You might recognize Rikiya Mifune’s last name. He’s the grandson of the legendary Toshiro Mifune, subject of the new documentary Mifune: the Last Samurai, which opens in theaters this week. Rikiya serves as a producer on the film, as well as a guardian of his grandfather’s legacy. In an exclusive interview, he talks about growing up with one of the screen’s most dynamic stars, and meditates on the legacy his grandfather left behind.
Question: Could you talk briefly about any memories you have of your grandfather and what you saw in him as a family member rather than a movie star?
Rikiya Mifune: My grandfather passed away when I was 9 years old, so the memories of him that I have are mainly of being a grandfather because he was already retired. When I was a child, my family’s routine was to go to his house every night to have dinner together. When my parents were preparing their dinner, I would sit on my grandfather’s sofa and he would sit next to me. We would watch children’s cartoons together. When I looked to the side, I would see him sitting with perfect posture, and every time he would talk to me, he would do so in a gruff, family manner. Even at home he was like a true samurai, so that’s one thing that I remember about him. He was very fond of going overseas for vacation, so when I was a child he would take me to Hawaii every year. He would go to the aquarium and we’d spend time together like that.
Q: Can you talk about this project, how it got started for you, and what you hope to achieve with this film?
RM: I got to know my grandfather very well as an actor, and especially by talking to people who had actually worked with him first-hand. It was such a great experience because, of course I hear many stories about him as an actor, but I got to talk to the people who worked with him more in depth. They were all very happy to talk about their memories. Whenever people would talk about my grandfather they were so lively. They were very happy and they wouldn’t stop talking because it was such a great memory for them. I kind of got to know what kind of person my Grandfather was by knowing how he affected these people.
Q: What was your involvement in the production process as it went forward? What was your role here besides a producer?
RM: Other than being on set helping out Steven Okazaki, the director, because Steven is a non-Japanese speaker, and most of the staff only spoke Japanese. I got to interpret and also got to do the interviews. Among the things I do is running my grandfather’s company, Mifune Productions, which keeps archival footage and pictures and documents that my grandfather had. We have thousands of pictures of Mifune that we had to prepare. Also scenes from old films, to show Steven so he could hear the footage for the documentary. There was a lot of Mifune archival stuff we had to prepare for Steven.
Q: Do you see a difference in your grandfather’s work between how the Japanese look at it and how the West looks at it? I think he was a great bridge between those two cultures with his work.
RM: That’s very interesting because his films were accepted both in the West and the East. That’s very rare for the Japanese. Most Japanese films are very traditional so it’s very hard to be accepted overseas, but his films were accepted by both and internationally. I thought that what Kurosawa expressed was brilliant, and echoes beyond the language and the culture and racial differences. You can tell that by the example of Rashomon. The film was not accepted in Japan initially, but as soon as it won the best picture award at the Venice Film Festival, it was picked up by Japan as well.
Q: Your grandfather’s on screen persona, the image he projected often went against traditional Japanese values. His characters are very individualistic, very rebellious. They’re not focused on the collective order and the collective good. When do you think that emerged? Was it part of his experience? Do you think Kurosawa or some of the other director’s he worked with?
RM: How he developed his persona was a very big factor. He was born on the mainland, in China. Then he was drafted to the war, and he had to send out young soldiers off to suicide missions. That was also a traumatic experience. And he belonged to the generation in Japan facing the post-war period. The whole country was going through a lot of things and it was actually a lively and very energetic time as we rebuilt. So I think everything kind of added to and made his character.
One a big factor with him was having the right timing. I think that’s what made his character. You can see it on screen. You see his sensitive side. You see his wild, energetic side exploding, but coming from a sensitivity and a deep pain. Also in that time period everybody would dedicate their life to the film. Literally. In Throne of Blood, people shot real arrows at him. In The Hidden Fortress he galloped on the horse with both hands off the saddle. That must have been dangerous too, so you can actually see the danger to the film. That gave it a lot of power.
Q: Were there any people you were surprised to see in this documentary? Was there anyone who stepped forward who shared a memory, or talked about the influence your grandfather had that you weren’t expecting, or who came as a surprise to you?
RM: I knew some of the people that Mifune worked with, but throughout this film I got to meet and hear stories from people I never expected. Like the actors Tsuchiya Yoshio who appears a lot in the documentary. He talked to me about how Mifune was like a brother to. So I got to hear a lot of those stories, and it was a very good experience meeting so many people. Especially Yoshio Tsuchiya, who was like a little brother to my grandfather. He would have different stories from other people. Also in Red Beard, the actress who starred with him, Niki Terumi, had some stories because she was a child and my gandfather was like a father figure. It was fascinating to hear their first-hand stories.
Q: With his legacy in place, he just got his star on the Hollywood Walk of Fame, so clearly the West’s movie industry is aware of the debt we owe him. How do you see that continuing in the future, and where do you think his legacy is going to expand to as time goes on?
A: It’s been almost twenty years since Mifune passed away, and almost like 50, 60 years since Mifune and Kurosawa films were made. I think his films will be remembered as long as film exists, and I think that this is something that the Japanese people should be more proud of and should put more effort into preserving. I know that a lot of people from the States and Europe and the West, when they think about Japanese cinema, the first thing that comes to mind for them is the films Kurosawa and Mifune made. I think that legacy will remain strong as long as we all put in the effort to preserve it.
Mifune: The Last Samurai opens wide today in theaters across the country.