What if there was a single movie star from the golden age of world cinema who combined the cool of Humphrey Bogart, the charisma of Paul Newman and the acting chops of Marlon Brando?
There’s no hyperbole in describing Japanese superstar Toshiro Mifune in just such glowing terms. In a career that spanned almost 50 years and 170 films — including his many earth-shaking, samurai-themed collaborations with director Akira Kurosawa in the 1950s and ’60s — Mifune reinvented the modern movie hero as a lone figure fighting impossible odds to help others and realize his own ideas of social justice.
Third-generation Japanese American and Oscar-winning filmmaker Steven Okazaki was inspired to make the documentary Mifune: The Last Samurai when he realized young people in both Japan and the U.S. were largely unfamiliar with the actor’s influential body of work. Kurosawa-Mifune classics easily crossed language barriers and cultural divides, finally giving Japanese cinema a global voice. Yojimbo (1961) supplied a template for Sergio Leone’s great spaghetti Westerns (Clint Eastwood’s “Man With No Name” persona was inspired by Mifune) while The Hidden Fortress (1958) gave George Lucas much of the DNA required for Star Wars.
Even those who consider themselves devotees of Mifune may know little about him beyond his performances in all-time great films. With Mifune: The Last Samurai, Okazaki reveals on an intensely private artist while offering new perspective on Mifune’s singular achievements.
To put the Kurosawa-Mifune samurai films in context, the documentary traces the colorful history of Japanese chanbara films — period tales centered on sword fighting. But many of the early works of Japanese cinema were not preserved and are lost to the ages. Licensing clips of classic films from that country’s movie studios is notoriously difficult and expensive, and those studios have a long history of avoiding collaboration. This practice contrasts sharply with today’s Hollywood, which often seems to function as one huge, competition-free corporation.
Another obstacle to making the documentary was how private and circumspect Japanese culture is compared to that of the U.S. For example, if any of the friends, family and colleagues who appear in Mifune: The Last Samurai knows why Mifune and Kurosawa parted ways earlier than they might have, they don’t say.
The film largely overcomes these barriers through carefully chosen and well-edited clips and by interviewing behind-the-scenes collaborators of Mifune and Kurosawa, most of whom have never publicly discussed their experiences during the golden age of Japanese cinema. Their previously private memories lend the documentary both a warm personal touch and special status as a historical document. Once the film arrives at 1950s classics like Rashomon and Seven Samurai, it turns to Martin Scorsese and Steven Spielberg, who seem thrilled at the chance to discuss the films’ artistry and influence.
Like all the best films-about-films, Mifune: The Last Samurai is built to engage both cinephiles and those unfamiliar with Mifune’s career. It’s a rare treat for anyone who loves movies to see many of the actor’s greatest scenes presented one after the other. But Mifune’s now elderly friends and colleagues want us to know that he was revered in his time not just for his artistic talents, but for his kindness, dignity and humility — that he took it upon himself to embody the essential qualities of the samurai in real life. That is a story unique to Okazaki’s film.
Mifune: The Last Samurai begins an exclusive run tonight, Dec. 16, at Zeitgeist films. More info here.