Mifune: The Last Samurai – New Documentary on Japan’s Greatest Actor

2 Dec

“Mifune: The Last Samurai” is a documentary on Japanese actor Toshiro Mifune that recently played at the IFC Center in New York. To fans of Japanese film, Mifune needs no introduction. He is easily the best Japanese film actor of all time and, to many of us, arguably the greatest film actor in history. He is best known, of course, for his starring roles in films by Akira Kurosawa (THE SEVEN SAMURAI, YOJIMBO), arguably the greatest Japanese director of all time, but he also made numerous films for other noted Japanese directors, including Hiroshi Inagaki (The SAMURAI trilogy), Masaki Kobayashi (SAMURAI REBELLION), Kihachi Okamoto (SAMURAI ASSASSIN), and Kinji Fukasaku (THE SHOGUN’S SAMURAI), among others. He also made films in Hollywood and Europe, including GRAND PRIX, HELL IN THE PACIFIC, RED SUN and MIDWAY. I’ve written about one of his films here, JAPAN’S LONGEST DAY. He’s got 182 acting credits on IMDB—both film and television–and they extend from 1947 to 1995, two years before he died.

“Mifune: The Last Samurai” focuses most closely on the actor’s collaborations with Kurosawa, but chiefly on five period roles, mostly set in feudal Japan: RASHOMON (1950), the tale of a rape and murder as told in conflicting accounts by the participants; THE SEVEN SAMURAI (1954), a groundbreaking epic about a motley group of wandering ronin (unemployed samurai) who band together to help farmers defend their village from bandits; THRONE OF BLOOD (1957), a retelling of Shakespeare’s “Macbeth,” transposed to 16th century Japan; YOJIMBO (1961), about a ronin-for-hire who gets involved in a conflict between rival factions in a remote town; and RED BEARD (1965), about a maverick doctor who tends to the poor in a rural village. These are all great movies, to be sure, and any coverage of them is going to interest fans of the actor and director, as well as provide an introduction for younger film fans who haven’t yet had the pleasure of seeing these films. However, it narrows the scope of the documentary and leaves us longtime fans wanting more. Still, filmmaker Steven Okazaki managed to get interviews with some significant personnel who worked on these films, including Kurosawa’s longtime script supervisor, Teruyo Nogami, and veteran swordfight choreographer Kanzo Uni, as well as actresses Kyoko Kagawa, Yoko Tsukasa, and Terumi Niki, and actors Yoshio Tsuchiya, Takeshi Kato, Yosuke Natsuki and Haruo Nakajima (who played the monster in GOJIRA the same year he appeared in THE SEVEN SAMURAI as a bandit). Also interviewed are Kaoru Yachigusa, Mifune’s leading lady in the Inagaki-directed SAMURAI Trilogy; Shiro Mifune, Mifune’s eldest son; Hisao Kurosawa, Kurosawa’s eldest son; director Sadao Nakajima; critic Tadao Sato; contemporary actor Koji Yakusho; and Hollywood directors Steven Spielberg and Martin Scorsese.

Haruo Nakajima in

Haruo Nakajima in “Mifune: The Last Samurai”

The film opens with clips from silent Japanese samurai films, including CHOKON (1926), which looks remarkably sophisticated in its action choreography for a film from that era. Its director, Daisuke Ito, was active until 1970.

Mifune’s war experience is described. He had grown up in China and his first trip to Japan was to take part in military service during the war. He was bullied and mocked by his superiors, who didn’t like his strong voice and cocky manner. As Sergeant Mifune, he trained kamikaze pilots and urged them to go off script and say goodbye to their mothers before embarking on their suicide missions.

We get a brief recounting of Mifune’s almost accidental move into acting at Toho Studios as part of the “New Face” competition of 1946. Kyoko Kagawa, a participant in that competition, tells part of the story.

Yoshio Tsuchiya says he made his film debut in THE SEVEN SAMURAI as one of the farmers and describes how Kurosawa instructed the two stars, Mifune and Takashi Shimura, to pal around with Tsuchiya off-camera to ease him into the on-camera camaraderie. Tsuchiya is famous to kaiju fans for his roles in numerous Godzilla movies and other Toho sci-fi movies and I wrote about him here in my coverage of GODZILLA VS. MONSTER ZERO, in which he played the Controller of Planet X.

Kurosawa gave no acting instructions to Mifune on his role as a brash peasant eager to join the samurai and left it entirely up to him as to how to play the role. Mifune researched the lives of farmers of the time and studied the movements of lions to get the right grasp of his character’s physicality.

As Tsuchiya and Nogami discuss THRONE OF BLOOD, we are told that the great climax in which Mifune’s character is under attack by waves of archers was shot without insurance and employed student archers who weren’t great shots and were given real arrows to shoot. The look of fear on Mifune’s face may not be acting.

Martin Scorsese compares the danger in that scene to the stunts of silent comedians Charlie Chaplin, Harold Lloyd, and Buster Keaton.

Yoko Tsukasa describes how she had to look for strong women’s parts at other studios, such as Shochiku, where Yasujiro Ozu worked, because Toho specialized in male-oriented films.

The actresses all have nice things to say about Mifune’s treatment of them and Kaoru Yachigusa recalls working on the SAMURAI trilogy with him.

Teruyo Nogami recalls that “Mifune was a poor soldier who became a movie star and was indebted to Kurosawa.”

After RED BEARD (1965), Kurosawa and Mifune never worked together again. Nogami suggests that Mifune’s employment in “overseas” film work had something to do with it, and some brief attention is given to his work in GRAND PRIX, HELL IN THE PACIFIC and RED SUN. Kurosawa’s career floundered afterwards and he didn’t make another film until 1970 and then basically made a film only once every five years until 1990, after which he made only two more films. He had something of an international comeback with KAGEMUSHA (1980), which was co-produced by George Lucas and Francis Coppola. All this is glossed over pretty quickly in the film and no definitive reason is given for why Mifune and Kurosawa never worked together again.

Mifune continued to make films and even formed his own company. He also branched out into television, starring in several Japanese TV series in the 1970s and ’80s, as well as the American miniseries, “Shogun” (1980). He played a role in Steven Spielberg’s homefront comedy, 1941 (1979), and Spielberg talks about that.

Some of those close to Mifune talk about his favorite hobbies, cars and alcohol, with the emphasis on his notorious drinking bouts. Mifune and Kurosawa died less than a year apart in December 1997 and September 1998, respectively.

What bothered me is that are no forceful personalities on camera to guide us through Mifune’s life. Everyone’s rather low-key and talking in hushed, reverent tones. It doesn’t help that the film is overlaid with somnambulistic English narration provided by Keanu Reeves. Where was Tatsuya Nakadai, Mifune’s frequent co-star, including in several of his Kurosawa films? Nakadai is around and has traveled to New York on more than one occasion to speak about his films. I saw him speak at Film Forum and Japan Society back in 2008. He would have been a forceful presence.

Why was there no interview footage of Kurosawa or Mifune? They both appeared on camera many times to talk about their films and careers. I remember seeing a TV documentary in the 1970s with Mifune speaking in English, filmed on a studio backlot of a Japanese village. There’s no mention on IMDB of that documentary and I don’t recall the name of it or the context in which it was shown. Criterion editions of Kurosawa films are filled with documentaries and interviews that would, presumably, have been available for excerpting. Granted, the clips from the main films chosen for emphasis in the documentary give us adequate glimpses of the forceful personalities of Mifune and Kurosawa, but interview footage would have strengthened the case.

In consulting Kurosawa’s short memoir, Something Like an Autobiography (Vintage Books, 1983), I find comparatively little attention paid to Mifune, with only his introduction to Mifune and his account of how he convinced Toho pick him as a winner in the New Face competition given much space. It’s just three pages, but it’s a great three pages. Here’s his description of Mifune’s natural talent as an actor:

Mifune had a kind of talent I had never encountered before in the Japanese film world. It was, above all, the speed with which he expressed himself that was astounding. The ordinary Japanese actor might need ten feet of film to get across an impression; Mifune needed only three feet. The speed of his movements was such that he said in a single action what took ordinary actors three separate movements to express. He put forth everything directly and boldly, and his sense of timing was the keenest I had ever seen in a Japanese actor. And yet with all his quickness he also had surprisingly fine sensibilities.

If Kurosawa had ever spoken about this in a filmed interview, that would have been worth including.

I also consulted Teruyo Nogami’s memoir, Waiting on the Weather: Making Movies with Akira Kurosawa (Stone Bridge Press, 2006), and she devotes nine pages to a sub-chapter entitled “Kurosawa and Mifune After Red Beard.” There’s a lot more to the story than what she suggested in the documentary and I’m wondering if the filmmaker had even read Nogami’s book before doing the interview and tried drawing her out on the subject. In the book, she even cites a 1975 TV documentary about Kurosawa in which Mifune interviews him, possibly their only screen collaboration after RED BEARD. Nogami writes:

Video footage of the interview shows how awkward and strained their conversation was. When Mifune held out his lighter to light Kurosawa’s cigarette in front of the Mosfilm studios, the gesture seemed somehow different from usual, as if he were saying farewell.

I also wonder why the documentary gives short shrift to so many other memorable Kurosawa-Mifune collaborations, including DRUNKEN ANGEL, STRAY DOG, THE QUIET DUEL, SCANDAL, I LIVE IN FEAR, THE HIDDEN FORTRESS, THE BAD SLEEP WELL, HIGH AND LOW, and SANJURO. Some of these films aren’t even mentioned, including HIGH AND LOW, which I think is on par with the other films emphasized in the documentary. It would have been great to hear Tatsuya Nakadai talk about HIGH AND LOW, YOJIMBO and SANJURO. Granted, I understand that the choice of the subtitle, “The Last Samurai,” narrows the focus of the film to the five period roles, but I don’t think audiences would complain if the scope had widened a bit.

I was happy to see the interviews with the four actresses. Three of them are in their eighties and one is in her sixties. The charisma they had on screen is still evident. I thought of Satoshi Kon’s animated drama, MILLENNIUM ACTRESS (2001), which is about the long career of a celebrated (fictional) Japanese film star. I was especially thrilled at the participation of Kyoko Kagawa who, despite the long list of prestigious classics in her filmography (SANSHO THE BAILIFF, CHIKAMATSU MONOGATARI, THE BAD SLEEP WELL, HIGH AND LOW, RED BEARD, etc.), will always hold a special place in my heart for her portrayal of the courageous newspaper photographer, Michi, in Ishiro Honda’s kaiju classic, MOTHRA (1961)

While the interview clips with the actresses are most welcome, I kept wondering how many great stories wound up on the cutting room floor (or the “delete” bin on the computer, as the case may be these days).

I recently watched GRAND PRIX (1966) for the first time. It’s Mifune’s first Hollywood film and it’s a drama about the famous Grand Prix racing event in Europe. Mifune plays a Japanese auto maker, Yamura, who hires a disgraced American racer, played by James Garner, to race for him.

Mifune has a few bits where he speaks Japanese—in his own voice—but when he speaks English, he’s dubbed in by Paul Frees, an American voice actor familiar to fans of Godzilla films because he frequently dubbed the voices of Japanese military and scientific authority figures for the English dub tracks of those films. It’s quite jarring to hear Frees’ voice, with its exaggerated Japanese accent, coming out of Mifune’s mouth. (Frees later dubbed Mifune’s lines in MIDWAY, 1976, which was just as jarring.) I would much rather Mifune had spoken his lines in Japanese and had an onscreen character serve as his interpreter, although that would have made an interminable film even longer.

Mifune only has three dialogue scenes with Garner, two of them very brief, and is only seen intermittently thereafter, usually cheering Garner on at the track as Garner races Yamura’s car to an ultimate victory. In their one big scene together at the automaker’s English estate, Mifune reveals to Garner that he’d been a fighter pilot during the war and had shot down 17 American planes. Garner responds that he respects him for coming to the point and Mifune says “You are here because you drive a car the way I conduct my business–you come right to the point.” Frankly, I’m curious how an American racer at the time would have responded. Granted, Japan had had its big coming-out party a couple of years earlier with the Tokyo Olympics, so there was a lot of “forgive and forget” going on, but I wonder how this scene would have played in a Hollywood film twenty years later.

Getting back to “Mifune: The Last Samurai,” the programmer at the IFC center has adorned the upstairs lobby, adjacent to the screening room showing the film, with posters and lobby cards from Kurosawa-Mifune collaborations, including ones not covered in the film.

As of this writing, “Mifune: The Last Samurai” is still playing at the IFC Center in Manhattan. Meanwhile, I have tons of Mifune films I still haven’t seen, including a few by Kurosawa, THE IDIOT, I LIVE IN FEAR and THE LOWER DEPTHS, all available, like most of the Japanese films discussed in this post, from the Criterion Collection. I’ve gotta get to work!

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3 Responses to “Mifune: The Last Samurai – New Documentary on Japan’s Greatest Actor”

  1. Lenny Moore December 2, 2016 at 4:22 PM #

    Is it due to both Kurosawa and Mifune being such private men that no one can give a definitive answer as to why they did not work together again after 1965? The break seemed to negatively impact both men creatively for quite some time. I quite enjoyed your post and the photos.

    • briandanacamp December 2, 2016 at 8:44 PM #

      Thanks, Lenny. I just re-read the portion of Nogami’s book about Kurosawa and Mifune after RED BEARD and it’s really hard to pin down what happened. Kurosawa used to tell interviewers in the west, “Mifune and I haven’t quarreled. It’s just that I’ve already done everything possible with him. There’s nothing left to do.” Even though that was meant to quell any further questioning, I wonder if there isn’t more than a kernel of truth in it. Maybe they’d just used each other up after such an intense 17-year collaboration.

  2. Edward Primus December 6, 2016 at 6:51 PM #

    Mifune was a great actor and you have done him justice, how come i never hear about these films until after you write. LOL, this is a great article

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