Note: for the purposes of this article, all Japanese names are presented in the Western fashion, with the given name followed by the family name.
There's a Kurt Vonnegut story called "Who Am I This Time?" about a quiet and formless small-town man named Harry Nash who comes to life only during productions at the local theater, in which he becomes entirely consumed by whatever character he's playing. A tabula rosa defined only by his current role, Nash is a complete mystery beyond his otherworldly talent. This story springs to mind almost every time I watch one of Takashi Shimura's rapturously immersive performances - he's perhaps the most accomplished actor in film history to have a mere stub for a Wikipedia page.
When people think of actors closely associated with the films of Akira Kurosawa, Toshiro Mifune is rather understandably the first person to come to mind. Mifune's raw, ribald, and irrepressible energy brought some of cinema's most gloriously scripted characters to ferocious life, and the 16 films he made with Kurosawa famously amount to one of filmdom's most mutually beneficial partnerships. Mifune was Kurosawa's roaring muse, and their fiery relationship is the stuff of legend (Stuart Galbraith IV's The Emperor and the Wolf is an invaluable tome on the subject - Mifune is the "Wolf"). But it's often ignored that of those 16 films Takashi Shimura was in all but one (1957's The Lower Depths) - if Mifune was the muscle, brawn, and guts of those films, Takashi Shimura was their heart.
Little is known about Shimura's life beyond his acting career, but it's not as if the information is prohibitively inaccessible or somehow lost to the sands of time. There may just not be all that much to know. He signed an epic contract with Toho Studios in 1943, obligating him to appear in whatever films they asked him to, and they asked him to more than 6 times a year (on average) for the remaining 39 years of his life. He was born in 1905, he died in 1982, and in between he acted. If Shimura was ever married or had children, a cursory Google search suggests that the Internet has yet to notice or care. But Shimura was always defined by dissolving his identity into his work, and it's quite appropriate that his most iconic role epitomizes the extent to which he abandoned his identity in favor the roles selected for him.
Kambei - Shimura's stoic warrior-sage in Seven Samurai - is introduced in a scene in which the ronin is tasked with freeing a village child from the clutches of a holed-up thief. There's no monetary incentive for Kambei's heroic action, he does it because he's unable to do anything else. In order to be allowed entry to the hut in which the thief has stolen the child, Kambei convinces the villain that he's not a samurai but instead a Buddhist monk. To make the illusion more convincing, Kambei lops off his topknot and forfeits his sword, thus parting with the two signifiers that most readily identify him as a samurai. One succinct and immaculately suspenseful sequence later, and the child is freed, the thief dead. Kambei - much like Shimura himself - has gamely dissolved his identity into a performance in order to remain true to himself.
Shimura began his career acting in pretty much whatever samurai films would have him, but he seemed fated to be in the right place at the right time from the start. The first two movies in which he appeared were directed by the brilliant and under-appreciated Mansaku Itami, and the third by Kenji Mizoguchi. Kenji Mizoguchi. Shimura couldn't have known it at the time, but that's like God asking you to play a small part in Genesis (the analogy works better if you think of it in polytheistic terms). That was 1936. In 1943, a first-time director by the name of Akira Kurosawa forcibly selected Shimura to play a supporting role in his debut film, Sanshiro Sugata.
From that point on (with only 2 or 3 significant exceptions) Shimura was little more than the expressive and unexceptional face of Kurosawa's humanistic fables - the moral center of films Kurosawa scholar Stephen Prince described as being about the "individual choice as a function of social crisis." Shimura was Kurosawa's "individual," a mirror whose generic qualities could reflect the global audience Kurosawa's films allowed Japanese cinema to reach. In fact, I'd argue that Kurosawa's quasi-unfounded reputation as a more "Western" filmmaker than his contemporaries is somewhat predicated upon the universal accessibility of Shimura's performances. His affectations were often as obviously Japanese as those of his peers, but his face of stone - clearly readable to a child and yet imbued with the self-actualized pathos of cinema itself - was eminently capable of tapping into whatever commonalities you might share with the character.
The nameless Woodcutter Shimura played in Rashomon is tasked with pulling the audience down the rabbit hole, guiding them into the thick and inescapable forest as Kazuo Miyagawa's camera boldly shoots into the sun. Shimura's steps are plain and assured, his refreshingly bumbling gait reinforcing the argument that no actor has ever been so adept at naturalizing a directorial approach intrusive enough as to border on the Brechtian. Kurosawa distracts the viewer with Shimura's disarming ordinariness, and so when the Woodcutter encounters a hat abandoned on a stump and begins to appear somewhat lost, the audience - any audience - suddenly feels as if they're practically upside down. And so there we are, our fates inextricably sealed to an unreliable, axe-wielding narrator in 16th century Japan. And we're every bit as with him as Kurosawa needs us to be so that it's downright devious when he later wrests our allegiance away. With Shimura as our tour-guide into this remarkable existentialist nightmare, it's no wonder that Rashomon - winner of the Golden Lion at the 1951 Venice Film Festival - was the film to formally introduce the world to Japanese cinema.
But let's backtrack a moment. Shimura's first unforgettable role was naturally in Kurosawa's first unforgettable film (and the director's first collaboration with Mifune), 1948's Drunken Angel. Shimura - who was intended to carry the film - plays an alcoholic doctor who presides over a poisoned post-war slum. Mifune is his doomed and caustic patient, a TB-stricken gangster who forms an uneasy alliance of sorts with the tormented physician. In his autobiography, Kurosawa himself suggests that he was powerless to prevent the charismatic and irascible Mifune from overshadowing Shimura, writing that "The drunken-doctor performance Shimura gave was a superb 90 percent, but because his adversary, Mifune, turned in 120 percent, I had to feel a little sorry for him." Kurosawa had no reason to pity Shimura, who in Drunken Angel gave life to one of cinema's most irresistibly durable characters, but this dynamic - with Shimura humbly and perfectly keeping things in motion - would persist. It would guarantee that Shimura's quietly invaluable contributions to movie history would be subsumed into the films themselves.
Shimura would go on to appear in a string of Kurosawa's masterpieces (Throne of Blood, The Hidden Fortress, The Bad Sleep Well, etc...), as well as other landmark films such as Chushingura, Samurai Assassin, and a little movie called Godzilla. But as to his finest performance there can be no contention. This is an opinion like evolution is a theory. You can disagree, but you do so at your own peril (and Roger Ebert will clog twitter feeds across the land as he mocks your insolence).
In 1952, Kurosawa had death on the brain. So he made a movie called "To Live," or Ikiru, and Shimura was finally given the chance to carry a film on his own, a film that would feed off of his unformed slab of a face and its echoing cavities. Ikiru is the unassuming, Faustian tale of an unthinking and unloved bureaucrat named Watanabe, who we are uniquely privileged to learn in the film's first frame is dying from terminal stomach cancer. Watanabe is a cog in a meaningless machine, and after learning of his impending demise he's confronted with his own pitiable insignificance - he doesn't even have the moxie required to feel bad for himself. And then... well, and then in a way more wistful, delicate, and profound than any film before or since (Ikiru is to hyperbole as Billy Bob Thornton is to Halle Berry in Monster's Ball - it makes it feel gooooood), Kurosawa and Shimura unpack and distills the human condition. Recreationally. Depending on when you ask me, Ikiru might be my favorite film, but Shimura's work as Watanabe is always my favorite performance.
Without spoiling the film, I'll paraphrase Donald Richie and say only that Watanabe discovers himself through doing. Actually, I'll just phrase Richie, who writes in the imaginatively titled The Films of Akira Kurosawa, "Watanabe behaved as though he believed that it is action alone that matters: that a man is not his thoughts, nor his wishes, nor his intentions, but is simply what he does." It's a perfectly fitting sentiment for the actor who embodied Watanabe, just as he leant life to so many other classic characters. In fact, if his filmography is any indication, there were few days in Shimura's adult life when he was not actively "doing." Takashi Shimura was a man whose thoughts, wishes, and intentions were all sublimated into what he did - into whomever he was becoming.
Watanabe (VAGUE SPOILER) paved the way for a local park, and so Shimura in turn paved the way for Watanabe. Perhaps there was then developed an unspoken kinship between the actor and character, a mutual understanding that Watanabe was simply the most expressive vessel through which Shimura could do what was most meaningful to him. As Harry Nash co-opted Stanley Kowalski, so did Shimura compulsively submerge himself in his roles. It's no surprise then that his "retirement" was a farce, as it would last a mere 2 years before Kurosawa coerced him to accept a role in Kagemusha - a role that would be cut entirely from the film upon its initial release. But Shimura, who died 2 years later, spent his twilight doing what he did.
I don't mean to suggest that Shimura was nothing more than his work, and that he retired into a crypt on the Toho lot between his call times or something like that. I imagine that his life was littered with the trivialities of any life. He was endowed with a gift of transcendental qualities, but his performances - like the films in which they appeared - derived their power from their irreducible humanism. Shimura may have been too indistinct or understated to earn enduring global fame, but those familiar with his performances will recognize them in anyone.
And now, the greatest YouTube video of them all: