MIFUNE: THE LAST SAMURAI (2015)

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 Kazaki and narrated by Keanu Reeves is the first documentary to offer an examination of the actor’s life and work. 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 overview of the actor as well as the man and his place in film history.

Following a brief overview of the Japanese film industry before WWII, we’re introduced to Mifune who was born on April 1 in 1920 to Methodist missionaries living in China. Despite his upbringing in Manchuria, Mifune was educated at Japanese schools where he studied karate, archery, and swordsmanship; skills that would eventually help mold his screen persona. Mifune was a rebellious and outspoken kid who got into lots of fights but his unruly nature would become an adult character trait that would 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 personally 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 was 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 to eventually become a cinematographer or director but his plans were disrupted when friends and coworkers entered his photo in a Toho talent contest. 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 em>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 exceptions, he would spend the rest of life in front of the camera instead of behind it.”

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Regrettably, the documentary doesn’t spend much time discussing the actor’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 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 his lasting 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.

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 is 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 car races along with photos of his impressive auto collection present an aspect of the man’s character 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 relatively unscathed.

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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 is 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 despite the filmmaker’s attempts to document his career. This is partially due to the traditional Japanese 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 the beloved actor even if that would involve speculation on their part.

Despite my 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.

by Kimberly Lindbergs, originally written for FilmStruck and published on June 29, 2017