The image of Toshiro Mifune wielding a samurai sword, eyes glaring at his foe, is among the first images to come to most American filmgoers’s minds when they think about Japanese cinema. And rightfully so. Mifune is perhaps the only iconic Japanese actor to achieve international fame, and for a period in the 50s and 60s, he was the biggest movie star in Japan, thanks largely to a series of samurai epics directed by his frequent collaborator Akira Kurosawa. Together, they brought Japanese cinema onto the world stage.
Steven Okazaki’s “Mifune: The Last Samurai” is as much a documentary about the Golden Age of Japanese cinema as it is a tribute to its most celebrated star. After growing up in China, the son of Japanese parents, and serving indifferently in the Japanese army during World War II, Mifune had no thought of becoming an actor.
But desperate for a job, he applied to be a camera operator at the legendary Toho Studios and quickly found his true calling. At the same time, Kurosawa — emerging as a director and recognizing Mifune as a unique talent — started to create increasingly challenging roles for him. Starting with “Drunken Angel” in 1949, they collaborated on 16 films in 18 years.
Their first international success was “Rashomon” in 1950, the story of a murder and rape told from four different perspectives. To play the part of a thief and the accused assailant, Mifune studied the movements of a lion to capture the energy of a caged animal.
Mifune achieved the full heroic stature for which he would become known in Kurosawa’s epic “The Seven Samurai” (1955), using his powerful physicality to express anger and joy with a minimum of words. Insightful interviews with veteran actors and crew members (kind of a who’s who of Japanese cinema) explain how Kurosawa, normally a very exacting and controlling director, never told Mifune how to play a role but allowed him to develop the character himself.
Mifune followed “Samurai” up with perhaps one of the great dying scenes in cinema history in “Throne of Blood” (1957), Kurosawa’s adaptation of “Macbeth.” In a sequence in which the army turns against the king, Mifune allowed himself to be pummeled by real arrows. It was a dangerous scene performed without insurance, and Mifune’s colleagues speculate that he took the risk because of the loyalty and debt he felt towards Kurosawa for making him a star.
Mifune also worked with other top directors at Toho Studios, and in a four-year period from 1957-1961, he would appear in a staggering 27 films. Mifune went on to make other classics with Kurosawa — “The Lower Depths” (1957); “The Hidden Fortress” (1958), George Lucas’ inspiration for “Star Wars; and “Yojimbo” (1961) — but “Red Beard” (1965) would be their last film together. Interviewees offer various theories on why they parted, but Martin Scorsese puts it best when he suggests that after a while collaborators might “just use each other up.”
Scorsese and Steven Spielberg contribute some intelligent commentary to attest to the importance of the Mifune and Kurosawa’s samurai films to other filmmakers. Spielberg says the samurai films taught American directors how to be more operatic in telling stories. “A lot of [actors] try to imitate Mifune, especially when they are trying to be strong and silent, but nobody can. … He’s like Baryshnikov.”
The form of the documentary is pretty conventional, with a sleepy narration from Keanu Reeves, interspersed with stills and talking heads. There is some discussion of Mifune’s personal life and his two favorite hobbies: cars and alcohol. But the real highlights are the numerous rousing scenes from the films themselves that stir cinematic memories as only black and white clips can.
The real accomplishment of “Mifune: The Last Samurai,” and perhaps of any successful documentary about cinema history, is that it makes you want to run out and see the movies all over again.