“In a society of soft voices and deep bows, he played the insurrectionist, an explosion of ego and id. He was a one-man action film…his display of mercurial moods — sinking into mopery, then geysering into rage — made the audience feel that this, for better or worse, is a man.” -Richard Corliss, TIME film critic, on Toshiro Mifune
“In the locker room before games, while teammates visualize themselves making every shot they take, Noah conjures a much different image. He is playing the worst game of his life, getting backed down and pushed aside, dunked on and laughed at. He lets the anxiety build before releasing it on the floor in a torrent of churning limbs and primal screams. The way he runs the floor, it looks like his ponytail might snap off.” -Lee Jenkins, in a recent SI profile of Joakim Noah
Unless you’ve been living under a rock, or worse, are a casual and/or non-NBA fan, you know that through 6 games, Joakim Noah leads the NBA in rebounding, pulling down 15 a game. If you know this, then of course you might know Noah’s story by now, his transformation from cheeseburger eating, beer drinking, joint smoking, highway-shoulder riding, bow-tie wearing doofus to an intensely focused and explosive beast, the proverbial heart and soul of the Bulls. This transformation, from mere mortal (and a lazy one, at that) to a singular, emotive warrior, did not come over night, and neither did his ponytail — which seems to be getting higher on his head each game, and thus more samurai-like.
To understand Joakim Noah is to understand anger, frustration, and rage — the beast within man, so to speak (like Straw Dogs, but less serious). Noah understands this, of course, and is able to transform these seemingly negative qualities into being one of the league’s best and brightest. Fueled by a strong sense of morality (and a persecution complex to boot), he brings to the court unbridled energy, and one gets the sense he would be more than content to end the night as a lifeless corpse, dead in the paint, so long as he proved the haters wrong. Noah’s performances in the early season of ’10-11, which have been nothing short of monstrous, got me thinking about what Joakim means to the Bulls and the league at large, but mostly about ponytails and in turn, samurai. Therefore, to understand Noah better, we must also understand Toshiro Mifune.
Toshiro Mifune understands anger. We know this now, mostly because of his famed performances in Rashomon, The Seven Samurai, and Yojimbo, among many others, but also because, as the story goes, he accidentally landed his first acting job as a result of having to mime ‘anger’ in a screen test, which the young photographer didn’t even sign up for (his friends submitted an application and photo for him). Asked to cry in his audition, Mifune refused on the grounds of not being sad. So anger it was, which, it turns out, was too angry for the studio judges. Akira Kurosawa, on a break from shooting No Regrets For Our Youth (1946), was pulled aside to watch the spectacle:
“A young man was reeling around the room in a violent frenzy. It was as frightening as watching a wounded or trapped savage beast trying to break loose. I stood transfixed. But it turned out that this young man was not really in a rage, but had drawn “anger” as the emotion he had to express in his screen test. He was acting. When he finished his performance, he regained his chair with an exhausted demeanor, flopped down and began to glare menacingly at the judges. Now, I knew very well that this kind of behavior was a cover for shyness, but the jury seemed to be interpreting it as disrespect.” –Akira Kurosawa, from Something Like an Autobiography
Kurosawa and fellow director Kajiro Yamamoto argued with the panel, suggesting they simply didn’t understand Mifune, and he was eventually hired. The rest, as they say, is history: Mifune starred in roughly 180 films from 1947 to 1995, becoming an international superstar. As an actor he was known for his self-deprecating humor, but above all else, it was his tough, overbearing physical persona (often lacking in tact), in addition to his tireless work ethic, that made him a global cinema icon. To put it bluntly, dude was fierce.
But it’s not just ponytails, scruffy beards, and rage that link Noah and Mifune together, nor is it that both men spent a significant amount of time abroad in their formative years (Mifune in China, Noah in France, respectively). Beyond the oddly similar physical characteristics, it is in their respective performances that they most resemble each other. Early in their careers, both men were unfairly dismissed on grounds of refinement — Mifune was rough and lacked formal training, Noah lacked discipline and had a jump shot that spun sideways (and still does, referred to around these parts as “making a pizza”). On the silver screen, Mifune can be found howling, grunting, sweating, fighting and even laughing like a hyena, his display of beastly fervor displayed raw, naked, for the whole world to see. Noah, on the court, can be found beating his chest in fits of primal rage, screaming at the top of his lungs like a mental patient from Sam Fuller’s Shock Corridor after every dunk, and gobbling up boards with the ferocity of a lion tracking down an innocent, unsuspecting, and delicious zebra.
Going even further, Noah’s NBA career path has been eerily similar to the plight of Mifune’s character Kikuchiyo in The Seven Samurai (1954), Kurosawa’s 3-hour epic about a group of samurai who join together to protect a small farming community from violent outlaws. Toward the beginning of the film, Kikuchiyo, an orphaned farmer with warrior aspirations, is presented as a clown, initially rejected by the force assembled to protect the village. At one point, he even goes so far as to claim his status as a samurai, drunkenly offering his lineage in the form of a stolen scroll, which ends in ridicule and laughter. Joakim is no stranger to being a laughing stock either, as his career in the pros started with the NBA draft, to which he wore a beige seersucker tuxedo with an oversized golden bow tie, giving his detractors ammo for years to come (Chicago-Sun Times columnist Rick Morrissey famously wrote that he would eat his newspaper column if Noah ever became a serious player. Which he did, at a practice, last season). Not only that, but for most of his first two years in the league, he was out of shape, lazy, and had fallen victim to being young, having free time, and tons of money, culminating in his arrest in Gainesville, Florida, for possession of marijuana and an open container of alcohol. These early career missteps, however, were exactly what Noah needed to get him back to the path of acceptance and dominance, which would come slowly but surely.
The same holds true for Kikuchiyo, who, after relentlessly pursuing the samurai all the way to the village, eventually earns his place in the group after he publicly ridicules the hypocrisy of the farmers, who are depending on the group’s protection but did not even bother to welcome them on arrival. Dangerously bridging the gap between the arrogant samurai and fearful farmers, he later presents the group of samurai with weaponry and armor the farmers had kept hidden. This backfires and the samurai are disgusted, as the weapons were most likely stolen from the bodies of dead samurai. With the group angry to the point of potential slaughter, Mifune, as Kikuchiyo, gives a chilling, intense rebuke, accusing the samurai of being ignorant hypocrites, since they (i.e. the samurai) were the ones who created a culture of fear, by plundering the peasants on behalf of warlords. Similarly, as Noah was fighting for playing time and the respect of his teammates (and the NBA at large), he was disciplined by coach Scott Skiles after calling out the team’s lack of effort, which later turned into a one-game suspension after an in-practice argument with assistant coach Ron Adams. After a locker room vote, the suspension was extended to two days, but Joakim didn’t stop there. Back from suspension, Noah immediately called out Ben Wallace for not taking a loss seriously, earning the respect of the Bulls front office. The following year Noah would get serious, committing to lifestyle changes in his diet and workout regimen. Eventually proving his worth as a warrior of the pick and roll down the stretch in the 08-09 season, his true emergence can be traced to one single moment: in the instant-classic triple overtime playoff game vs. the Celtics, Noah stole the ball from Paul Pierce, galloped down the court, and slammed it home for a Bulls win, extending the series to a 7th game.
Ultimately, Kikuchiyo proves himself a fearless and invaluable warrior who not only bridges the class gap between the warriors and farmers, but sacrifices himself in the end, in order to kill the ruthless and dishonorable bandit chief. From clown to hero, Kikuchiyo lives on forever by committing himself to a noble cause, selflessly putting his life on the line for the prosperity of the community. In four short years Joakim Noah has gone from a misunderstood, unpredictable, bow-tie wearing clown to an irrepressible force of power, grace, and wild emotion. His tireless work ethic and singular focus, with the help of the bald-headed, hard-nosed Taj Gibson, has turned the Bulls recent Frontcourt of Laughs™ (starring Tyrus Thomas, Tyson Chandler, Eddy Curry, etc.) into a formidable frontcourt of endless boards, harsh put-backs, and 15-footers. Channeling his anger within, like Mifune in his greatest performances, Joakim has finally arrived, and silenced the non-believers. Noah now stands tall as one of the game’s elite centers, roving the court like a vengeful samurai, decrying hypocrisy everywhere, ready to strike and defend, complete with ponytail bun.