Sunday, January 8, 2012

The Shimura Trick

Takashi Shimura is the eternal sufferer of the Akira Kurosawa universe; while Mifune is the primary architect of the Kurosawa narrative (via an anxious intention or a corrupt soul), it is Shimura who must bear the brunt of the former’s actions – together, therefore, they form a formidable team of assassination-specialists: the first kills, the second destroys evidence. Mifune is the impulsive protege; Shimura the elder statesman. This elaborately-conducted assignment of roles will reflect directly in their performances too – while Mifune is always overbearing physically, conducting his performance via-physical mimicry (a lion in Rashomon, an old man in I Live in Fear, a 20-feet tall statue in Hidden Fortress); Shimura is timid and weak, the sort of man you would favour yourself against if it came down to a slap-match. 

A Shimura performance is placid, burdened with the torment of the world, prepared to absorb the effects of all the misery of the world, responding with nothing more than a faint quiver of his large shock-absorbing lower lip. This is a meticulously constructed framework of faux-tranquil though – it is an entire plane of normalcy created to underline the single moment of abnormality, because if Mifune trembles, bulges his eyes and contracts his foreheads with a deep guttural grunt, it is just him acting – but if Shimura happens to do it, something must be wrong.

The Shimura Trick is a clever set-up – the actor will, having played the part in an absolutely ‘normal’ manner (the greatness of a Mifune lies in how visible the performance is; Shimura, on the other hand, must leave no traces of a ‘performance’ behind to be called ‘great') up till that point in the film, will, just moments before the single moment of abnormality (usually a shocking disclosure) turn the normalcy up a few notches: he will use his hanky to clean the sweat behind his ears, light up a cigarette, smile at a character standing in front of him – all to lead the undiscerning viewer into thinking ‘everything’s fine’ when suddenly, the moment will take place and Shimura, acting via-prop, will bring whatever maneuver of faux-normalcy he has been involved in to an abrupt halt. The hanky, possessed no longer by a firm grip, will dangle between his fingers, the cigarette will tilt vertically down and the smile will vanish – the entire intention behind such a ruse being to fully transmit the state of shock Shimura’s character is under. The ruse reveals itself to a viewer only after one’s watched a few Shimura performances – after a certain point, you wouldn’t fall for it anymore and what’s more, you can predict its occurrence – the moment Shimura, unnaturally upright in posture and a hesitant user of props – takes out a hanky or a cigarette or a large grin, you know something’s gonna change.

I Live in Fear (1955) / Akira Kurosawa

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