Stuart Galbraith IV’s “The Emperor and the Wolf” bills itself as a joint biography of Akira Kurosawa and his favorite leading man, Toshiro Mifune, but it reads more like an extended filmography. The memorable insights into each of these two towering figures are smothered beneath page after page of plot synopses and mini-biographies of cinematographers, co-stars and screenwriters, several of whom had only tangential connections to Kurosawa or Mifune. As such, the book is more of a reference title than a compelling look at the man who was arguably the 20th century’s greatest director.
Galbraith is an obvious enthusiast, and his love and encyclopedic knowledge of Japanese cinema radiate off every page. He is also a sensitive critic of Kurosawa’s work who does not make the common mistake of viewing the master’s films through a Western prism. When he began researching this project, he writes, he discovered there was no English-language biography of Kurosawa in print. In rectifying that, Galbraith found it impossible to write about Kurosawa without writing about Mifune as well, and thus launched on his unusual double-biography.
It was a decision with mixed results. Certainly the story of the two men is compelling. Kurosawa was a well-off kid in Tokyo who stumbled into filmmaking and swiftly catapulted to the top of Toho Studios’ star system. Mifune, once voted the “most Japanese man” by his countrymen, was actually born in China and longed to work behind a movie camera.
But his way into Toho was through acting, and once Kurosawa spotted Mifune, the die was cast. Galbraith follows his protagonists across the world of Japanese cinema, painting a compelling picture of the explosion of creative vitality following World War II, and its ultimate corruption by studio-driven, big-budget epics. Several of these ensnared Mifune in the late 1960s, making him unavailable to Kurosawa and ending their collaboration.
Mifune appeared in increasingly ill-starred international productions while Kurosawa stagnated, attempting suicide before ultimately moving to a richer creative phase with his epics of the 1980s and chamber pieces of the 1990s. But, maddeningly, Galbraith spends far more time on the details of his protagonists’ films than their astonishing lives. And out of a perverse evenhandedness, he gives what seems like equal space to the dozens of non-Kurosawa films Mifune appeared in, almost all of which were unmemorable flops.
Galbraith offers up the occasional compelling morsel from the set. During the final days of World War II, actors’ stomachs rumbled so loudly on Toho sets that Kurosawa had to constantly interrupt his filming. Another memorable anecdote, which illustrates the autocratic nature that led Kurosawa to be dubbed “The Emperor,” comes from the filming of “Seven Samurai.” In the scene in which he is supposed to be rescuing his wife from a burning bandits’ lair, actor Toshio Tsuchiya, desperately trying to please Kurosawa, stood so close to a burning building that he collapsed, his face scalded by the flames.
Unfortunately, these tidbits are scarce. After several pages of plot summary of Kurosawa’s “Ikiru,” thumbnail portraits of its principles, and the usual lengthy quotations from Western reviews at the time, Galbraith drops this bombshell: “[I]n the midst of its success, less than a month after it had opened, Kurosawa’s mother, Shima, died at the age of eight-two.” Astonishingly, Galbraith never mentions Kurosawa’s mother again, let alone probes whether her ailing health had anything to do with Kurosawa’s choice to make a film about a dying bureaucrat who feels he has wasted his life.
It is typical of the cursory way he deals with the two men’s private lives, an approach that makes “The Emperor and The Wolf” a disappointment. It may be the first English-language Kurosawa biography, but we will have to wait for the great one.