Toshirô Mifune was among those defining actors who introduced American audiences to World Cinema in the ’50s and ’60s, literally a legend in his own time. Mifune put a face to the Japanese film industry, making that nation a major contributor to cinematic culture as well as movie entertainment.
Steven Okazaki’s engaging documentary, Mifune: The Last Samurai (2016), examines the actor’s life and career, including extensive interviews with associates and Mifune’s sons as well as many scenes and clips from his astounding filmography which ultimately included more than 170 film and television roles.
At 80 minutes, the Keanu Reeves-narrated doc seems too short for its intimidating, fascinating subject. But viewers may be moved to seek or rewatch some of Mifune’s great films for themselves. After all, movies (unlike those who make them) never die.
Okazaki quickly covers Mifune’s early life: his 1920 birth to Japanese parents in China, his reluctant role training fighter pilots near the end of WWII, and his entry into the acting profession in the desperate post-war years. Mifune is so identified with the samurai film niche, so Okazaki includes a fascinating background on the samurai sword-fighting genre (“chanbara”), dating back to silent film. Chanbara films were to Japanese cinema what Westerns were to Hollywood—certain blockbusters.
Most of Okazaki’s focus is on the actor’s collaboration with Akira Kurosawa, among the greatest filmmakers of all time. Together, they made 16 films in a 17-year span; the fifth was Rashomon (’50), which made both international icons. Three films later, The Seven Samurai (’54) spawned the U.S. remake The Magnificent Seven and its extensive sequels, including last year’s remake of a remake with Denzel Washington.
In Throne of Blood (’57), Kurosawa’s magnificent adaptation of Shakespeare’s Macbeth, Mifune had an unforgettable death scene; The Hidden Fortress (’58), a chanbara with comic touches, was an acknowledged inspiration for George Lucas’s Star Wars. Yojimbo (’61) was remade as A Fistful of Dollars by Sergio Leone, making a star of Clint Eastwood after spawning its own Kurosawa-Mifune sequel in Sanjuro (’62). Each of these receives particular attention, though Hidden Fortress in particular gets short shrift.
One famous Mifune film was Hiroshi Inagaki’s The Samurai Trilogy (’54-’56). Courted by American filmmakers, he starred with Charles Bronson, Alain Delon and Ursula Andress in Red Sun (’71), an unusually violent/comic Western for the time, and opposite Lee Marvin in the WWII action drama Hell in the Pacific (’68). He and Christopher Lee did a funny joint cameo in Spielberg’s 1941. Mifune won an Emmy nod in 1981 for Best Actor in Shogun (’80).
Mifune’s range extended beyond the samurai and action genres, as his last film with Kurosawa—1965’s Red Beard—amply demonstrates. In his swan song for the great filmmaker, Mifune plays a clinic director in 19th-century Japan who mentors a young doctor. It’s a moving performance in a great film, but it marks the end of one of cinema’s most famous acclaimed director/actor relationships.
Okazaki does not plumb the causes of the rift, nor do any of the associates interviewed share specifics. (For an in-depth analysis of their working relationship, I recommend Stuart Galbraith IV’s 800-page-plus opus, The Emperor & the Wolf: The Lives & Films of Akira Kurosawa and Toshirô Mifune, published in 2002.) After Red Beard, however, the two parted in rancor and rarely communicated.
Toshirô Mifune died in 1997 from Alzheimer’s related causes. A gravely ill Kurosawa, who died nine months later, sent a moving letter to be read at Mifune’s funeral, excerpts from which fittingly conclude Okazaki’s film.
Kurosawa wrote: “We were part of the golden age of Japanese cinema together. When I look back at each and every film, I couldn’t have made them without you. You gave so much of yourself … For one last time, over a bottle of sake, I wish I could have told you all this. Goodbye, my friend. I’ll see you soon.”
Not a bad send-off.