Opening at Darkside Cinema on Friday, Jan. 13, the documentary Mifune: The Last Samurai, by award-winning director Steven Okazaki, spotlights renowned Japanese actor Toshiro Mifune. Having starred in over 170 films, Mifune is known for carving out a style of acting all his own, and has attained worldwide recognition.
Though this film begins with a look into Mifune’s upbringing, from childhood to his enlistment in the army, then moving on to his then somewhat accidental start in the film industry, the story doesn’t gain its speed until we learn about Mifune’s working relationship with famous director and groundbreaker of Japanese cinema, Akira Kurosawa. Working behind the camera or in front of it, Kurosawa and Mifune were creating in a way completely new to the rest of the world.
Having first spotted Mifune in a massive talent search (which Mifune promptly lost), Kurosawa was more than intrigued. He later commented, “I am rarely a person impressed by actors, but in the case of Mifune I was completely overwhelmed.” This relationship and partnership is explored throughout the rest of the documentary—or rather, it becomes the documentary. Showcasing the bond between director and leading man, Okazaki has illustrated how the two revolutionaries came up in the golden age of Japanese cinema together. Or as many could argue, created the golden age of Japanese cinema.
Kurosawa and Mifune worked more for each other than with each other. The demanding director created roles to challenge his leading man, while the stoic actor went tirelessly beyond to deliver influential performances. This shared driving force produced some of the most monumental films in Japanese cinema, such as Rashomon, Seven Samurai, Throne of Blood, and Yojimbo, to name a few. Through interviews with co-stars, sword-fighting choreographers, and inspired American directors (George Lucas was gunning to cast Mifune as Obi-Wan…), we’re able to peer into the magnetism created by this artistic duo and the ground that was undiscovered and unbroken prior to their fiercely unique work.
Steven Spielberg summed things up in one of the main takeaways from this documentary, stating, “A lot of people try to imitate Mifune, but nobody can.” Mifune was in a class all his own.
Those with an affinity for Japanese cinema will simply devour this documentary, and those indifferent will walk away with expanded horizons.
By Leah Biesack