Steven Okazaki (director)
BFI Film (studio)
18 March 2019 (released)
03 April 2019
This insightful documentary, narrated by Keanu Reeves, about Japan’s most successful ‘export’ Toshiro Mifune is a ‘must have’ for all his fans and admirers.
Toshiro Mifune was the best-known Japanese movie star of the 20th century and probably only one of a handful known to the Western public in general. A sad but true fact as the Japanese cinema has been in existence for as long as any other and truly as this documentary shows, deserves to be better known.
The documentary starts with the very early offerings of Japanese cinema – silent movies – and the then fashionable ‘Chanbara’ films, usually depicting stories about Samurais and Ronin. This first chapter is particularly interesting as it not only chronicles the rise of Japanese cinema per se but also focuses on cultural and political influences and censorship.
We then find out about the early life of Mifune who was actually born in China to Japanese parents. Later the family returned to Japan where Mifune had military training – the same as Akira Kurosawa. Both men would be emotionally scarred by the spoils of war and henceforth vowed not to give in to the traditional Japanese way of obedience. This ‘rebellious’ stance can be seen especially in Mifune’s collaboration with director Kurosawa as he almost always plays the part of the outsider. Mifune – like many of his fellow countrymen – struggled to make ends meet as the war came to an end. He had started work at Toho Studios (perhaps forever equated with the legendary GODZILLA films) as an assistant cameraman when his friends entered him in a 'new faces' competition and the studio were quick to pick him up! It appears that no sooner did he enter the industry, albeit in a somewhat different capacity, those with an observant eye realized that here was someone virtually destined to become the ultimate superstar.
The incredibly prolific Mifune was at one time contracted to make 20 films per year. Learning his lines was one thing, but as with many Japanese roles the physical effort alone must have been exhausting. He first came to international notice in the late 1940's (then in his late 20's) when he starred in the Kurosawa classic RASHOMON (for which he studied the behavior of lions in the wild). Mifune, although not particularly tall, looks much bigger and powerful on screen and he's never less than magnetic. Many top western actors, who are exponents of no more than two facial gestures, could learn a great deal more by studying Mifune who appeared to have it all. Obviously with a documentary of this sort we are treated to a number of interviews with those who knew him, in particular his son, and many actors who worked with him.
Many will know that the basis for some of the biggest Western blockbusters were based on Kurosawa/Mifune films. Indeed, Clint Eastwood possibly may not have achieved his estimable status seeing how A FISTFUL OF DOLLARS was derived from the nameless anti-hero in YOJIMBO. Of course, THE MAGNIFICENT SEVEN was a reworking of THE SEVEN SAMURAI. Watching this documentary might make you feel like taking a look at the Japanese originals and the chances are you will not be disappointed. Many still considerer the mighty THRONE OF BLOOD to be the best ever version of Shakespeare's Macbeth - with Mifune delivering one hell of a 'tour de force' especially during the dangerous death scene.
It seems hard to believe that Mifune was born as long ago 1920 but the films have a timelessness about them and will continue to be shown around the world. As we also see it was a pity that the collaboration with Kurosawa came to a somewhat bitter end in the mid 60's, as the director was never quite the same without THIS leading man. Obviously it was inevitable that after being the leading man of the Japanese cinema for so long, Mifune would start to appear in a number of western movies and he is every bit as resonant in these productions; whilst still appearing in home grown work. The two-hander with Lee Marvin (himself no mean talent) in HELL IN THE PACIFIC has little dialogue and our man more than holds his own with this other great actor.
Like many actors you will not be surprised to learn that Mifune had a partiality for the demon drink (in his case Sake and whisky) and also a fondness for fast cars (which he often drove while in an intoxicated state).
In later year and partly due to memory loss he eventually had to read his lines from what is sometimes unkindly referred to as an 'idiot board' but the old charisma had not altogether faded and Toshiro Mifune has left us with a magnificent legacy. After all not many actors will have the likes of Steven Spielberg and Martin Scorsese paying such glowing tributes.
As is usual with BFI releases, we have a feast of extra's including the great man himself in a Guardian lecture at the NFT in '86 (sadly,only audio).