August 7, 2012

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The collaboration between Toshiro Mifune and director Akira Kurosawa ended in 1965, following the release of Red Beard, their sixteenth and final film together. Having built up an international reputation thanks to his work with Kurosawa, Mifune looked West, receiving his first Hollywood paycheck playing against type as a Japanese industrialist in John Frankenheimer’s Grand Prix (1966). He would jump back and forth between Japan and the U.S. through the early 80s, working mainly in stolid war dramas (MidwayInchon), but also getting to stretch out a bit with John Boorman (Hell in the Pacific) and Steven Spielberg (1941). In terms of viewership, his greatest success was playing opposite Richard Chamberlain in the TV mini-series of James Clavell’s Shogun (1980).Perhaps realizing that Hollywood would continue to shunt him into stereotyped Japanese roles in stuffy historical dramas, he spent the majority of his remaining career at home. For his final U.S. film in this period, he re-united with John Frankenheimer to shoot the entertainingly silly East-meets-West martial arts film, The Challenge (1982). Frankenheimer had similarly entered a low ebb in his career, resulting in these two dynamic talents making a mid-budget action film for CBS Films, to be distributed by the small Embassy Pictures studio.

The Challenge stars Scott Glenn as a prototypical ugly American who gets caught in the middle of a feud between two Japanese brothers over their family’s legendary samurai swords. Glenn was fresh off of his supporting role in Urban Cowboy, and this was CBS and Embassy’s attempt to capitalize on that and make him a star. That it didn’t work doesn’t take away from Glenn’s admirably schlubby performance, in which he slouches and slurs his way through Kyoto. Buried up to his head in dirt, he even manages to croak out “Deep In the Heart of Texas.”  Shot on location, the film has a largely Japanese crew, including DP Kozo Okazaki, but there were some up and coming American collaborators as well. John Sayles did a major re-write of the screenplay, and had fond memories working on the film, as he told Philip Wuntch:

The funniest experience I had was rewriting The Challenge for John Frankenheimer before it started filming. When Frankenheimer found out he could get Toshiro Mifune, he changed the background from Chinese martial arts to Japanese martial arts. They’re completely opposite forms, but he said no one would know the difference. We changed all the martial arts scenes and all the background story because he was able to get Mifune.

Steven Seagal was living and teaching Aikido in Japan, and was brought on as “martial arts coordinator”, presumably helping to help choreograph and fact check the accuracy of the fight sequences. He would later open a martial arts school in North Hollywood, teaching the movie execs who would later make him a short-lived star. But as Sayles writes, it was Frankenheimer’s eagerness to work with Mifune that necessitated large scale revisions, as well as scouting locations in an entirely different country from which they expected. As an actor, Mifune still garnered that kind of respect, although Embassy had to be hoping it was Glenn that would drive the box office, as it was his face that is emblazoned on the posters.

The movie provides a stark vision of culture clashes, creating a triangle between old-school samurai Toru (Mifune), his super-rich Westernized brother Hideo (Atsuo Nakamura), and the brusque uncultured America of Rick (Scott Glenn). Rick is a down and out boxer, who Toru recruits to help escort one of his lost swords back to Kyoto. Unaware of the dangers of his employment, he agrees, but he is soon waylaid by Hideo’s goon Ando (a wonderfully sarcastic Calvin Jung), and endures a barrage of beatings before he has any idea what is going on. It’s a broad mishmash of the kineticism of Chinese kung-fu movies, the honor code of Japanese samurai films, and the body count of Hollywood action movies.

Mifune plays his Toru as a gruff, soft-spoken patriarch with a shock of white hair, injecting gravitas into a movie of profound absurdity. The final action sequence has the samurai-robed Mifune taking down an entire skyscraper of guards and goons with his bow and arrow (and an assist from a machine-gunning Glenn). It’s an outrageous sequence that presages the bloodbath at the end of Commando (1985), and the only thing keeping the film moored to its dramatic arc is Mifune playing it absolutely straight. The sequence is a pungent metaphor for the fears Americans had toward the growing economic power of Japan, as the film pines for the civilized, if technologically backward dojo of Toru, while painting Hideo as an unprincipled free-market capitalist ready to destroy tradition for his material gain. The American Glenn comes to the aid of Toru, battling back the threatened economic competitor.

It is what they call “a rich text”, although it’s unclear how much Frankenheimer contributed. It was during this period that he had become a serious alcoholic, and he told Charles Champlin that he was even bringing drinks to the set, for the first time in his career. It was following this eye-opening and sense-dulling shoot that Frankenheimer checked himself into rehab and dried out. It is not one of his more visually interesting films, lacking his usual smooth lines and frames-within-frames. Although I should admit I had to watch it in a cropped 1.33:1 aspect ratio (it was shot in 1.85), as this VHS version is the only one available. He would dry out, and revive his career on television, where he began. Mifune would also make a series of TV movies in Japan, before ending his career in 1995 with the drama Fukai kawa.

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