Kuwait Times - - LIFESTYLE -

Mi­fune: The Last Sa­mu­rai, a du­ti­ful and di­vert­ing but rather bare-bones doc­u­men­tary por­trait, opens with a se­ries of clips and pho­to­graphs of Toshiro Mi­fune, the scowl­ing-eyed Ja­panese ac­tor who be­came, in ef­fect, the world’s first ac­tion star. The first clip, from “Rashomon,” looks even more trans­gres­sive to­day than it did in 1950: It’s of Mi­fune’s scruffy me­dieval ban­dit forc­ing him­self at knife­point on a maiden he dis­cov­ers in the woods. In the other clips, we see him leap­ing, glow­er­ing, slash­ing, grunt­ing, cack­ling ma­ni­a­cally, fac­ing down armies of sword fight­ers, and ap­pear­ing just as volatile when he’s the vic­tim, twitch­ing to and fro like a gnarly de­mon as he evades a shower of ar­rows. The mon­tage ends with a pho­to­graph of what looks like a dif­fer­ent hu­man be­ing en­tirely: It’s Mi­fune re­lax­ing at home, el­e­gant and debonair, with a hand­some warm smile and eyes that crin­kle just so, his black hair slicked back in a way that makes him re­sem­ble a Ja­panese Rock Hud­son.

That im­age demon­strates some­thing pro­found about Mi­fune, and it also raises a fas­ci­nat­ing ques­tion about him. What it tells you is that the fe­ro­cious per­sona he pre­sented in films like “Seven Sa­mu­rai” (1954) and “Yo­jimbo” (1961) — the up­start lone-wolf swords­man, noble but a lit­tle ma­ni­a­cal, dom­i­nat­ing ev­ery sit­u­a­tion with an un­ruly en­ergy that erupted from within-was a fan­tas­ti­cally cal­cu­lated and art­ful cre­ation. You might say “Duh” (he was, af­ter all, an ac­tor), but in the movies, Mi­fune un­leashed him­self with such bru­tal spon­tane­ity that he seemed a force of na­ture, one who gath­ered his en­ergy from the earth it­self. Even now, the no­tion that his char­ac­ters were metic­u­lously de­vised seems, on some level, coun­ter­in­tu­itive.

Thrash­ing bal­letic majesty

“The Last Sa­mu­rai” al­lows the au­di­ence to re­live, film by film, the ex­plo­sive­ness of what Mi­fune achieved, or (for younger view­ers) to in­tro­duce them­selves to his thrash­ing bal­letic majesty. That’s a ser­vice­able thing, but the movie, nar­rated with zom­bie Zen sto­icism by Keanu Reeves, only rarely goes be­yond that. Steven Okazaki, who di­rected and edited it, takes you through a func­tional, slightly sketchy ver­sion of Mi­fune’s life and ca­reer-his child­hood in China (where his Ja­panese par­ents were mis­sion­ar­ies), his en­list­ment in the Ja­panese Im­pe­rial Army dur­ing World War II, dur­ing which he trained sui­cide bombers, and his at­tempt af­ter the war to make a liv­ing by be­com­ing an as­sis­tant cam­era­man. He fell into act­ing by ac­ci­dent, af­ter some­one sent his photo to a “New Faces” con­test, and he might have wound up as just an­other Tokyo mati­nee idol.

But it was his des­tiny, at Toho Stu­dios, to draw the at­ten­tion of Akira Kuro­sawa in the late ‘40s, right at the mo­ment when the al­ready pow­er­ful di­rec­tor, full of guilt at hav­ing worked on films that sup­ported the Ja­panese regime dur­ing the war, was set on cre­at­ing movies that ex­pressed his own re­bel­lious im­pulses. The time for bow­ing and scrap­ing in Ja­pan was done. Mi­fune didn’t bow-he was more like a war­rior who blew up in your face.

Kuro­sawa, by tem­per­a­ment, was an epic vis­ual clas­si­cist, but what he ex­pressed was some­thing modern and anar­chic: the ec­stasy of vi­o­lence, the un­knowa­bil­ity of truth, the in­ner thrum of the sa­mu­rai’s heart. “The Last Sa­mu­rai” shows you how Mi­fune be­came Kuro­sawa’s wild artis­tic id as surely as Robert De Niro was Martin Scors­ese’s in the ‘70s. Kuro­sawa trusted Mi­fune to be his col­lab­o­ra­tor, and rarely gave him di­rec­tion. It was up to the ac­tor to cre­ate his own char­ac­ters, which he did through moun­tains of prepa­ra­tion, forg­ing these rogues from the in­side out. In “The Last Sa­mu­rai,” even his fight chore­og­ra­pher, Kanzo Uni-a man who was killed on­screen by Mi­fune more than 100 times-tes­ti­fies that dur­ing a scene, when Toshiro would come at him with his blood­thirsty gri­mace and eye­balls peeled, it was gen­uinely in­tim­i­dat­ing.

Caged an­i­mal

All of this opens the door to a ques­tion about Mi­fune the film never an­swers: Where did his drive and ob­ses­sion-his in­ner fury as an ac­tor­come from? Ac­cord­ing to Scors­ese, who is in­ter­viewed in the doc­u­men­tary along with Steven Spiel­berg, Mi­fune stud­ied the move­ments of lions, which re­sulted in his abil­ity to con­jure the aura of a caged an­i­mal. But he was an un­tamed hu­man an­i­mal too: Once he got to be a star, he in­dulged his pas­sions, like cars and al­co­hol (which he mixed to de­struc­tive ef­fect). One of Mi­fune’s two sons re­lates the story of how his fa­ther, when drunk, would wave a sword around in the liv­ing room, a sight he de­scribes as “scary.” Mi­fune would also motor past Kuro­sawa’s house to yell things like “Damn you!” (the first and last we hear of any con­flict be­tween them), and there’s a quick men­tion of how he would pick fights with gang­sters. As pre­sented, though, these amount to quaint comic wisps of bad be­hav­ior that give us only the vaguest sense of who Mi­fune was or the demons he grap­pled with.

“The Last Sa­mu­rai” goes back to the silent era of the Ja­panese chan­bara film, with its kabuki­in­spired sa­mu­rai, and to one as­ton­ish­ing clip of a movie called “Chokon,” in which the white­faced hero, look­ing as ghoul­ishly pos­sessed as Lon Chaney, re­vives his own spirit by lit­er­ally lick­ing the blood of his en­e­mies off his sword. That’s the tra­di­tion that Mi­fune and Kuro­sawa were tak­ing off from, but Kuro­sawa was a rev­o­lu­tion­ary of hell­bent re­al­ism. On the set of “Seven Sa­mu­rai,” chastis­ing an ac­tor for a corny death scene, the di­rec­tor said, “This is not just an­other sa­mu­rai film. It has to feel real.” And that’s how it felt: For ‘50s au­di­ences, it was as if the slash­ing macabre tin­gle of it all was re­ally hap­pen­ing.

In­sanely comic

In the as­ton­ish­ing cli­max to “Throne of Blood,” a scene filmed with­out in­sur­ance, those were real ar­rows be­ing shot at Mi­fune’s head (the archers were col­lege stu­dents, some of whom could barely aim), and Mi­fune was will­ing to dodge them out of trust and ac­torly art and maybe a lit­tle crazi­ness. That’s why the scene still ex­erts an awe­some graphic power: No spe­cial ef­fects could ri­val this prim­i­tive dance of death. Mi­fune was a one-man kamikaze bur­lesque show, as el­e­gantly sav­age as his fu­ture in­her­i­tor Bruce Lee, as dex­trous as Errol Flynn, as in­sanely comic as Curly from the Three Stooges, with a bombs-away ego all his own.

But you could also say that Mi­fune was, at times, a solip­sis­tic over­ac­tor who only rarely con­nected with any­one on screen. I wish that “The Last Sa­mu­rai” spent time ex­plor­ing his re­strained per­for­mance in “The Bad Sleep Well” (1960), Kuro­sawa’s cold dis­sec­tion of cor­po­rate crime. The doc­u­men­tary sum­mons a few haunt­ing mo­ments when it con­fronts the dis­so­lu­tion of Mi­fune and Kuro­sawa’s part­ner­ship af­ter they had made 16 films to­gether, a quiet breakup that wound up wreck­ing Kuro­sawa’s ca­reer far more than it did Mi­fune’s.

(Mi­fune was suc­cess­ful enough to turn down, on the ad­vice of his Amer­i­can agent, the role of Obi-Wan Kenobi in “Star Wars.”). Yet what “The Last Sa­mu­rai” barely fills in is the vast­ness of Mi­fune’s in­flu­ence.

He was a hur­ri­cane who blew away the land­scape that had come be­fore him. He was re­ally the first sa­mu­rai of ac­tion cinema, the one who cast his cross-cul­tural shadow over ev­ery­thing from the evo­lu­tion of the mar­tial-arts genre to East­wood and Bron­son. He had a qual­ity that “The Last Sa­mu­rai” evokes in clips yet leaves you want­ing to see ex­plored in a far more mem­o­rable way, and that was dan­ger. — Reuters

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