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Consummate collaborators

Series spotlights work of Kurosawa, Mifune

When it comes to the films of Akira Kurosawa, director Francis Ford Coppola probably said it best.

Asked to pick his favorite Kurosawa film, he replied, 'Well, so many of them are great, I mean, you could ask yourself which are the great ones, and which are merely very, very excellent.'

What can almost certainly be agreed upon, however, is that any list of the great ones would be taken largely from the 16 he made with Toshiro Mifune. No other director-actor collaboration (John Ford and John Wayne, Ingmar Bergman and Max Von Sydow, or more recently Martin Scorsese and Robert De Niro) looms larger in the history of film.

The director who was referred to by coworkers as 'the emperor' found the perfect embodiment of his filmmaking vitality in Mifune, an actor of such robust and imposing presence that he appeared constantly on the verge of splitting the seams of whatever space he occupied. For the rest of the world, the pair virtually defined Japanese cinema Ñ with Godzilla as their only competition.

This makes 'Kurosawa & Mifune,' a 12-film series featuring new 35 mm prints, an offer that no movie lover can refuse.

The series at Cinema 21 begins with the immortal 'Seven Samurai' (Friday, Nov. 1, through Wednesday, Nov. 6), followed in two-day installments by 'Yojimbo,' 'The Hidden Fortress,' 'High and Low' and 'Rashomon.'

Starting Nov. 15, the Northwest Film Center carries on with 'Throne of Blood,' 'Stray Dog,' 'I Live in Fear,' 'The Bad Sleep Well,' 'Drunken Angel,' 'Sanjuro' and 'Red Beard.'

If you can't see them all, you'll do just fine drawing a name out of a hat. 'Samurai' is one of the all-time great epics, and the climactic battle is one of the most brilliant sequences in film, period. 'Yojimbo' and 'Sanjuro' are terrifically and sardonically entertaining, as is the sprawling and boisterous 'Fortress' (the source material for 'Star Wars'). 'Rashomon' introduced Japanese cinema to world audiences, and the title became part of the cultural vocabulary.

'Drunken Angel' and 'Red Beard' were, respectively, the pair's first and last collaborations. 'I Live in Fear' features a 35-year-old Mifune playing a 70-year-old man. 'Stray Dog' is one of the best cop movies ever, and 'High and Low' one of the best thrillers, with an especially good performance from Mifune.

The hair-raising 'Throne of Blood,' based on 'Macbeth,' is a superb film adaptation of Shakespeare, while 'The Bad Sleep Well' is one of the most original, loosely updating 'Hamlet' to the world of corporate amorality.

Folks, it just doesn't get much better than this. And yet, when he received one of those shamefully belated life achievement Oscars at the end of his career, Kurosawa said he was 'only a student' when it came to discovering the potential of his chosen medium. Such a statement can only have sent a shudder of insignificance through any other director alive to hear it.

Better is the shudder of anticipation at the beginning of this series, an invaluable opportunity to see an exceptional student's breathtaking homework.