Kurosawa Filmography: Sanshiro Sugata, The Most Beautiful, They Who Step on the Tiger's Tail, No Regrets for My Youth, Drunken Angel, The Quiet Duel, Stray Dog, Scandal, Rashomon, The Idiot, Ikiru, Seven Samurai, Record of a Living Being (I Live in Fear), Throne of Blood, The Hidden Fortress, The Bad Sleep Well, Yojimbo, Sanjuro, High and Low, Red Beard, Kagemusha


Toshiro Mifune     It has been said so many times before it feels like plagiarism to repeat it here, but actor Toshiro Mifune was to director Akira Kurosawa what Robert De Niro was to Martin Scorsese, or what John Wayne was to John Ford.  Think of Kurosawa, and you are apt to immediately picture Mifune jumping around like a madman in SEVEN SAMURAI, scratching himself and hitching his shoulders in YOJIMBO or stumbling around with an arrow through his neck in THRONE OF BLOOD.  It was an association so firmly embedded in the minds of movie fans worldwide, it may have even been a part of the still not-quite-fully-explained reason that the two men never worked again after 1965's RED BEARD.

     Although quite adept at playing "modern" roles, Toshiro Mifune is best known for Kurosawa's classic period films.  His comical, explosive and occasionally quite irritating performances as the thief in RASHOMON and Kikuchiyo in SEVEN SAMURAI gave way to a more moderate, yet still highly theatrical performance in THRONE OF BLOOD.  But it was in YOJIMBO that Mifune found the character he was born to play, a slovenly, lazy and too cool for words samurai whose first name formed the title of the sequel film, SANJURO.  

     In the mid-fifties, he played legendary warrior Myamato Musashi in SAMURAI, a trilogy directed by one of the masters of epic Japanese period films, Hiroshi Inagaki.  Other Inagaki films starring Mifune include THE LIFE OF AN EXPERT SWORDMAN (aka SAMURAI SAGA) and RICKSHAW MAN. In Inagaki's epic CHUSHINGURA, the retelling of the famous Japanese legend of the 47 ronin, Mifune has a small but memorable role as a drunken samurai whose allegiances are not quite clear until the end.  Mifune eventually started his own production company,  producing as well as starring in Inagaki's final film AMBUSH (1970) also known as INCIDENT AT BLOOD PASS, in which he reprised the wandering samurai of YOJIMBO, pitted against a villain played by one of Japan's other favorite stars Shintaro Katsu.  Mifune also reprised the character in Katsu's ZATOICHI MEETS YOJIMBO of the same year. 

     Mifune was the most famous Japanese actor in the world, a standing which made him a natural for several American productions such as HELL IN THE PACIFIC and PAPER TIGER.  It's been said that whenever he did an film in English, he took pains to learn his part phonetically, although his voice was inevitably dubbed in post-production.  Television fans will also remember an older Mifune starring in the American miniseries Shogun for which he won an Emmy.

     Toshiro Mifune died in 1997,  just nine months before the man who made him a star, Akira Kurosawa.

Kurosawa filmography: Drunken Angel, The Quiet Duel, Stray Dog, Scandal, Rashomon, The Idiot, Seven Samurai, Record of a Living Being (I Live in Fear), Throne of Blood, The Lower Depths, The Hidden Fortress, The Bad Sleep Well, Yojimbo, Sanjuro, High and Low, Red Beard


Tatsuya Nakadai     It took a long time, but in the 1980s, Tatsuya Nakadai finally became Kurosawa's lead player, starring in 1980's KAGEMUSHA and 1985's RAN.  Before these two late-period epics, Nakadai was perhaps best known to Kurosawa fans as Unosuke, the gun-wielding samurai (with the longest death scene ever!) in YOJIMBO.  He also did fine work in Kurosawa's HIGH AND LOW and the YOJIMBO sequel, SANJURO.  And, if you don't blink, you may be able to see him in SEVEN SAMURAI, in a walk-by shot as a samurai who doesn't get picked by the villagers to save their town.

      Nakadai became a superstar in Japan in 1959 when he starred in director Masaki Kobayashi's three-film, ten-hour antiwar epic NINGEN NO JOKEN (THE HUMAN CONDITION).  With his natural charm and good looks, highlighted by unforgettably expressive eyes, Nakadai rivalled Toshiro Mifune in popularity in Japan and carved out a similar career in 1960s chambara (swordplay) films, including SWORD OF DOOM and SAMURAI REBELLION, two films that reunited him with Mifune. Nakadai's restrained and powerful performance in HARA KIRI is considered to be among his best by fans.

     He started working in films in 1953 and has never stopped, still appearing in Japanese films into the 21st Century.   

Kurosawa filmography:  Seven Samurai, Yojimbo, Sanjuro, High and Low, Kagemusha, Ran

See Also: Kurosawa Players Part Two

Akira Kurosawa    The Stuff You Gotta Watch

Stuff You Gotta Watch
Copyright © 2010 John V. Brennan, John Larrabee