MIFUNE: THE LAST SAMURAI, documentary, not rated, Jean Cocteau Cinema, 3 chiles
Perhaps the most acclaimed Japanese actor of his day, Toshirô Mifune wasn’t actually the last samurai so much as cinema’s most enduring one. But it would be nigh impossible to discuss his career, which included such enduring classics as Yojimbo, Seven Samurai, and
Throne of Blood, without delving into his relationship with director Akira Kurosawa. As actor Keanu Reeves explains in his narration for Mifune: The Last Samurai, Toho Studios, the production company that created
Godzilla, made giant monsters and samurai legends popular all over the world. Many of the latter films were directed by Kurosawa and starred Mifune in the 1950s and ’60s, a golden age of Japanese cinema. “Without them there would have been no Magnificent
Seven, Clint Eastwood wouldn’t have A Fistful of Dollars, and Darth Vader wouldn’t be a samurai,” says Reeves. Mifune embodied the samurai spirit in his acting — steadfast and stoic, the epitome of the action hero.
Director Steven Okazaki’s film is focused on Mifune’s personal life and on his acting career. Mifune was born in China to Japanese nationals in 1920. His father was a struggling commercial photographer. Mifune went to a Japanese school and learned skills he would later employ in his films, including karate and swordsmanship. He wouldn’t see Japan until the age of twenty, when he was drafted into the Japanese army during World War II. We learn from interviews with Mifune’s children that his job near the end of the war was to train boy soldiers, many who hadn’t reached puberty yet, for combat missions. Knowing the inexperienced youth would likely not survive and being of a rebellious nature, Mifune encouraged them to say goodbye to their families before they said “banzai” for the emperor of Japan.
After the war, movies became a popular pastime as Japan struggled with impoverishment. Mifune hoped to be a cameraman, but his commanding presence and handsome face made him a natural to grace the silver screen. By the late 1940s, he was becoming a dominant presence in Japanese film. The first Kurosawa-scripted picture he did was Snow Trail (1947). Kurosawa, who recognized raw talent in Mifune, would go on to create increasingly challenging roles for him in later films. Together, they made The Hidden Fortress (1958), Sanjuro (1962), and 14 other films. Mifune also worked with other directors, notably Hiroshi Inagaki, who directed him in three films known as the Samurai Trilogy in the 1950s. But Mifune’s long-running collaboration with Kurosawa provides the bulk of this short documentary’s focus and analyses.
Okazaki seems less interested in the man than in the samurai figures he created. The personality traits and motivations of Mifune get lost in the details, and in the end he remains more abstract than the characters he brought to life. Major characteristics and events, like his notoriously expensive tastes, a fondness for drinking, and a decades-long estrangement from his wife after he had a brief affair, feel almost like asides. Despite plenty of engaging footage from Mifune’s and Kurosawa’s films, the narration and talking-head format is somewhat dry. Mifune and Kurosawa ended their collaboration after 1965’s Red Beard, but the interviewees — a long list that includes directors Steven Spielberg and Martin Scorsese, producer Hisao Kurosawa, Godzilla actor Haruo Nakajima, and other Toho regulars — offer little more than speculation as to why. Mifune: The Last Samurai makes its case for why Mifune is an enduring film icon, but struggles to find an emotional center. The actor, it seems, was most real when he was playing a role, and the film is best viewed as a cinematic history lesson and is more insightful for that purpose. The Jean Cocteau is using the documentary’s national release as an opportunity for a mini Mifune film fest, and are showing Throne
of Blood (1957) and Seven Samurai (1954) starting on Friday, Jan. 6. — Michael Abatemarco
Sharp-dressed man: Toshirô Mifune
Mifune, left, and Akira Kurosawa on the set of Seven Samurai