When Akira Kurosawa died two years back, filmgoers lost one of the world's great directors and the author of many of Japan's finest exports. Theater programmers scrambled to assemble dedicated retrospectives of his work, which spanned some five decades and exemplified one of the most fertile cross-pollinations of Eastern and Western forms of art. Many of these works, not coincidentally, starred Toshiro Mifune, whose association with Kurosawa propelled him to international fame. Rafael Film Center honors this working relationship with its weeklong "Mifune and Kurosawa Retrospective."
Merging the Hollywood western with the samurai period film, Kurosawa's epic Seven Samurai (1954) tells the tale of a small village that hires a group of masterless warriors to defend it from bandits. As much an examination of the human spirit and courage as it is a battle film, Kurosawa's masterpiece breaks down the story into universal human conflicts: good and evil, man and woman, parents and children, the individual and the community. Mifune gives a stirring performance as a samurai masquerading as a farmer, whose heroism inspires fellow samurai to victory.
Like its American film noir counterparts, Kurosawa's Stray Dog (1949) illuminates postwar life, though in this case in Tokyo. The director casts Mifune as a former soldier turned cop, whose pickpocketed pistol ignites a frantically obsessive quest to recover the weapon and stop a killer. Among the best in noir, Stray Dog predicts many of the styles and elements that would figure in the director's later work.
The Mifune-Kurosawa retrospective runs Thursday to Thursday, Jan. 20 to 27, at the Rafael Film Center, 1118 Fourth St. (at A Street), San Rafael. Admission is $4.50-7; call 454-1222 for show times.