Last week, the late actor Toshiro Mifune, mainstay of modern Japanese cinema, at last was honored with his own star on the Hollywood Walk of Fame. As critic Bilge Ebiri observed on Twitter at the time, “Imagine. Donald Trump has had one since 2007, but Toshiro Fucking Mifune is just getting his.”
Best known for his influential sixteen-film collaboration with director Akira Kurosawa, Mifune remains a screen presence of such greatness that the dictionary definition of “screen presence” might well be boiled down to just a photo of him.
He’s also the deserving subject of Mifune: The Last Samurai, a new documentary by Oscar-winner Steven Okazaki, with narration from Keanu Reeves. Gathering an array of scenes showcasing Mifune’s elemental charisma, plus interviews with co-stars, family, and filmmakers to whom his work has mattered (including Steven Spielberg and Martin Scorsese), Okazaki achieves a fine balance of legacy stewardship and unassuming appreciation.
His film should appeal to Mifune worshippers and newcomers alike, if for no other reason than its lightly worn sense of scope. Here you will find: the adorable baby pictures (Mifune’s father put him to work as a model early on); the tender parting words for kamikaze pilots under his command (“It was his compassion that made him rebellious,” his son now reflects); the harrowing death scene in Throne of Blood, Kurosawa’s ingenious adaptation of Shakespeare’s Macbeth, for which many real airborne arrows were used but insurance apparently wasn’t; and the reminder that George Lucas initially offered him the role of Obi Wan Kenobi, but Mifune’s American agent advised against it. Indeed, you will find the big-screen embodiment of, in Okazaki’s words, “steadfastness, integrity, and samurai spirit.” We talked about it on the phone last week.
So, the Walk of Fame. What took so long?
I just happened to be at the reception next to a guy who was a liaison who said he’d proposed it to the committee twenty years ago, and there was a guy there who was the host of the inductions, Johnny Grant, who told him Mifune’s filmography was not impressive enough. I guess with the making of this film, the family asked them to check again and, well, the Grant era is over. Now we’ve added Mifune to Godzilla. It was fun. The family was there and they were moved. They had some guys in samurai outfits.
With a film like this we expect to hear from people like Scorsese and Spielberg, but I loved that your first official Toshiro Mifune character witness is a sword-fight choreographer whom you identify in the credits as having been killed by him more than 100 times.
The people in Japan were sort of upset with me putting him out front! They wanted someone cultured and articulate. When I met him, he went into these sword-fighting moves, with sound effects: ‘Huh! Hyah!’ People at the table jumped back. I just had to have him to start it off, not the gracious older actors. To work against expectations. He was just so happy to be in the film. He was hilarious. He said in one film he was killed five times. ‘Mifune said, “You die really well, so run around the barn and come at me again. People will never notice.”’
We can take it for granted that you had a ton of archival material to work with. But people might not realize what a challenge it is to sort through it all. Can you talk about your approach to organization and structure?
Initially, we had a lot of restrictions on the uses of film. So we just focused on the samurai period. There was a set number of films and amounts we could use. So it made for getting the most out to of it. At first I thought: Oh, this can’t be done. But it actually proved a good creative challenge and moved the film along faster.
How did Keanu Reeves get involved as your narrator?
I had a scratch narration with my voice on it. The Japanese producer kind of liked it. One of the producers does production interpreting and had worked with Keanu on Man of Tai Chi, and had stayed in contact on 47 Ronin. He suggested him, and I wasn’t sure. But with other name actors I was concerned that their personality and voice might take away, and if we got somebody with a big name, they would give us a really short window of opportunity. I was worried about the pronunciation of all the Japanese names. But the co-producer said he had worked with him and felt he’d be comfortable. I think the biggest thing is that I’d seen Keanu at a festival with his film Side by Side, and he’s in that and does narration—but he was such a regular guy. It sort of reminded me of people’s stories about Mifune not being pretentious, not having an agent and an entourage. Keanu just pulls up to the recording studio on his motorcycle and goes to work. We talked really briefly, and he clearly was a big Mifune and Kurosawa fan. I thought his insights into an early cut were great; he clearly understood the project.
What has Mifune meant to you personally?
I think besides the opportunity of doing this kind of bio film, Mifune was a childhood hero of mine. As soon as I heard that a producer wanted to do it, I kind of volunteered myself. Kind of forcefully. I said: Stop looking. Give the film to me. And a few days later they did. I can’t think of an actor who has that kind of screen power, that presence. I can’t think of films as important as some of the Kurosawa-and-Mifune films. I was looking for a new film to do, and usually, any idea I have, it’s already been done and someone’s in production on it. Almost anything: Someone’s already making a doc. I was shocked to see there wasn’t one on Mifune. I found out that the licensing in Japan is very difficult; no one had been able to pull it off.
What do you think he means to younger filmmakers today—in Japan, in the U.S., or anywhere?
It seems to me that a lot of young filmmakers and filmgoers have no idea who these people are, and have no idea who John Wayne and John Ford are. And sadly, that’s true in Japan as well. Mifune and Kurosawa’s names have faded. The modern age we’re in, people watch on Netflix and think everything they need is there—and should be free. In some ways we’ve been over-stressing their influence to show the evolution of tough-guy heroes, the buddy film, and saying the landscape would be very different without these people. It’s still hard to reach younger viewers. Hopefully the film inspires people to go back. Hopefully people will re-see them, and see the kind of drama that is possible without special effects. The battle scene in Seven Samurai—I can’t think of anything that has that drama without special effects.
I don’t think I knew, or remembered, that after the war Japan had a seven-year ban on sword-fighting films. It’s interesting to consider that as a factor in the power of Seven Samurai—like something had been pent up.
The Japanese call it HQ. They refer to it a lot. Everything about the media, and access to food, and entertainment, was controlled. It’s not the ban itself, but Japan having that time of transition from the old to the new. It was incredibly exciting that you had all these people around, working together. The industry had really died, and had just come to a stop before the war— it hadn’t really even made the transition to sound. I think Kurosawa clearly wanted to be modern. Even in his approach to soundtracks—using Japanese motifs, but western instruments, like a snare and cymbals. I think during that break after the war, Kurosawa saw an opportunity. He really wanted something that was not just the same old samurai film.
Kurosawa and Mifune on the set of RED BEARD. (Photo: Strand Releasing.)
About the eventual parting ways of Mifune and Kurosawa, what are your own thoughts?
I felt like I had to find a definite answer to that question. Various observers posit different reasons. Such as tensions over Red Beard. Clearly they were grooming a younger actor, and the problem of having to wear that beard for a year and a half and not take jobs while he had a film company that was struggling. But the people closest, who had been through all the films, said, ‘I don’t really know.’ We could not put in a definite answer. Scorsese had the best answer, surely from experience. [“Sometimes people in collaboration use each other up,” Scorsese sagely offers.] But sixteen films is an extraordinary collaboration. And of course people wanted more.
Do you feel closer to him now?
I have a deeper appreciation of the films. They weren’t coming out of a genre; they were inventing. I can say I picked up a certain sadness. When you’re in your prime and doing extraordinary work, you have to observe your own demise. It’s amazing when you see people who continue to have vital careers, and keep that going. It’s an incredibly hard thing to do. After Kurosawa, Mifune had to make films, not these great works of art. I really wanted to find one of the post-Red Beard films that really held up, and there was nothing made by a Japanese director that really shined, and that was sad to see. But with the others, it’s remarkable to see how modern they still are.