“Mifune: The Last Samurai”
The Legendary Actor
In his new film, Academy Award-winning filmmaker Steven Okazaki, explores the movie career of Toshiro Mifune, who made 16 remarkable films with director Akira Kurosawa during the Golden Age of Japanese Cinema (including “Rashomon”, “Seven Samurai” and “Yojimbo”). These films thrilled audiences and influenced filmmaking around the world and inspired moviemakers. Mifune’s performances are characterized by their raw, mesmeric power. Unfortunately, the same cannot be said about this documentary. Nonetheless, this is still an entertaining film but could have been so much more.
We get a chronological overview of Mifune’s life and career and there is a naturally heavy emphasis on his long-running collaboration with Akira Kurosawa, We learn of Mifune’s youth working in his father’s photography studio, his somewhat insubordinate military service during World War II, and his love of drink and cards. While these details are interesting, they are never integrated into a broader psychological portrait of Mifune who remains just as mysterious after watching Okazaki’s film as he was before. The interviews with those who knew and worked with him do not give much information and the interviewees do not speak about his work ethic and only speak in generalities about his character. Director Okazaki deals with Mifune’s major life events— his 20-year estrangement from his wife following a scandalous affair with a young actress and the couple’s subsequent reconciliation in the last years of their life, but does so only on the surface.
The film is more perceptive when it looks into the background of some of the actor’s best-known roles. Martin Scorsese, for example, says that Mifune studied the movement of lions for his feral performance as the bandit in “Rashomon”. Okazaki takes an extended look at Mifune’s famous death from “Throne of Blood”, a dangerous scene for which Kurosawa hired a bunch of barely trained college students to fire real arrows at the him and this shows the director’s commitment to Mifune. After all, Mifune was the man who made the director a star.
Mifune made 16 films with Kurosawa, beginning in 1948 with “Drunken Angel” through 1965 when the two men made “Red Beard” together and it was then that their working together ended. Okazaki does not give us a clear reason why the collaboration stopped. Scorcese says that perhaps they had just used each other up. The documentary does capture the impact this falling out had on Mifune, who became consumed by the demands of his own production company and turned to well-paid but often inferior international productions to finance his lifestyle.
The dynamic between between Mifune and Kurosawa animates the documentary and give it a sense of purpose making us forget the other shortcomings of the documentary. Okazaki seems to have a great deal of information including interviews, research, film clips, and archival stills, but he simply doesn’t seem to know what he wants to say with them.
The documentary’s focus is on the actor’s iconic roles, his contribution to world cinema and his legacy as one of the greatest film actors of all time. We see his discovery as an actor and then places him into the history of Japanese cinema, a place of esteem and high respect. While Mifune is the primary focus of the documentary, Akira Kurosawa’s story runs parallel to it. Their collaboration was so intense that the story of one cannot be told without the story of the other. Their relationship dominates a fair section of the film as behind the scenes stories are told about their biggest hits. Mifune’s peers speak about their time with him and the effect he had on all their lives. In between the anecdotes, Scorsese and Spielberg speak to their own experiences with the man and how his and Kurosawa’s films helped shape Hollywood’s own approach to cinema.
While it is very enjoyable and educational to hear the stories and see the film clips from Mifune’s filmography, the documentary does not go anywhere beyond the standard talking head format, and there is really not much attention paid to his life outside of cinema, until toward the end when he was of poor health. His film were such an important part of his life so in order to know the man, we must also know his movies and sometimes this kind of film is all one needs to celebrate such a great talent. This is definitely a film for fans and a terrific primer to introduce young filmmakers to Mifune.
Keanu Reeves, is the narrator and he starts with two sections that set the stage for Mifune’s career. The first stage reminds us of the long popularity in Japan of “chanbara” or sword-fighting movies and this is where going well back into the silent era. The second stage is when the industry was nationalized to make war propaganda films. This is where Kurosawa got his start with Mifune. After the war, what was left of the film industry was one of the few places people could still find work. Despite no great passion for it, Mifune fell into acting and Kurosawa recognized his natural talents and created and built building roles around him thus letting him have far more leeway than he granted most of his cast and crew. The results have spoken for themselves over and over again.