Steven Okazaki was born in Venice, CA, and has a long history of directing and producing documentary films: including several about Japan, where his family was originally from. His latest, Mifune: The Last Samurai, focuses on the legendary actor Toshiro Mifune and the forces that influenced his life. In an exclusive interview, he spoke with us about the project.
Question: What were you hoping to achieve with this besides bringing attention to a great actor?
Steven Okazaki: I was speaking to a producer in Tokyo, and he asked me what I’d like to do more than anything. I said I wanted to look at a history of the samurai film. He shot that down, because it would mean working with a lot of different Japanese studios, and they don’t work well together. But the top producer in Japan was determined to make a film about Toshiro Mifune. So I said, “Why doesn’t he let me do it?” We set up a meeting and I got the job. It was a great alternative because Mifune is so wonderful and such a key part of that genre.
I knew I wanted to include a little bit of history from samurai films, and we got to show something about their unique nature. How they evolved. But Mifune helped me focus that. Samurai figures in general go against the grain in Japanese culture. That culture emphasizes blending in, conforming, and not standing out. Samurai always stand out. They’re individuals, charged with a duty to the collective but not strictly a part of it. Mifune showed that distinctiveness so strongly in his films.
Q: Do you think that helped him resonate with Western audiences?
SO: He was a worldly man from the beginning. He was raised in Manchuria, and didn’t actually set foot in Japan until he was drafted in World War II. We found a number of notes in his collection about that time: letters and the like. He did not accept the status quo, and the rules of Japanese life. He had to live in Japanese society, and obviously not all of it was as intense or traumatic as the war, but I think that’s reflected in his roles. He stands out in all of his films. You can’t look away from him. And that charisma can resonate, no matter what nation or audience it’s presented to.
Q: What was your first experience with Mifune?
SO: I saw Seven Samurai when I was 12 years old. I grew up in Venice, CA, and the Venice Community Center had a screening with a noisy 16 mm projector. The film was on a sheet. Someone would open the door and the screen would ripple. I remember walking to the other side of the sheet and watching part of the film in reverse. But that last battle started and I was riveted. I can’t think of a more entertaining battle scene or a more perfect action sequence.
Q: How did you decide who to get for the film?
SO: We started by looking for people who had worked with him who were still alive. Actors, co-stars and people like that. Haruo Nakajima, who worked with him on Seven Samurai and went on to be the original Godzilla, he was great. We found a number of people like that.
We also wanted to talk to as many western filmmakers as we could because of Mifune’s influence on them. George Lucas was the big one. We wouldn’t have Star Wars without Kurosawa, or at least it would look much different than it did. We tried hard to get Lucas. I live in Berkeley, so I’m close to him, but we couldn’t get it done. Spielberg and Scorsese were easier. They were both very enthusiastic about participating in the project, though obviously we had to wait a while for their respective schedules to clear up.
Q: Did getting Keanu Reeves prove difficult?
SO: Keanu was easy. One of my producers had worked with him and suggested him early on. Keanu is a huge fan of Japanese cinema, and samurai films in particular. I was a little concerned initially to have a big film star participating in it. They might have their own ideas about what they’re doing, and you have to deal with entourages and things like that: things we had neither the time nor the money for. If we ran into problems with that – or with other things you might not initially think about, like the proper pronunciation of Japanese names – it’s going to fall apart. But Keanu was fantastic. He’s low-key. He doesn’t have an entourage. Once we signed him, he just showed up at the studio on his motorcycle, on time and ready to work. He knew his way around Japanese pronunciation. I couldn’t have asked for anyone better.
Q: Where do you think Mifune’s legacy might go in the future?
SO: Every generation rediscovers these films, what he did with Kurosawa in particular. Star Wars obviously isn’t going anywhere and new generations of filmmakers are being influenced by people like Steven Spielberg, who were influenced by Kurosawa and Mifune. As new stories are told and old ones are revisited, his work is waiting there, at the roots. And as long as movies are being made – as long as people love them – he’s always going to be there to show us what he could do all over again.