Film Review: Mifune – The Last Samurai
A celebration of the greatest actor from the Golden Age of Japanese Cinema!
Doing the rounds of this year’s film festivals and screened at this year’s British Film Institute’s London Film Festival is ‘Mifune: The Last Samurai’, a new documentary directed by the Oscar winning Director Steven Okazaki (‘Days of Waiting’, ‘Unfinished Business’), produced by Toshiaki Nakazawa (‘13 Samurai’, ‘Hara Kiri: Death of a Samurai’ and ‘Departures’) and written collaboratively by Steven Okazaki and Stuart Galbraith IV (author of the book ‘The Emperor and the Wolf: The Lives and Films of Akira Kurosawa and Toshiro Mifune‘).
The film is broken down into a number of sections. The first covers the introduction of film to Japan by Lumière and the development of the ‘chanbara’ genre (sword fighting films) accompanied by some charming early film excerpts which started out as almost formalised dance routines borrowed from Japanese theatre and which later developed into more realistically choreographed sword fighting sequences. The second covers Mifune’s birth and family life in Manchuria and his father’s photography business, his conscription into the Japanese Army and his first experience of living in Japan during World War Two when he served as a despatcher for Kamikaze pilots, and his demobilisation into a starving and devastated post war Japan.
His ‘accidental’ entry into the actor’s profession is covered in the next section when he was enlisted by Kurosawa after having gone to Toho Studios in pursuit of a job as a cameraman’s assistant. It would seem that his raw emotional and physical potential had been instinctively recognised by Kurosawa who, though notorious for maintaining absolute control over everyone and everything involved in his films, allowed Mifune to develop his roles without Kurosawa’s usual constraints. Though untrained as a professional actor Mifune put in the utmost effort in researching and preparing for his roles. This section then goes on to cover his long time collaboration with Kurosawa as well as his work with other Directors. Given the importance of Kurosawa and Mifune’s collaboration in transforming Japanese cinema it might have been helpful, time permitting, had there been a more in depth analysis of their relationship.
However, that being said, some analysis and observations from interviewees is provided for a number of the films that they made together; ‘Rashomon’ (1950), ‘Seven Samurai’ (1954), and ‘Throne of Blood’ (1957) for instance, with an especially revealing section on how they managed to project such raw emotional content for Mifune’s final scenes in ‘Throne of Blood’, and the two films for which Mifune won Best Actor Prize at the Venice Film Festival; ‘Yojimbo’ (1961) and ‘Red Beard’ (1965). Many of Mifune’s colleagues, co-stars, and family members along with Martin Scorsese and Stephen Spielberg form an impressive cast of interviewees though there didn’t seem to be enough time, given the sheer volume of his output during his active career, to do more than simply provide many fascinating albeit brief anecdotes and observations about Mifune, with the occasional attempt at examining the character of the man behind the actor.
The section also covers the influence of their collaborative films on the non-Japanese cinema world and the making of foreign adaptations such as ‘The Magnificent Seven’ (1960) based on ‘Seven Samurai’, and ‘A Fistful of Dollars’ (1964) based on ‘Yojimbo’, and comes to an end in an almost MacGuffin like way with Mifune and Kurosawa going their separate ways, the reasons why remaining, in a quintessentially Japanese way, unexplained.
The penultimate section of the documentary covers the setting up of Mifune’s own Production company, a difficult time for him, with the creation of ‘predictable’ Japanese films and Mifune’s involvement with overseas film productions such as ‘Hell in the Pacific’ (1968), ‘Tora, Tora, Tora’ (1970), ‘Red Sun’ (1971) and ‘1941’ (1979). Film opportunities began to dry up and Mifune turned more and more to Japanese and overseas TV, though he turned down an offer from George Lucas to play Obi Wan Kanobi in ‘Star Wars’ (1977) and, though it was a Japanese-Western co-production, his appearance in the TV series ‘Shōgun’ (1980) was not well received in Japan mainly for the lack of subtlety in his portrayal of the character Toronaga.
The final section covers his increasing, decline in physical capacity and onset of illness, a period during which he was cared for by his eldest son and daughter-in-law and Mifune’s estranged ex-wife Sachiko until her death in 1995, with Mifune’s death following two years later. Perhaps the most moving part of the documentary is the reading of a brief section of a letter from Kurosawa about his relationship with Mifune which was read out at Mifune’s funeral which finally revealed something more than the ordinary about their relationship.
The documentary’s narrative works well for those who might find Stuart Galbraith IV’s book a somewhat daunting prospect, though those looking for the sort of analysis of Mifune that the book provides are likely to be somewhat disappointed. Perhaps the most insightful commentator is Teruyo Nogami, who was a Script Supervisor and later Production Manager on almost every Kurosawa film starting with ‘Rashomon’ (1950). The documentary succeeds more as an enjoyable romp in the company of the phenomenal actor that was Toshiro Mifune rather than an in depth analysis of the man. Thoroughly recommended.
‘Mifune: The Last Samurai’ 80 mins
In English and Japanese with English subtitles
Narrated by Keanu Reeves
General release date – 25 November 2016 (Mifune: The Last Samurai Facebook page)
International Sales Rep – Celluloid Dreams
Distributed in the USA by Strand Releasing
Video preview – https://vimeo.com/180739410
Mifune Productions website – http://mifuneproductions.co.jp/
Photos – Courtesy of Strand Releasing
Trevor Skingle was born and lives in London where he works in the field of Humanitarian Disaster Relief. He is a Japanophile and his hobbies are Kabuki, painting and drawing and learning Japanese.