Review by Rob Vaux
Anyone familiar with cinema knows Toshiro Mifune, star of almost 200 films who helped introduce the world to Japanese cinema. His onscreen persona is irresistible: often playing energized, rebellious figures in worlds where conformity abounded, and almost daring the camera to look away every time. He’s best known for his work with director Akira Kurosawa – collaborating on 16 films, including classics like Seven Samurai, Rashomon, Yojimbo and Throne of Blood – and his work influenced a generations of western filmmakers. Clint Eastwood became a superstar by emulating him. George Lucas wrote Obi-Wan Kenobi for him specifically. He commanded the screen the way few could before or since, and one of the many joys of the new documentary Mifune: The Last Samurai, is that is wants to do more than just remind you of that.
It still follows the structure of most cinematic biographies: covering its subject’s early years, development, professional career and retirement in diligent fashion while talking with the people who knew him, worked with him and drew inspiration from him. Director Steven Okazaki trundles them all out dutifully, along with photos, archive footage and film clips assembled with respect and care. But he aims to do more than just show us Mifune’s life. He wants us to understand how that life influenced the actor’s work, and what he drew from to create such memorable onscreen figures.
The film would be worth watching even without that thoughtfulness, but the director’s focus on the link between actor and image gives it an extra boost. Mifune grew up on mainland China, the son of a photographer who often served as the subject for his father’s images. That led to a natural gregariousness and ease in the spotlight which served him well when he became an adult. His friendliness was put to the test during World War II, when he was drafted into the Japanese Army. He served as an aviation instructor, but proved difficult to discipline… especially towards the end of the war when he was ordered to instruct kamikaze pilots on the best way to fly their plans into ships.
After the war, he applied for a job at Japan’s famous Toho Studios, where he first came into contact with Kurosawa. From their first collaboration, something magical happened, and with the immense international success of Rashomon – in which Mifune plays a condemned bandit accused of a crime whose nature shifts depending on who’s telling the story – they began a partnership that would shape cinema for generations to come.
Okazaki never shifts the focus away from his subject, though he finds the time to illuminate us on the nature of early Japanese cinema, and to fill us in on some of the interview subjects we might not be familiar with. Steven Spielberg and Martin Scorsese both speak at length about the actor’s influence (Spielberg directed him in 1941), and both help articulate the way his silent strength could never quite be duplicated. But as insightful as they are, they can’t match many of the lesser-known subjects of the film, who speak with joy and warmth about the man they worked with during his Toho heyday. (The topper is Haruo Nakajima, who worked as a stuntman on Seven Samurai with Mifune before going on to serve as the man in the suit in the original Gojira.)
That comes on top of the expected tidbits like rarely seen behind-the-scenes footage and photos of his life away from the camera. It doesn’t whitewash him (he enjoyed fast cars and copious drinking, which rarely make for a good combo), but strives always to place all of his characteristics in context.
The result is a thoughtful and nuanced look at the development of one of cinema’s greatest icons, providing illumination and insight in a tight little 80-minute package. Keanu Reeves’ no-nonsense narration compliments the tone perfectly, and maintains the director’s measured, low-key approach. As a document to Mifune’s life and times, it’s great, but as a study to how and why he left such a legacy behind, it may be invaluable. For anyone who loves his work – or for anyone who never knew how he influenced so many western films – Mifune: The Last Samurai makes for an unparalleled treat.