A glaring injustice of the Internet pops up when you Google Image search”Toshiro.” Your screen fills with a sea of shots of a bleached-blond anime character.
Film fans know there is but one Toshiro, the legendary Japanese film star Toshiro Mifune who “reinvented the modern movie hero” with his strong, silent man of violence in films such as “Yojimbo,” “Sanjuro,” “The Hidden Fortress” and “Seven Samurai.”
The world is ready to be reminded that there’d be no Clint, no Costner, no Denzel or “Star Wars,” not in an iconic sense, without Mifune. Steven Okazaki‘s film “Mifune: The Last Samurai,” rounds up people who worked with him and filmmakers inspired by him for interviews. And even if it is too brief and leaves too much out to be “definitive,” it serves up heaping helpings of Mifune’s film work and bits of home movies and the like to create a fascinating man-behind the stoic face/samurai icon below-the-topknot portrait of Mifune, Japan’s biggest movie star from the 1950s to the 80s, Japan’s first international film star thanks to 1950’s “Rashomon.”
That 1950 Akira Kurosawa classic, one of the greatest film ever made, tells the story of a rape and murder in feudal Japan from three points of view. Mifune, as the bandit accused of the crimes, studied caged lions to figure out how to play Tajomaru, a stalking, manic opportunist who animates the screen like few characters in movie history.
Co-stars such as frequent collaborators Kyoko Kagawa and Takeshi Kato may not add much to our understanding of the man or his methods. There’s a circumspect discretion to Japanese culture that makes such interviews stop short of “tell-all” or confessional. That partly explains Okazaki’s failure to include any of the rare Mifune interviews extant (you can find them on Youtube).
He acted almost constantly during his peak years, scores of films back-to-back-to-back. He drank. A lot. He loved sports cars. He cheated on his wife and was scandalized.
But there’s no revelation of why he and the director who made him famous, Kurasawa (“Throne of Blood,” “Seven Samurai,” sixteen collaborations in all) fell out. If Mifune was loyal enough to stand on set without insurance as under-trained college archers fired real arrows at him for the legendary death scene in Kurosawa’s “Throne of Blood,” why weren’t they there for each other when the hard times hit in the 1970s?
Details of Mifune’s early life are filled in mostly by his son Shiro Mifune. Born in China to Japanese parents, he never set foot in Japan until he was drafted in World War II. The son is disingenuous about his father’s service — he was a reconnaissance pilot from 1941 to the end of the war, when he trained green young flyers to be kamikaze pilots.
Steven Spielberg and Martin Scorsese profess admiration for the stillness that Mifune discovered was his great gift to the screen, the “steadfastness, integrity and…samurai spirit” that Mifune came to embody. The sunniest anecdotes in the movie are Spielberg’s memories of working with Mifune and the great British character actor Christopher Lee in the WWII comedy “1941.” Mifune, hilariously earnest and deadpan in samurai comedies like “Yojimbu,” would only break up after Spielberg yelled “Cut!” He got the joke. He was in on it.
But “Mifune” does miss those semi-candid TV interviews that might have revealed more of the man, off camera. “Hidden Fortress” inspired George Lucas to make “Star Wars,” and Lucas offered Mifune the role of Obi Wan Kenobi, and, Mifune’s daughter adds, Darth Vader in that film. A Lucas interview is conspicuous in its absence.
Okazaki gives us a fascinating 20 minute history of Japanese cinema and the samurai swordfighting (“chanbara”) genre to open “Mifune,” some welcome context. You may not know that the U.S. occupation forces in Japan banned samurai pictures for seven years after the war, and that “Seven Samurai” was the doozy Kurosawa dreamed up and clung to until he and Mifune could make it in 1954, after the ban was lifted.
Still, in an 80 minute film, we need more of the man it’s about. And as appropriate as Keanu Reeves is as the narrator, with his martial arts movie fixation and Mifune-inspired turn in “The Matrix” movies and others, academics and critics were needed to do a better job in summing up the actor’s place in Japan and cinema iconography.
He was John Wayne, Jackie Chan, Clint Eastwood, Burt Lancaster and Bruce Willis, all rolled into one, starring in 182 films and TV shows of many genres, classing up American miniseries like “Shogun” and making even the his lesser ronin/samurai pictures worth watching.
And even though he’s been dead 20 years, he’s certainly more important to world culture than some svelt big-eyed anime character with ’80s pop star hair. If nothing else, “Mifune” is to be celebrated for remedying that.
MPAA Rating: Unrated, with samurai swordplay, alcohol consumption
Cast: Kyoko Kagawa, Takeshi Kato, Haruo Nakajima, Shiro Mifune, Martin Scorsese, Steven Spielberg, narrated by Keanu Reeves
Running time: 1:20