Mi­fune

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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

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