Ánimas Trujano: Toshiro Mifune in Mexico

Para la versión en español, cliquea aquí


Ánimas Trujano (1961) follows a drunken peasant from Oaxaca who desperately wants to be respected by his family and his village. He thinks the best way to do this is to become the organizer or Mayordomo in the Mayordomia festival. He is able to become Mayordomo by selling out his loyal family and soon realizes that respect can’t be bought.

The 1930s brought a Golden Age for Mexican Cinema that would bring a robust structure and support to the country’s cinematic industry. By 1961, the Golden Age was waning. In 1958, several important studios had shut down and the Mexican Academy of Motion Picture Arts and Sciences decided to discontinue the Ariel Awards. With bureaucracy stalling progress and studios floundering, Mexico’s film industry was in desperate need of international attention. Though Mexico and Japan seem like unnatural allies, they have a long diplomatic history. When Mexico signed a treaty with Japan in 1888, it became the first Western country to recognize the full sovereignty of modern Japan. Mexico also became the first Latin American country to receive Japanese immigrants with the state support of both countries. Their population of Japanese-Mexicans rivaled that of Brazil or Peru. But when World War II started and Mexico took the side of the Allies, Mexico broke off diplomatic ties with the country. Similar to their neighbors above, the state began a process of forced relocation and by 1942, 5,000 Japanese immigrants and descendants were displaced. The Japanese population in the country slowly faded. 

Ánimas Trujano

By the 1960s, the Mexican government was no longer worried about the threat of Japanese spies and Mexican audiences were interested in the entertaining and groundbreaking work of Japanese auteurs like Akira Kurosawa. When director Ismael Rodriguez wrote Ánimas Trujano, he may have had the legendary Mexican star Pedro Infante in mind, but would have to settle for one of the greatest stars of Japanese cinema, Toshiro Mifune. When Infante, who became almost synonymous with Mexican identity, died tragically in a plane crash, Rodriguez looked to the star of Kurosawa’s films. Mifune had been looking to work outside of Japan for a while. He was interested in roles in The Savage Innocents by Nicholas Ray and Attila by Pietro Francisci but both roles went to Anthony Quinn. So when Rodriguez came to him with a role outside of the shadow of his country and its greatest director, he was happy to accept. 

The casting would prove to be a major event for both countries. Mifune announced his new role in a full tuxedo in the Mexican embassy in Japan. The film would even premiere in Japan before it premiered in Mexico. Mifune, who spoke no Spanish, had to learn his lines phonetically and had his lines dubbed by Narciso Busquets. It’s safe to say that had Pedro Infante lived, the movie and the drama surrounding it would be entirely different. Infante, a symbol of the ideal Mexican macho, would have simply added another notch to his belt of Mexican heroes. Mifune, a star with a more complicated image, could play heroic or tyrannical, and being a foreigner, gave the film freedom to express spirituality and honor without tying it to the ideals of Mexican manhood.

His entrance into the film acts as an abrupt disruption. It starts almost like a documentary detailing one of the oldest traditions in Mexico’s history, the Mayordomias festivities in Oaxaca. The narrator details how each year the priest picks a Mayordomo to organize the festivities. It is seen as a great responsibility and honor for whoever is chosen and the entire village gets together to pray, dance, and eat. After scanning the parade of people the camera flies to the top of the roof to find Ánimas drunk and angry. He is an unexpected antihero who seems like a foil to the traditional indigenous festivities. The Mayordomia makes for an interesting backdrop. Though it began long before the Spanish arrived, this system of appointed leaders made it easy for the Spanish viceroys to install their encomienda system. Some see the festival as a tool for colonial control and others see it as the last stronghold of indigenous identity.

What does this mean for our antihero? This festival adds ambiguity to his quest. Will he find meaning and refuge or will he become a slave to power? Ánimas doesn’t know where to look as he often switches from loving to hating God and flip-flopping between religions at a moment’s notice. Throughout the film, he rarely looks inward and instead tries to blame his surroundings without realizing his own power to shape or define them. In one scene, he nearly crushes a bird in his hand and professes his anger at his inability to win. When he decides not to kill the bird and let it go, it falls limp from his hands. He accidentally held it too tight and immediately looks up and blames God for his misfortune even though the creature was resting in his own hand.

Ánimas Trujano

His only goal is to become powerful and beloved without the need for work. He tries to make any ally he can on Earth and in Heaven. When gambling on a cockfight, he holds his cross and prays to God. When he loses, he throws away the cross and turns to the local witch doctor for help. When one blessed trinket no longer works, he simply looks for another one all in the pursuit of being able to gamble his way to the top. His fatal flaw is his individualistic need to gain power but not to lead. His insatiable thirst for power seems best exemplified in the moment he hits his son for looking at him wrong. When his wife comforts their son saying that their father is always right, he replies that even if he weren’t, it wouldn’t matter.

Ánimas does not question his role in the family and neither does anybody else even though they might want to. Though his wife is his most loyal supporter, it’s clear in her conversations with her children that she does not love him. She tries to make sure her daughter does not end up with an illiterate peasant much like Ánimas and when her son defiantly declares himself to be a man after getting his first chest hair and swigging a bottle of alcohol, she slaps him. Still, the inane rules of society force her to stay with him and allow him a sense of entitlement. Though Ánimas represents an unearned entitlement, he is no match for the more powerful, white residents of the area. 

They never need to pathetically beg God to change their life because they are a God in their own right. El Español and his son treat indigenous women as servants for their needs. El Español’s son routinely spies on the women working for them and has sex with Ánimas’ daughter after cornering her at the end of the day and romantically declaring that she is not ugly. But when she becomes pregnant, he is nowhere to be seen. Instead, his father comes by later and offers Ánimas too much money to turn away in exchange for the child. He would like to be a father again and though Ánimas’ wife disagrees, Ánimas allows it. Immediately that child is given to an indigenous woman who is already nursing one baby, allowing El Español to purchase more things he wants without having to work.

Ánimas Trujano

He represents Ánimas’ ideal life, but when he achieves his goal with El Español’s money, he finds himself totally unfulfilled. He has become the Mayordomo and has the appearance of respect but not the real thing. His son pays other kids to cheer for him and other townspeople whisper and gossip in front of him. Ánimas has turned the Mayordomia into a tool for Spanish control. He’s taken the post so the powerful white man can have his reward. Only when he comes to the Aztec ruins which represent the real roots of the ceremony, does he realize what he’s done. His wife, who has finally had enough of him, murders his mistress in front of everyone. If she goes to jail, her kids will have to be scattered at different homes in the town. Amongst the ruins, Ánimas decides to take the blame and for the first time, gains the respect and love of his wife. Mifune brings a sadness and spontaneity to the role that no one else could. His perspective as a foreign actor brings more attention to the morality of systems of power in general and the importance of spirituality. This objectivity makes Ánimas Trujano,a film borne from a very specific place and time, a universal melodrama.

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