Two documentaries under consideration here are devoted to the careers of exceptionally talented men. “Mifune: The Last Samurai” that opens at the IFC Center in New York on Friday is as much a documentary on director Akira Kurosawa since most of Mifune’s career entailed starring in Kurosawa’s films such as “Seven Samurai”, “Rashomon”, et al. “Magnus”, that opened last week at the Village East theater and that unfortunately I did not have a chance to review until now, will be playing for another week. It traces the career of Magnus Carlsen, the number one chess player in the world today and perhaps the greatest ever. With both Mifune and Carlsen, there’s not much to say about them as human beings outside of their mastery of their respective crafts. But if you like me are passionate about film and chess, they offer great pleasure.
Both Mifune and Kurosawa were swept into the net of Japanese militarism during WWII, an inevitable fate for nearly all Japanese men. The son of a photographer, Mifune served in an aerial photography unit of the air force where he took photos of Kamikaze pilots. For his part, Kurosawa made propaganda films during the war. When the war ended, Mifune was desperate to find work in a ravaged country. His parents had been killed during the war but he had no idea how, when or where. Trying to exploit the photography skills he had acquired during the war, he applied for a job as a cameraman at Toho studios but because his application had been misfiled, he was funneled into a room where actors were auditioning for a “new faces” competition. Among the judges was Akira Kurosawa who was taken aback by Mifune who performed with abandon without having any training as an actor. He described him as “a young man reeling around the room in a violent frenzy … it was as frightening as watching a wounded beast trying to break loose. I was transfixed.” Mifune lost the competition but Kurosawa found himself a new leading man.
Kurosawa was born in 1910 and his father came from a long line of samurai. Although Japan had long dispensed with feudalism, his father was steeped in samurai culture and liked to walk around the house wearing traditional garb with his hair in the distinctive topknot. He ran a gymnasium and built the first indoor swimming pool in Japan. He also worked to popularize baseball in Japan. The young Akira Kurosawa was not particularly athletic and found himself more attracted to the graphic arts.
Before the Japanese state had converted itself into an authoritarian war machine, Kurosawa traveled in CP circles as a youth. Some of his early student works were “socialist realism” exercises. After WWII began, he went to work in the Japanese film industry turning out propaganda films that glorified test pilots and female factory workers. One assumes that his early training in socialist realism acquitted him well, just as it did American CP’ers in the film industry.
Kurosawa was extremely rueful about his role in all this. Perhaps shame motivated his desire to create a new kind of film for postwar Japan, one that would criticize a society that had become adrift. Although it no longer celebrated martial values, it still lacked a higher purpose. His youthful leftist beliefs combined with his family’s aristocratic sense of ‘noblesse oblige’ led to the creation of distinctly Kurosawan type of film, one in which a lone individual struggled to define a personal ethos against a callous and self-centered society.
Toshiro Mifune was perfectly suited to playing such roles. Director Steven Okazaki has masterfully assembled some of the greatest moments of Mifune performances in Kurosawa films and provided commentary on them from film scholars and directors Stephen Spielberg and Martin Scorsese who revered the Mifune-Kurosawa tandem as I did when I first saw “Yojimbo” as a Bard College freshman in 1961.
You also hear from actors who performed alongside Mifune and members of the production staff who have fond memories of the actor who was charismatic both on and off the set. There’s not much to say about him as human being except that he liked to drink and drive fast cars, sometimes at the same time. Like Magnus Carlsen, he was something of a cipher when he was not performing.
Like Kurosawa, Mifune’s career took a nose dive after the Japanese film industry became transformed in the 1970s. Influenced by Hong Kong cinema, the typical character was a yakuza or a cop. Like the Hollywood western, the samurai film had gone out of fashion even if arguably the modern western film was influenced heavily by Kurosawa films, especially “The Magnificent Seven” that was a remake of “Seven Samurai”. The Spaghetti Western also paid tribute to Kurosawa and Mifune in Sergio Leone’s “A Fistful of Dollars”, a remake of “Yojimbo”.
After Kurosawa and Mifune parted ways, Mifune became a studio executive churning out forgettable samurai movies for the movie theater and television. He also made occasional appearances in American movies such as “1941”, Stephen Spielberg’s neglected comic masterpiece about the mounting hysteria over a feared Japanese invasion.
Like just about every narrative film or documentary I have ever seen about chess, there is zero explanation of the games that take place in “Magnus”. I doubt that anybody who has never played chess would want to see “Magnus” but for a patzer like me, there was some disappointment in seeing the film conforming to norms. There is not much drama in the furrowed brow of a Magnus Carlsen or a Viswanathan “Vishy” Anand, who Carlsen unseated in the 2013 world championship match but perhaps it would be too much to expect for commentary on the games since they are conducted at such a high level.
All that being said, I found the film engrossing since in his own way Carlsen is as compelling a personality as the certifiably insane Bobby Fischer. Born into a middle-class Norwegian family, he is described as introspective and lost in thought as a young boy. When his father bought him a children’s atlas, he sank deeply into the book’s statistics such as population and land mass. In some ways, he might appear as someone with Asperger’s but in nearly all respects he led a normal life except becoming totally consumed by the game of chess.
Tall, well-build and handsome in a sort of gnomish way, Carlsen is a diffident personality with not that much to say outside of chess. This makes him a lot less compelling than Fischer who was aggressively outspoken and paranoiac.
What makes “Magnus” interesting is the contrast it draws between the intuitive style of Carlsen and the highly technical, computer-based game of Vishy Anand. At one point, Carlsen says that he relies on his intuition even to the point of sacrificing a pawn. In all my years of playing chess on my Macbook, I have never won a game after going down a pawn. Indeed, in the two or three thousand games I have played, I have only won about a dozen times.
Anand was the first grandmaster to fully exploit computer chess. The film points out that he used ChessBase to simulate games that helped him to fine tune his tactics, often spending an entire day sitting in front of a computer to work out problems.
Before the match with Carlsen began, he had a team of ten expert players in his entourage simulating games with Carlsen so as to be better prepared for him. That Carlsen managed to win is a vindication of genius over technique even though Anand was a great champion in his time.
Although I enjoyed “Magnus” thoroughly, I am still holding out for a film about chess that can give me as much pleasure as watching this. In the final analysis, the drama in chess is not about the men or women at the board but the board itself.