by Jason Suzuki
Compared to the images actors of decades' past were able to cultivate, it's hard to name any true movie stars in this day and age. There are those who are box office magic and if social media followers are any indication have millions of fans, but there is something to be said about those whose talent and popularity made them icons. Today's culture of TMZ and Twitter produce an oversharing of an actor's private life, both unwilling and completely voluntary. Who knows if some of these stars, who went on to become idols for current generations, would have the same mystique had their rise to fame happened today. There is an allure to these stars of the silver screen in no doubt magnified by scandal and the quotidian not widely available on them. Steven Okazaki's documentary on Japan's most famous export, second to only Godzilla as the film states, posits that Toshiro Mifune was very much the real deal and offers a brisk look at the man, his most famous collaborator, and other tangential aspects to Japanese film history. It gives a fuller picture of the man who is able to maintain if not heighten this larger than life persona with every anecdote and personal detail
Narrated by Keanu Reeves, Okazaki's doc - co-written by Stuart Galbraith IV who wrote the 800 page dual biography of Mifune and Kurosawa as well as a history of Toho Studios - uses Mifune and the samurai film, the chanbara subsection of the jidai-geki, to chart a concise history of the Japanese film industry as well as the larger global conditions which led to a guy like Mifune getting in front of the camera. Interviewees include a surprisingly large number of surviving cast and crew members of the films in focus, descendants of Mifune and Kurosawa, as well as a few contemporary familiar faces like Spielberg, Scorsese, critic Tadao Sato, and Koji Yakusho who would be the perfect casting choice in a biopic of Mifune if there ever was one.
Starting with the swordplay film allows the documentary to set the stage for the genre Kurosawa and Mifune would evolve and make famous on an international level while also being able to give contextual information about Japan and its film industry as a whole. There is a sense that putting the samurai film in the spotlight is an appeal to a general audience. But this quality of doling out extra information while maintaining a strong focus on its main topic is one of the film's strongest qualities and should give it a longevity beyond being yet another generic documentary title drifting in the Netflix sea. Amazing clips from early Japanese film, most of them the lone surviving portions of largely lost productions, look as though they have been properly restored and preserved. A few in particular should easily spark an interest in the genre as well as this era, most of which is unfortunately lost.
Born in China to a photographer father, Toshiro Mifune entered the world at key times in Japanese cinema: the early years of the camera and during Japan's colonial era. Eventually he would come to Japan on account of the draft. Looking for work he tried his hand as a camera assistant at Toho, putting him in the right place for the collaboration which would make him the sort of start that would merit a documentary such as this.
By getting first hand accounts from some of Mifune's contemporaries and collaborators we see that certain aspects of his career, namely how he became an actor, were rather common. After the war many people were left looking for work of any sort. So when Toho issued a call for new faces to sign on as contracted talent, many people who had neither acted or were interested in the craft, tried out as it would be a paying job. Mifune was one of them but wasn't the only one who would turn out to bring talent, the fresh voice of an outsider, and a subsequent dedication to the art.
Structured largely around those key titles in Mifune's career, extended portions dedicated to Seven Samurai, Rashomon, Yojimbo, and the Samurai Trilogy contain pepperings of other films like The Snow Trail and The Lower Depths. While obvious and another result of a more general intended audience, the film is incredibly successful at pleasing any level of familiarity with the subject matter. Instead of showing a close up of Tony Rayns' from a DVD extra, despite myself finding them entertaining, this should be go to classroom material for those being schooled, whether by institution or self, on Japanese film.
Intended for a larger audience than a tome would, there are a few details here and there that would be missing for anyone who has already read up on these stories. Teruyo Nogami's (who also appears in the film) book Waiting on the Weather and Kurosawa's own Something Like an Autobiography are invaluable resources, containing bits of information regarding Mifune and his working relationship with Kurosawa, which is what the film largely structures itself around. These stories which could have been expanded range from the fact that Kurosawa's mentor Kajiro Yamamoto was the one who took a liking to Mifune when the actor, auditioning at the New Face talent scout competitions, was asked to convey anger and ended up scaring the majority of the judges when he exceeded expectations and wouldn't break the manic energy they asked to unleash.
On the topic of why Kurosawa and Mifune didn't work together again after their sixteenth collaboration Red Beard, the consensus has been we will never know the true details but even Nogami, who gives some theories based on details she noticed as Kurosawa's assistant in her book, does not add much when asked about it for the film. Or perhaps what she said was taken out for conciseness of narrative's sake. On the topic of the narrative the film presents, the film gives the impression that because Mifune wasn't in Kurosawa's next film Dodeska'den it was a commercial and critical failure which in turned caused Kurosawa's attempted suicide. Their creative partnership was one of the best the world will ever see but there's more nuance to it than that.
Last year's Winning: The Racing Life of Paul Newman showed another side to the man, his passion for racing as well as his philanthropic endeavors. This all fell in line to create a testimony to Newman's uniqueness but to the idea that hard work and passion is what makes life worth living. Okazaki's film accomplishes just that becoming more than just a filmed biography but a documentation of a way to get the most out of life. And while Okazaki's focus is on Mifune and film, he still is able to show these other sides, one of which also includes an collector's interest in cars, Mifune: The Last Samurai works surprisingly well as an educational tool for a wider focus than just Mifune and Kurosawa.
Kyoko Kagawa, co-star to Mifune in a handful of pictures, describes the difficulty for women to get decent roles at Toho, a studio producing works mainly for men. It was at Shochiku, home to filmmakers like Ozu and Naruse, where these sorts of roles could be found as the company had found its success targeting an audience of women. While the film doesn't go into details on other companies like NIkkatsu, it's a quick anecdote that provides a bigger picture but also adds nuance to the films Mifune and Kurosawa were making. Other great stories come from people who range from Mifune's son to the guy who plays the drugged guard Mifune stabs against the wall in Throne of Blood.
Okazaki's film shares the sentiment that we are in an era of filmgoing absent of the kind of sincere, screen commanding presence that Mifune brought to his work. A man who earned his success and has proven to be inimitable, who was also humble (when he started his own production company he worked hard to keep his staff employed and saw no job on-set as beneath him). For all the inspiration this telling of his story should instill, there is a deep melancholy that sets in once it concludes, not just because of his life's end but the extinction of his type both similar to greats like Newman and singular to Mifune himself.
Jason Suzuki is co-editor of Cinema Adrift.