His presence is nothing short of mesmerizing; his energy, according to actress Yoko Tsusaka, “..seemingly boundless, like the ocean. And just as turbulent.” His performances were a masterclass in both restrained and unbridled passionate film acting. He is, with no exaggeration, the end-all and be-all of Japanese movie stars, a giant in world cinema. You can’t look away whenever he’s on camera. As Martin Scorsese describes him, “he paces like a lion. An animal he actually studied…”. He was Toshiro Mifune, the subject of the new documentary Mifune: The Last Samurai from Strand Releasing, available now on Netflix.
Bringing together archival stills and never-before-seen silent movie selects, as well as an abundance of Mifune film clips and interviews with the actor’s contemporaries and filmmakers Steven Spielberg and Martin Scorsese, Mifune: The Last Samurai is a treasure trove of riches for the fan, as well as an irresistible good time for viewers who may not be familiar with the towering figure from Toho Studios.
At his height, Toshiro Mifune was the biggest star in Japan, equaled only by, truth-be-known, Godzilla. As narrator Keanu Reeves states, without Mifune there would be no modern movie hero, no Magnificent Seven, no Clint Eastwood, and no Darth Vader. (Mifune himself was originally approached by George Lucas to play Obi-Wan Kenobi. He was advised by his American agent to turn the offer down. Hope that guy regrets his decision – because – holy crap – what an amazing performance for the ages that would have been!).
But his humble beginnings from 1920 through the second World War belie the cold, formal and respectful themes that Mifune would come to embody. Born of Japanese parents, he spent his first two decades in China, where his family lived and worked. His father was a portrait photographer, and the infant Toshiro had more than his fair share of baby-on-bare-skin-rug photos. Once he migrated to Japan, he was immediately impressed into the military. A rebellious twenty-something, he was physically and mentally abused by his teachers and superiors for that now-famously powerful voice and his long, intimidating gaze. Near the end of the War, as Japan was badly suffering, he was promoted to Sergeant, where he instructed painfully young pilots (some not even past puberty) as they resolutely dive bombed to their death. Even then, his rebellious nature instructed the boys not to shout “Banzai” as instructed by the Emperor, but instead, to think of their families.
His gruff but kind demeanor would follow him through his life. After the war, he sewed his only blanket together as a suit, and made his way to Toho Studios in hopes of training as an Assistant Cameraman, thanks to an education in his father’s photography studio. But his striking good looks distracted the filmmakers who forced him in front of the camera, where he became an unlikely actor.
The documentary’s main theme, more than just Mifune’s trials and tribulations, is about his conjoining with kindred spirit, master director Akira Kurosawa, who found Mifune to be the projection of everything the director wanted to be. Plucking him from small parts, the director who never compromised, immediately cast the powerful man in early noir inspired dramas. (One of many interesting bits of takeaway from the fim is the fact that after the US occupation, Japan was forbidden to make Chambara (sword play) films for seven years. This was like denying a musician the ability to write music.)
From the earliest days of film, Japan had a rich history of producing “chambara” stories ( the word comes from the sound the Japanese believe sword battle makes); balletic and highly choreographed set pieces that focused more on movement and dance than actual force. The doc offers several gloriously restored clips from the teens and ‘20s that further cement the power and brilliance of Japanese cinema from the very dawn of the medium. With the sword fighting prohibition in full force, Kurosawa plotted and planned, so that when the ban was lifted, he dove into Rashomon, a Chambara film unlike the world had ever seen. Telling the story of a rape and murder from four different points of view, Kurosawa called on his avatar Mifune to portray a roadside criminal with the brute force and majesty of a caged animal. And as Spielberg puts it, Mifune’s performance was earthy and seismic, as if he drew his inspiration from the very core of his being.
While Kurosawa was a strict disciplinarian who controlled crew and cast with an iron hand, he gave little to no direction to Mifune, who became the director’s “brother-in-arms,” giving the director all he needed and more. The two made 16 films in the 19 years they collaborated, and each one stands the test of time. From his hilarious, unbridled and unexpected turn as the farmer-cum-samurai in the legendary Seven Samurai, to the mercurial but meditative doctor from Red Beard, there’s no question that the team’s greatest films were made when they worked together.
Sadly, The Last Samurai doesn’t offer an abundance of personal details. The filmmakers do interview Mifune and Kurosawa’s sons, and they are able to give historical data and some intimate reflections on their fathers; Mifune had two passions, drinking and cars, which he would sometimes do simultaneously, and a tense and estranged relationship with his wife, but other than being the children of celebrities, there is a dearth of new information.
No matter, since the filmography and resume of the two trailblazing icons is enough to satiate even the most curious. Spielberg discusses his own late-in-life discovery of Japanese cinema, learning that The Magnificent Seven was a remake of the titular Kurosawa offering, and he and Scorsese discuss not only the impact Westerns had on Japanese filmmakers, but also, the impression Kurosawa and Mifune made on the American genre itself. After Kuroswawa, American westerns developed choreography and movement, and ingenious ways to tell revisionist stories.
The most amazing sequence reveals how Kurosawa and Mifune shot the final scene from Throne of Blood, a stunning piece of action as Mifune, wearing armor, is inundated with arrows flying at him and into him. No spoilers here, but the actor willingly took his life in his hands for the director.
Later in Kurosawa and Mifune’s careers, they made the genre defining lone samurai films Yojimbo and Sanjuro. The director wanted to create something light and fun, and in turn, influenced Sergio Leone and Clint Eastwood; who were inspired to remake these films back as the westerns A Fistful of Dollars and A Few Dollars More. In fact, Mifune’s performances and Kurosawa’s storytelling have inspired everyone from Clint Eastwood to Bruce Willis in Die Hard, Tarantino’s Kill Bill series and really, almost every other action hero iteration since.
The real mystery, what caused the rift between Kurosawa and Mifune, is never completely revealed. Following Red Beard, they never saw each other again, although they continued to speak highly of one another to family and friends.
Post Kurosawa, Mifune’s appeal extended across the Pacific where he made several American films, not the least of which was John Boorman’s Hell in the Pacific , and the TV miniseries Shogun. He even appeared in the wacky Spielberg comedy 1941, where he got to show off his comic chops.
Mifune finally succumbed in 1997 due to an Alzheimer related illness. At his funeral, an ailing Kurosawa sent a letter to his friend, which was read out loud, and reveals the regret the director had for his rift with the actor, and brings poignancy to the end of the film. Kuroawa died just a year later in 1998.
Whether you’re an ardent fan of Mifune, or have even a casual interest, Mifune: The Last Samurai is a beautifully crafted, and powerful testament to the greatest actor to come from Japan’s Golden Age of Cinema.
Watch the trailer: