‘Mifune: The Last Samurai’: How Japan’s Greatest Actor Changed Cinema Across the Globe
Steven Okazaki’s new documentary pays tribute to Japanese matinee idol Toshiro Mifune, whose iconic performances in films like Seven Samurai and Rashomon still influence cinema today.
On the Mount Rushmore of International Actors, there must invariably be a place for Toshiro Mifune, the Japanese leading man who on Monday—in a move long overdue, given that such honors had previously gone to the likes of Kim Kardashian, Shrek, John Tesh, Absolut Vodka and President-Elect Donald Trump—finally received his star on the Hollywood Walk of Fame. The actor, whose professional life was equally marked by prolificacy and quality, died in 1997 at the age of 77 from Alzheimer’s-related complications. However, his legacy lives on through his imposing body of work, which was highlighted by his 17 collaborations with auteur Akira Kurosawa. His was a career full of performances that combined stoic stillness and fiery animalistic expressiveness, and come next Friday, it’ll receive a fitting tribute from a compelling new documentary, Mifune: The Last Samurai.
Writer/director Steven Okazaki’s non-fiction film is far less flashy than its subject, a dashing and charismatic matinee idol who helped redefine Japanese—and, by extension, world—cinema beginning in the 1940s, and in particular, with 1950’s groundbreaking Rashomon. Okazaki spends considerable time discussing that masterpiece, in which Mifune’s unbridled performance as a possible killer and rapist serves as the dramatic lynchpin of director Akira Kurosawa’s haunting, open-ended meditation on the nature of truth. Unlike Mifune’s magnetic turn in that classic, forever marked by his cackling grin as he sits tied up in front of a panel of judges, Okazaki’s portrait—narrated, soberly, by Keanu Reeves—is measured and composed, sacrificing anything like aesthetic daring in its recounting of Mifune’s rise to superstardom.
That ascension was anything but preordained, since for much of his early life, Mifune didn’t seem to consider acting a potential vocation. Raised in China, Mifune first set foot on Japanese soil after being drafted into the Imperial Army during World War II at the age of 20. Even during his service, his dynamic force of personality was evident, as his son Shiro recalls in Mifune that his father repeatedly found himself in trouble because of his fondness for questioning authority—a severe no-no in the stricter-than-strict Japanese military, which often resulted in him being beaten with leather shoes by his superiors. Once the war was over, Mifune applied for a job as a camera assistant, and as luck would have it, his resume eventually found its way into a newspaper-advertised competition for cinema’s “New Face”—which, in turn, brought him to the attention of Kurosawa.
Mifune’s opening twenty minutes provide background on the 1900 to 1920s popularity of Japanese lone-samurai movies (dubbed “chanbara,” because that was the sound made by ronin’s clashing swords), and the way in which Mifune arrived on a cultural scene that—following the nation’s WWII defeat—was eager for a fresh, vibrant, non-conformist take on traditional material. That came courtesy of Mifune and Kurosawa’s work together, and in particular, from both Rashomon and, shortly thereafter, 1954’s Seven Samurai, whose bold, realistic action upended genre conventions. Okazaki’s clips from that epic lend credence to his claim that Mifune’s performance style was borderline revolutionary, vacillating between coiled calmness and rampaging ferocity to spellbinding effect. When his frequent co-star Kyoko Kagawara (herself a participant in greats like Tokyo Story, The Crucified Lovers and Sansho the Bailiff) states, “There was no one like Mifune. How do I say this? He had a big presence didn’t he?,” it comes across as a vast understatement. And moreover, it doesn’t even take into account the fact that, as confirmed by myriad archival photos, he was also a strikingly handsome man who married the debonair style of Clark Gable with the sexualized cool of Steve McQueen.
Steven Spielberg (who directed Mifune in 1941) and Martin Scorsese soon appear in Mifune to wax poetic about the star, and in the latter’s comments about the inevitable end of director/star relationships, one can sense that he’s also referencing his long-standing personal/artistic bond with Robert De Niro—which, like Mifune and Kurosawa’s did, has petered out over the years as both have sought new creative avenues and collaborative partnerships. Their comments provide an outsider’s perspective on Mifune’s cinematic impact, which included starring in movies that influenced The Magnificent Seven (Seven Samurai), A Fistful of Dollars (Yojimbo), and Star Wars (The Hidden Fortress), and in doing so helped thrust Japanese cinema into the international spotlight.
Contracted to Toho Studios—which spearheaded Japanese cinema’s 1950s to 1960s “golden age” thanks to Kurosawa’s films and the Godzilla franchise—Mifune worked tirelessly, eventually appearing in over 160 features, as well as a number of late-career TV projects designed to keep his struggling production company afloat. Through it all, as recounted by numerous interviewees in Mifune, the actor was a diligent and dedicated castmate on the set, and a funny and charming individual off it—even if his drinking habits were somewhat notorious (in a funny bit, Reeves mentions Mifune’s fondness for alcohol and cars, followed by pictures of some of his drunk driving-destroyed autos). Even though an affair ultimately tarnished his image at home, driving him to pursue projects in America and elsewhere, his status as Japan’s most important actor has never waned. And as evidenced by the footage on display throughout Okazaki’s documentary, his output with Kurosawa—including the phenomenal Macbeth adaptation Throne of Blood (and its death scene, featuring slews of real arrows), The Bad Sleep Well, High and Low, and Red Beard—resulted in some of the medium’s greatest achievements.
Of course, Mifune made sterling films with others, including Hiroshi Inagaki’s Samurai Trilogy and Kihachi Okamoto’s The Sword of Doom. Yet it’s his Kurosawa collaborations that have best stood the test of time, given that—when viewed as a whole—they provided the finest platform for the actor’s varied, majestic talents. Whether playing characters of bottled-up reserve or full-throated inhibition, Mifune radiated a primal, physical intensity, such that his own movements (balletic and imposing at times; methodical and calculating at others) seemed to infect everything surrounding him in the movie frame. Spielberg says that it felt as if Mifune’s performances were “created by seismic activity underground”—and in everything from Hollywood’s science-fiction blockbusters to its revisionist Westerns, the reverberations of his unparalleled artistry can still be felt at the multiplex to this day.