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Red Beard: Where Mifune is "all wrong"

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    Vili Maunula

    In her book on Kurosawa, Teruyo Nogami writes that after the completion of the film, co-screenwriter Hideo Oguni remarked to Kurosawa that Mifune’s performance in Red Beard was “all wrong”. (268)

    Nogami doesn’t explain Oguni’s comment, or why he made this remark. I have been thinking about it lately and would be interested in hearing your suggestions.

    I for one think that Mifune’s performance in the film is excellent, although the character could perhaps go through a more visible change when he transforms from the cold god-like authority figure into the more human teacher and father type character. Mifune obviously could pull it off, since he pretty much did that in High and Low.

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    Ugetsu

    I must admit to having always been puzzled by this too. I don’t think his performance is flawless – it is a little too one-dimensional and I don’t think he quite got across the world-weariness of someone who was perhaps once enthusiastic and optimistic about his chosen life, but who has grown a little more cynical through experience. Or at least, thats my reading of the character! But he is perfect as the gruff figure of authority, not many people could be so believable when it comes to facing down very powerful and arrogant men.

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    Ugetsu

    Or maybe, as this blog suggests, he didn’t get to kill anyone in the film. I never thought I’d see Mifunes name sandwiched between Stephen Seagal and Charlie Sheen in any list!

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    Vili Maunula

    Ah, this guy was on reddit the other day with his charts, but I hadn’t seen this one yet.

    134 actually sounds like a surprisingly low number, considering the number of films Mifune did, many of them violent. I assume that the website he used as the data source hasn’t counted every film. Still, interesting data!

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    Ugetsu

    I’m not sure, but I think the counts start in 1960, so that would rule out many of his earlier ‘victims’.

    This is very off-topic!

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    Ugetsu

    Since Vili posted this question I’ve been searching my brain for a vague memory I have of an explanation for Oguni’s unhappiness with Mifune’s performance. I was almost sure it was brought up in a previous thread, but I can’t find it. I may have read it somewhere, but annoyingly I can’t remember where. But anyway, I think I did read somewhere that Oguni saw the character as much more conflicted, someone with a dark secret in his past which he can never quite escape – he felt Mifune was too confident and powerful in the part. Of course, that doesn’t mean Kurosawa agreed with this interpretation.

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    Vili Maunula

    My guess is that you remember it from Nogami’s book. She first writes about Oguni telling Kurosawa that Mifune is all wrong, and that Mifune had not correctly understood the role. She then continues by writing that Shugoro Yamamoto (the author of the original book) had earlier cautioned Kurosawa not to forget that the lead character is “someone with a deep wound in his soul”, but praised Kurosawa after the film was released. Pages 268-269 in my book.

    I don’t know whether Nogami wants to imply that this was the issue with Oguni.

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    Ugetsu

    Vili, I think you might be right about that.

    I do find it a little curious though as to what sort of dynamic would have led Kurosawa to feel let down. Film directors aren’t known for caring much what screenwriters or the writers of source novels think about the final film. I’ve often thought that the notion of Kurosawa as the Emperor has obscured the reality of a director who was far more collaborative, and far more observant of his writers/actors/technicians views than most of his contemporaries.

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    Vili Maunula

    I think you are right. The “emperor” idea was a handy way of cultivating an auteur image in the press but may not have been entirely accurate.

    My take is that he was perhaps stricter with the visual side of things, knowing exactly what he wanted, but even there leaving quite a bit of room for experimentation for his set designers and props men. This is based largely on the brilliant It’s Wonderful to Create episodes on the Criterion releases.

    And like you have previously pointed out, apart from having the habit of singling out one or two poor souls in a project, he seems to have let his actors, especially Mifune, explore the role quite freely. As for writing, he was definitely at his best when collaborating, and it seems like many of the best ideas came from his co-writers.

    My take, which is perhaps entirely inaccurate, is that the Oguni comment is not the reason why Kurosawa and Mifune never worked together again. It may have influenced the outcome, but based especially on the excellent All the Emperor’s Men, it seems to me that Kurosawa’s Hollywood detour had more to do with it.

    In any case, I’m still quite puzzled about the “all wrong” remark. I need to find another evening to watch the film again.

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    Ugetsu

    I was focusing on Mifune on my most recent viewing of the film this week. I really can’t see any significant problem with the performance, except that perhaps the whole ‘gruff but decent paternal’ aspect is a bit overdone, and the possible vulnerability and sadness beneath that isn’t communicated so strongly. But to be fair, there is little in the script to directly suggest that Niide has a darker side – we can just assume that he sees something in Yasumoto because perhaps once he was a little like that.

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    Vili Maunula

    I too was paying special attention on Mifune when I watched the film earlier this week.

    I wouldn’t say that there is anything wrong with his performance. At first, he is good as the stoic, a little aloof but direct authority figure. Later on, he is also very good as the father figure to out protagonist.

    And finally, I don’t think I ever realised it before but he is absolutely brilliant in the late scene where Yasumoto formally meets his bride to be. It is adorable how Red Beard is clearly excited about the whole thing and wants everything to be perfect, concerned about how long Yasumoto is keeping his bride-to-be waiting in the corridor, and trying to keep to the formalities of who is supposed to talk and when. It’s subtle but I found it quite hilarious. Suddenly, he has become a grandfather fussing over a wedding.

    There is, however, a slight problem with the character. I think that Kurosawa didn’t intend to follow Shugoro Yamamoto’s novel where Red Beard had apparently been emotionally wounded in the past. Instead, the film suggests another fault in the character, namely that Red Beard does things that he isn’t really proud of, such as blackmailing his richer customers or beating the hell out of thugs.

    But none of the things that he does are from the audience’s point of view really that bad, and in fact they always seem to have a positive outcome. The character would be more interesting, and his complaints about his own conduct more to the point, if he actually did something that was far more questionable with less black-and-white outcomes.

    In the film, Red Beard is a little too saint-like to be truly interesting, no matter how excellent a performance Mifune gives.

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