In the second half of the 20th century, Akira Kurosawa was one of world cinema's most important and influential voices: a master craftsman with a painter's eye for composition, a choreographer's sense of bodies in motion, and something to say about the human condition.
But Kurosawa began his film career under the wheels of Japan's World War II propaganda machine, so it wasn't until his seventh film, 1948's Drunken Angel, that he found his voice. "In this picture I was finally myself," he once said. "It was my picture. I was doing it and no one else."
It's maybe no coincidence that Drunken Angel was also Kurosawa's first time casting Toshiro Mifune, a 28-year-old Japanese army veteran. Mifune, 10 years the director's junior, played a tubercular young gangster befriended by a kindly doctor. Over the next 17 years -- his greatest period, as well as his most prolific -- Kurosawa would make 16 more films, and Mifune would star in 15 of them. Both men went on to international acclaim, though after a fallout while filming 1965's Red Beard they never worked together again. Mifune died in 1997, Kurosawa less than a year later.
Like DeNiro to Scorsese, von Sydow to Ingmar Bergman, or John Wayne to John Ford was Mifune to Kurosawa -- except probably more so. For Kurosawa, Mifune played everything from a cop who's lost his gun (Stray Dog) and a medieval Japanese Macbeth (Throne of Blood) to a wily, cynical samurai (Yojimbo), an old man terrified of nuclear war (I Live In Fear) and a modern corporate executive with a kidnapped child (High and Low). They made each other better: Kurosawa always wrote scripts with his actors in mind, and Mifune said the only pictures he took pride in were those he made with Kurosawa.
Now the independent film distributor Cowboy Pictures has assembled a traveling show of 11 Kurosawa-plus-Mifune films, and Pittsburgh Filmmakers will show 10 of them here. Naturally, the Filmmakers series includes the epic Seven Samurai; it omits only Rashomon, the 1950 classic that put both the director and the actor on the international map (Filmmakers says it might book that one later). In any case, catch as many as you can: These films as rarely screened as they are entertaining and rewarding.
Seven Samurai (1954) 8 p.m. Wed., April 30, and 2 p.m. Sun., May 4; Drunken Angel (1948) 8 p.m. Thu., May 1, and 5:45 p.m. Sun., May 4; Stray Dog, May 7 and 11; Throne of Blood, May 8 and 11; Yojimbo, May 14 and 18; Sanjuro, May 15 and 18; The Bad Sleep Well, May 21 and 25; Hidden Fortress, May 22 and 25; High and Low, May 28 and June 1; I Live in Fear, May 29 and June 1. Melwood.