By Christopher Weedman.
Released by Strand Releasing and narrated by actor Keanu Reeves, director Steven Okazaki’s new feature-length documentary Mifune: The Last Samurai (2016) is a well-intentioned yet underdeveloped tribute to the larger-than-life actor Toshiro Mifune. As the documentary boldly proclaims, Mifune possessed an unbridled energy and commanding screen presence that enabled him to loom just as large over the Japanese cinematic landscape as the nation’s other screen icon, Godzilla, during its “golden age” of filmmaking. This point is visually underscored by the film’s opening long-shot of Masao Hanawa’s mural of the “King of the Monsters” outside of Tokyo’s Toho Studios, which then cuts to another of the artist’s murals outside of the studio’s entrance gates, one featuring Mifune and his fellow ronin from director Akira Kurosawa’s Seven Samurai (1954). This masterpiece, along with a long list of other famed collaborations such as Rashomon (1950) and Yojimbo (1961), brought the actor-director team to the forefront of international art-house cinema during the 1950s and 1960s.
Opening in New York at the IFC Center on November 25th with a nationwide release set to follow on December 2nd, Mifune: The Last Samurai employs an expository approach to trace Mifune’s beginnings as the son of Japanese nationals operating a still photography business in China, before the outbreak of the Second Sino-Japanese War, to an international film star, who, through his work with Kurosawa (a sixteen-film collaboration over eighteen years), influenced an array of equally memorable screen characters. This prestigious list includes Clint Eastwood’s “Man with No Name” from Sergio Leone’s Dollars trilogy (1964-66), Darth Vader in George Lucas’ original Star Wars trilogy (1978-83), and, although not mentioned in the documentary, John Belushi’s comedic samurai character from the first four seasons of NBC’s Saturday Night Live (1975-79 TV).
Okazaki’s documentary continues the Oscar-winning filmmaker’s commitment to fictional films and documentaries examining fascinating aspects of Japanese and Japanese-American history and culture, which he has demonstrated throughout his career with the touching comedic drama Living on Tokyo Time (1987, recently released as a limited edition DVD from MGM and worth seeking out) and the insightful documentaries Unfinished Business (1986), Days of Waiting (1991), and White Light/Black Rain: The Destruction of Hiroshima and Nagasaki (2007), the latter a meditative examination of the aftermath of the atomic bombs dropped on both cities at the end of World War II. Not surprisingly, given Okazaki’s previous work, Mifune: The Last Samurai contextualizes the actor’s life and career against larger historical and cultural events, particularly Japan’s involvement in World War II and the hardship faced during the country’s postwar reconstruction. The documentary suggests that these painful experiences helped shape both his onscreen image as a new rebellious screen hero, who bristled at authority and embodied the samurai’s heroism, honor, and justice.
Among the most revealing interviews is one with Shiro Mifune (the actor’s eldest son with wife Sachiko Yoshimine), who, ironically, was born the same year that his father rose to fame in Kurosawa’s experimental Rashomon. Mifune’s son discusses how his father early on exhibited an ability to rankle others – particularly authority figures – as seen when he was drafted into the Imperial Japanese Army in March 1940 at the age of twenty. During his five years in the military, Mifune was on multiple occasions beaten by his superiors, who hit him with the soles of their leather shoes out of what they perceived to be both his arrogance and insubordination. “My father always had that forceful voice, and his superiors didn’t like it,” Shiro explains. “They thought he was too cocky for a young, inexperienced soldier.” This defiant attitude further displayed itself when Mifune was reluctantly put in charge of training young and inexperienced kamikaze pilots (recently drafted into the Imperial Japanese Army Air Service) to attack Allied forces in the last days of the war. As the adolescents were sent off to their deaths, Mifune, according to his son, gave them one last directive, “You don’t have to say, ‘Banzai!’ for the Emperor. Instead, just say goodbye to your mother. That’s all you need to do.” While certainly a defiant snub against Japan’s fervent nationalism and involvement in the war, Mifune’s son credits this act as an example of a “compassion that [in turn] made him rebellious.”
Deep personal insights about Mifune such as those discussed by his son Shiro are, lamentably, far and few between in Mifune: The Last Samurai. Okazaki brings together eighteen interviewees to discuss Mifune’s life and career, including former collaborators such as actors Takeshi Kato, Haruo Nakajima, Yosuke Natsuki, and Yoshio Tsuchiya; actresses Kyoko Kagawa, Terumi Niki, Yoko Tsukasa, Kaoru Yachigusa; directors Sadao Nakajima and Steven Spielberg (who attests to Mifune’s brilliant comedic timing and strong comradery with British actor Christopher Lee on the set of his comedic war epic 1941, 1979); publicist Wataru Akashi; script supervisor Teruyo Nogami; and sword fighting choreographer Kanzo Uni. In addition, Kurosawa’s son Hisao Kurosawa; respected Japanese film critic and historian Tadao Sato; and admirers such as actor Koji Yakusho and director Martin Scorsese are on hand to contextualize his contributions to Japanese cinema, as well as his enduring legacy. Many of these interviews never rise above the quality that one would expect to see in an episode of Biography. In this “paint-by-numbers” TV documentary series that actor Peter Graves and others hosted on the A&E cable network in the 1980s and 1990s, one could always rely on classic Hollywood stalwarts like Charlton Heston, Roddy McDowall, and Gregory Peck to turn up with a charming – yet, on the whole, less than revealing – anecdote about how “insert name of former colleague here” always arrived on the set on time and never gave less than his or her best.
A vivid example of this surface-level discussion is the documentary’s inability to shed any true insight on the reasons underpinning the end of Mifune’s collaboration with Kurosawa after the actor’s compassionate performance as Dr. Kyojo Niid in Red Beard (1965). While Kurosawa’s son Hisao Kurosawa tries to explain away the end of the collaboration by mentioning that his father was moving away from the samurai film that Mifune epitomized, this answer is not entirely satisfactory, since a few of their final collaborations like The Bad Sleep Well (1960) and High and Low (1963) demonstrated Mifune’s aptitude to convincingly play characters not wielding a sword. Furthermore, Mifune’s mid-to-late 1960s Hollywood performances in John Frankenheimer’s racing drama Grand Prix (1966) and John Boorman’s World War II film Hell in the Pacific (1968) indicate a desire for the actor to diversify his resume. Scorsese offers a slightly better explanation by stating that after a long period of time, collaborators often “use each other up” and have nothing left to give each other. It is perhaps unfair yet almost impossible not to read something of Scorsese’s equally-celebrated collaboration with actor Robert De Niro in this remark. Both have been similarly asked why they have not worked together since their underrated gangster drama Casino (1995), especially when a number of their solo efforts (for instance, Shutter Island, 2010 and the Meet the Parents comedies, 2000-10) have rarely achieved the acclaim of their films together. Nevertheless, it appears that, in the case of Scorsese and De Niro, this may soon be rectified by their reunion in The Irishman (a highly-anticipated film about the death and disappearance of labor leader Jimmy Hoffa), which is reportedly in pre-production.
However, in terms of Mifune and Kurosawa’s collaboration, Mifune: The Last Samurai strangely does not mention that another contributing factor may have been due to Kurosawa’s decision to not cast the actor as Admiral Isoroku Yamamoto (a part eventually played by So Yamamura, well-known for his performance as the pediatrician in Yasujiro Ozu’s Tokyo Story, 1953) in Tora! Tora! Tora! (1970), during the director’s initial involvement in this Twentieth Century-Fox Pearl Harbor epic before being replaced by Kinji Fukasaku and Toshio Masuda. In his excellent book The Emperor and the Wolf: The Lives and Films of Akira Kurosawa and Toshiro Mifune, Stuart Galbraith IV (interestingly, the co-author of Okazaki’s documentary) offers this as an additional explanation and speculates that it may have been out of retaliation for the actor’s performance in Seiji Maruyama’s Admiral Yamamoto (1968), a film produced by Toho Studios, in part, to capitalize on the publicity surrounding Kurosawa’s involvement with Tora! Tora! Tora! (453-454). Furthermore, there is no mention of the fact that Mifune tried in vain to reunite with Kurosawa for another film in the mid-1970s and made an announcement to the fact before getting the director onboard, which was published in Weekly Variety and The Hollywood Reporter in February 1976. This premature announcement likely sealed any chance that the collaborators would reunite (523 and 784, n.48 and n.49). One is left to wonder why fascinating details such as this were not provided, especially since the documentary’s scant 80-minute running time leaves room for more detail, and Galbraith’s book was, undoubtedly, one of the primary research tools for the documentary.
Despite these misgivings, Mifune: The Last Samurai would be useful in a classroom setting to introduce students to Japanese cinema. This is particularly the case in the documentary’s first fourteen minutes, which provide historical context to the foundations of the chanbara genre (sword fighting films), whose name is derived from the “chan, chan, bara, bara” sound of the clashing of swords. Film critic and historian Tadao Sato (President of the Japan Academy of Moving Images) discusses the genre’s central themes of revenge, sacrifice, familial feuds, and power struggles between rival clans. This section of the documentary is punctuated by interesting film extracts from rarely-seen chanbara silent films like Buntaro Futagawa’s Gyakuryu (1924) and Orochi (1925) and Daisuke Ito’s Chokon (1926), the latter of which only the film’s climactic final scene remains: a tense battle featuring Denjiro Okochi as a ronin consuming the blood of one of his victims to single-handedly fend off a band of enemies.
The two Futagawa silents, as Sato explains elsewhere in his notes for the 2007 Region 0 DVD release of these films by Digital Meme, featured swiftly-paced sword fights (featuring Tsumasaburo Bando) that were influenced by the swashbuckling theatrics of Douglas Fairbanks in Fred Niblo’s The Mark of Zorro (1920) and The Three Musketeers (1921). These two films were instrumental in the genre’s evolution from the more dance-inspired choreography derived from traditional kabuki theatre to a new style boasting greater realism. Given the ambitious attempt of the documentary to also examine the evolution of chanbara and its influence on the Western genre in Hollywood and Italy (seen in the references to John Sturges’ The Magnificent Seven, 1960 and Leone’s A Fistful of Dollars, 1964), one wishes more time would have been devoted to how Hollywood also played a significant role in the development of the chanbara film. By not providing this additional detail, the documentary gives the erroneous impression that Americans and Italian filmmakers only borrowed from original Japanese narrative and character tropes. Inclusion of excerpts from these Hollywood antecedents would have both illustrated that the development of these similar genres was a transnational artistic exchange and provided further credence to Steven Spielberg’s point later in the documentary that the universal language of cinema possesses the capability of transcending national film boundaries.
While those well-versed in Japanese cinema may find Mifune: The Last Samurai, at times, underwhelming due to its surface-level depth, it is still recommended as a primer for those beginning their journey into the films of both Mifune and Kurosawa, before, hopefully, seeking out Galbraith’s more fleshed-out biography and production history in his book The Emperor and the Wolf.
Christopher Weedman is an Assistant Professor in the Department of English at Kutztown University of Pennsylvania, where he teaches courses in Film Studies. His scholarship has appeared in Quarterly Review of Film and Video, Senses of Cinema, and the edited anthology Fifty Hollywood Directors (Routledge, 2015). His interview and career retrospective of British actress Anne Heywood (the Golden Globe-nominated star of the controversial 1967 film The Fox) will appear in a forthcoming issue of Cinema Retro.
Galbraith, Stuart IV (2001), The Emperor and the Wolf: The Lives and Films of Akira Kurosawa and Toshiro Mifune, New York: Faber.
Kurosawa, Akira (1982), Something Like an Autobiography, New York: Knopf.
Sato, Tado. “Commentary to Orochi (Serpent) and Gyakuryu (Backward Flow).” Digital Meme, https://www.digital-meme.com/en/our_products/dvds/sato03e.pdf, accessed 23 November 2016.