Snow Trail was an action picture - a sort of Japanese Treasure of the Sierra Madre - about three bank robbers who escape into the Japan Alps. The film was shot largely on location and involved hazardous set-ups along mountain precipices. Mifune modestly claims to have been given the starring role only because he was willing to undertake the most dangerous stunts himself, thereby saving the studio the cost of a stand-in. His second film was a bit part in Yamamoto's dark comedy of postwar Japan, These Foolish Times (Shin baka jidai, 1947).
The Kurosawa-Mifune collaboration began in 1948 with Drunken Angel. Akira Kurosawa was by then already recognized as a director of considerable promise, with six major films to his name. And yet, it was with Drunken Angel that he claims to have first found his real voice and to have placed his own unique stamp on a film for the first time. Kurosawa's authority and control were were already firmly established as he set out to make a movie about the humanism of a doctor struggling against poverty and disease in a Tokyo slum. Cast as the doctor was the veteran actor Takashi Shimura, and Mifune had the rather small role of a young hoodlum whom Shimura tries to cure. But just as he had taken his audition by storm, Mifune overwhelmed Kurosawa's plans for Drunken Angel. As Kurosawa remembers it:
As filming progressed, Kurosawa and his scriptwriters were forced to rewrite more and more, making Mifune's character central to the story. Drunken Angel would not be the last film that Mifune would steal.
Kurosawa saw to it that Mifune got a different sort of role for his next picture - a dedicated doctor part of his own in The Quiet Duel - but Mifune's vigorous image as a man of impudence and barely suppressed rage was one that stuck with him right from the audition room. Though he played a number of quiet, refined, gentlemanly sorts through the eary 50's, he made his mark in roles that tapped his wild, exuberant force: Stray Dog (1949), as a cop; Rashomon (1950), as the snarling bandit; Seven Samurai (1954), as Kikuchiyo, the tag-along seventh samurai (which remains his favorite role and from which he can still recite his dialogue); the title role in Miyamoto Musashi (1954, known in America as Samurai; the untamed Matsu in The Rikisha Man (1958); and his own version of Cyrano de Bergerac in Samurai Saga (1959).
Toshiro Mifune also came to epitomize a certain type of actor with deep roots in classical Japanese performance, the tateyaku, the heroic leading man who had stepped onto the stage directly from the pages of epic military romances and samurai mythology. Critic Tadao Sato has written extensively about the tateyaku personality in films and its derivation from the Kabuki stage. Through his descriptions of the Japanese manly ideal as represented by the tateyaku - strongwilled, brave, ascetic, and self-sacrificing - the reader envisions Toshiro Mifune.
In contrast was the nimaime-type, the softer, gentler romantic heroes of domestic love-dramas. Mifune stands firmly in the tateyaku camp, and as a result has played almost no love scenes in his long career. Still, he has managed to invest the tateyaku stereotype with far greater complexity and depth of feeling than any of its more rigid exponents. Or, as Donald Richie puts it, "Mifune always looks as though he would rather sleep with something other than his sword."
In the Kurosawa films of the middle 1950s, Mifune's performances and the scripts that Kurosawa wrote for him, took on a rather Shakespearean weight. As the brash, impulsive Kikuchiyo in Seven Samurai, Mifune never lets the viewer forget the character's tragic origins: not merely an ambitious samurai, he's a peasant youth, orphaned in infancy and now posing as a samurai even though he hates that class' domineering power. As the aged patriarch of I Live in Fear (Mifune at 35 playing a man twice his age), he projects a mind disintegrating with fear of impending nuclear destruction. In Throne of Blood, Kurosawa's brilliant transposition of Macbeth to medieval Japan, Mifune combines the Shakespearean traditions with those of the Japanese military sagas and the Noh stage. In The Lower Depths (Kurosawa's adaptation of Gorky's play of the same name), Mifune weaves together raffish comedy, bombastic swagger, and romantic yearnings in a performance that is unforgettable as much for its subtlety as for its vigor. Finally, in The Bad Sleep Well, and High and Low, Mifune plays modern roles of great psychological complexity: men struggling with conscience and moral outrage, their furious will to action restrained by fear or guile.
As he matured Mifune refined his flair for comedy and gave to certain roles a bemused wisdom, seeming to smile at the memory of the angry young man he once had been. These sardonic characters, such as the vagrant protagonists of Yojimbo (1961) and Sanjuro (1962), are also characteristic of another of his role types, the "good bad guy." As anti-heroes, these men may be thieves or rogues, as in Saga of the Vagabonds (Sengoku guntoden, 1959), The Gambling Samurai (Kunisada Chuji, 1960), or Ambush (Machibuse, 1970), but they know what is right and just. In other films - Red Beard (Akahige, 1964), Rebellion (Joiuchi,1966), Band of Assassins (Shinsen-gumi, 1970) - his roles are men obsessed with a cause. Social misfits some of them, or men resisting the tide of history or politics, all were staunch "samurai," singlemindedly devoting their energy to what they believed to be right.
An affinity to men of might and right has led Mifune naturally to roles as military men, soldiers not only from Japan's historical past but of his own era as well. The most prominent of these is Admiral Isoroku Yamamoto, the much revered Japanese naval hero, whom Mifune has portrayed in several films, including Storm Over the Pacific (Taiheiyo no arashi, 1960), Midway (1976), and Admiral Yamamoto (Yamamoto Isoroku, 1968). Yet Mifune's own military experience was a far cry from the elite career of the great Japanese admiral. In 1940, fresh out of school in Manchuria, he joined the Imperial Army Airforce:
Mifune's personal military experience, in other words, was hardly heroic. Rather than the great warlords or brilliant officers he portrayed in some of his films, his own memories are closer to the roles he played in certain others: Desperado Outpost (Dokuritsu gurentai, 1959), about a band of outlaw soldiers fed up with the army; Fort Graveyard (Chi to suna, 1964), in which he played a touch sergeant; Hell in the Pacific (1968), where he is a soldier stranded on a desert island; or even his role in Seven Samurai, as the peasant who would be a soldier.