Mifune: The Last Samurai (2015)

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To view the work of Toshirô Mifune on FIlmStruck, click here.

A quick search of Filmstruck brought up an impressive 24 films featuring the late great Toshirô Mifune including Drunken Angel (1948), Stray Dog (1949), Rashomon (1950), Seven Samurai (1954), Throne of Blood (1957), The Bad Sleep Well (1960), Yojimbo (1961), Red Beard (1965) and Samurai Rebellion (1967). Mifune was a giant in the world of Japanese cinema and although I’ve written a little bit about his background in the past in pieces such as Toshiro Mifune, Japan’s John Wayne and in my review of his first film, Snow Trail (1947), I wanted to know more about the man who had appeared in so many of my favorite Japanese films. My curiosity led me to recently watch Mifune: The Last Samurai (2015). This 80-minute-long feature directed by Steven Okazki and narrated by Keanu Reeves is the first documentary to offer a careful examination of Mifune’s life and work. It is not available on FilmStruck at the moment but Mifune: The Last Samurai is a nice companion piece to their current programming and should be of interest to anyone who wants to know more about the rich history of Japanese cinema.

Using a combination of archival footage, film clips and interviews with family members, friends and coworkers, Mifune: The Last Samurai attempts to provide viewers with a comprehensive look at the actor as well as the man and his place in film history. Beginning with a brief overview of the Japanese film industry before WWII, we’re introduced to Mifune’s who was born on April 1, 1920 to Methodist missionaries living in China. Despite his upbringing in Manchuria, Mifune was educated at Japanese schools in China where he studied karate, archery and swordsmanship; skills that would eventually help mold his screen persona. Mifune was also a rebellious and outspoken kid who got into lots of fights but his unruly nature would become an adult character trait and endear him to millions of movie fans.

Mifune seemed destined to follow in his father’s footsteps and take up photography for a living but in 1939 he was drafted into the Imperial Japanese Army Air Service. Mifune visited Japan for the first time to commence his military training where he served as part of the aerial photography unit. Towards the end of the war he was transferred to the tokkōtai (special attack unit) where he trained young kamikaze pilots, some just children as young as 15. When the war ended Mifune’s battlefield experiences haunted him and he often referred to that period in his life as a “nightmare.” Family members recall that he would tear-up and openly weep when speaking about the war. Their intimate stories provide the film with some much-needed gravitas and paint a sensitive portrait of a complex man who has been defined by the resilient warriors and macho men he played on screen.

Still determined to take up photography, Mifune began working as a camera operator at Toho studios in 1947. He hoped that he would eventually become a cinematographer or a director but his plans were disrupted when friends and coworkers entered his photo in a Toho talent contest looking for “new faces” to star in films. As I wrote in my 2015 review of Snow Trail:

“Mifune’s smoldering good looks and commanding presence made him highly attractive to filmmakers. He won the contest along with 48 other contestants (over 4000 would-be actors entered) and cautiously agreed to appear in Snow Trail but Mifune wasn’t keen on changing careers. Throughout filming he eagerly continued to work with the camera department lugging heavy equipment across the rough mountainous terrain but his labor was for naught. When Snow Trail opened in Japan in the summer of 1947, Mifune’s fate was sealed. The hesitant actor became a star overnight and despite a few minor exceptions, he would spend the rest of life in front of the camera instead of behind it.”

Regrettably, the documentary doesn’t spend much time discussing Mifune’s early life and career. Instead, it focuses on his work with Akira Kurosawa and the samurai films they made together. Rashomon (1950), Seven Samurai (1954), Throne of Blood (1957) and Yojimbo (1961) are singled out along with the popular Samurai Trilogy Mifune made with Hiroshi Inagaki. The limited scope of the Mifune: The Last Samurai restricts the dialogue around Mifune’s career and narrows our appreciation of his talents instead of broadening them, which is a shame. While it’s interesting to hear Martin Scorsese and Steven Spielberg discuss Mifune’s influence, physical acting attributes and animal agility (Mifune allegedly studied lions to perfect his samurai moves), the most interesting insights about these films come from Mifune’s Japanese costars and intimate friends.

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The documentary also briefly glosses over the Hollywood and European films he appeared in such as Grand Prix (1966), Hell in the Pacific (1968) and Red Sun (1971). Spielberg does get the opportunity to discuss working with Mifune on 1941 (1979) but it’s a shame that the filmmakers didn’t seek out interviews with more of the directors and actors he worked with. I’m sure Alain Delon or Eva Marie Saint as well as director John Boorman would have had some interesting things to say about Mifune.

One of the most surprising things I learned from the documentary was that Mifune, much like his Grand Prix costar James Garner, loved cars and enjoyed motorsports in his spare time. Footage of Mifune participating in races along with photos of his impressive car collection show a side of the man that I don’t think many American film fans are familiar with but there was a dark side to his obsession with automobiles. Mifune’s weakness was alcohol and he drank excessively. This led him to drive drunk on numerous occasions and he was frequently involved in car accidents. The crashes were so brutal that they destroyed vehicles but he was able to walk away from them. These darker aspects of Mifune’s character are never fully explored.

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As the documentary winds to its finish we’re provided with clues to two mysteries that have plagued Mifune’s fans. Why did he stop working with Akira Kurosawa after making Red Beard in 1965? And what killed him in 1997? We may never get a satisfactory answer to the first question but it’s now clear that severe Alzheimer’s disease played a significant role in his declining career and eventual death.

Mifune: The Last Samurai presents an ambiguous portrait of an actor who was a mystery to many and remains frustratingly abstruse, even after the credits role. This is partially due to the traditional culture that Mifune and his peers were raised in that discourages individuals from expressing their feelings and thoughts. From my own experience, I know that elder Japanese typically prefer to keep personal information private, but some blame must be put on the filmmakers who don’t seem able or willing to dig deep and provide a more in-depth and well-rounded portrait of Japan’s most beloved actor. Despite these criticisms, I highly recommend the documentary to anyone who wants to get a better understanding of Mifune and Japanese film history. The interviews with his costars and family members are priceless and provide a much needed first step in understanding Mifune and the incredible body of work he left behind.

Kimberly Lindbergs

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4 Responses Mifune: The Last Samurai (2015)
Posted By Doug : June 29, 2017 6:28 pm

Thank you, Kimberly, for this fine post about an actor who has mostly just remained a name to me-as I’ve noted before, I don’t get out much regarding world cinema. Children in 20 years will never know a time when they didn’t have all of the world’s films at their fingertips.
I am not a ‘word nazi’ but your post was so well written that I noticed when you intended to write ‘endear’ and it came out ‘endure’.
It’s sad to hear that Mifune had a problem with alcohol-many of Hollywood’s best talents shared that demon.

Posted By Kimberly Lindbergs : June 29, 2017 7:04 pm

Thanks, Doug. Glad you enjoyed the post. As for the typo, wish my editor had caught it but I’ll pass on the correction.

Posted By Mr. Memory : June 29, 2017 9:57 pm

Kimberly, the reason Mifune stopped working with Kurosawa was that Kurosawa kept delaying Red Beard all of the time, preventing him from being in other movies because of the beard he had to grow to play the person of the title. They had an argument despite finishing Red Beard,and decided to never work with each other again after that. Was suprised to hear that he was an alchoholic, and that he loved cars a lot.

What we need to see is a documentary about Mifune that’s in three parts, and covers all of his life and roles, with all of the interviews that you mentioned (perhaps we can see it on PBS?)

Posted By Kimberly Lindbergs : June 29, 2017 10:09 pm

Interesting bit of info about Mifune’s beard, ‘Mr. Memory’ but that seems like such a minor reason to disregard a working relationship that had been so rewarding, especially since the two men continued to work apart for deacades. The documentary hints that Kurosawa’s struggles with depression including suicide attempts, etc. may have contributed to their falling out as well but among Mifune’s family & friends, there seems to be no singular explanation.

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