Director: Steven Okazaki
Writer: Stuart Galbraith IV, Steven Okazaki
Cast: Keanu Reeves, Yoshio Tsuchiya, Martin Scorsese, Steven Spielberg, Koji Yakusho, Sadao Nakajima, Kyoko Kagawa
Running Time: 80 min.
By Kyle Warner
“The ordinary Japanese actor might need ten feet of film to get across an impression; Mifune needed only three.”
– Akira Kurosawa
Like many others, I have Godzilla to thank for first introducing me to Japanese movies. But when the day finally came for me to look beyond the kaiju and discover what else Japanese cinema had to offer, I started with the best: Akira Kurosawa’s Seven Samurai. And though I would eventually work my way through the entirety of Kurosawa’s filmography, the first thing I did after watching Seven Samurai was look up all other available Toshiro Mifune films on DVD in the States. In Seven Samurai, Mifune played the wannabe samurai Kikuchiyo, a roguish clown who starts out as the unloved stray dog of the group but ends up becoming the heart and soul of the film. It’s a marvelous performance, one so physical and funny that we don’t always notice the deep humanity until repeat viewings. What I learned over my years of searching out more Toshiro Mifune films is that fantastic performances were the norm for this actor. If I was asked to name the five greatest movie stars of all time, I can say that Mifune would definitely be on that list, and then I would spend a lot of time considering which other four would deserve to join him. So, considering all of that, the new documentary Mifune: The Last Samurai was pretty much a must see film for me.
Mifune: The Last Samurai doesn’t offer much new information to the actor’s biggest fans, but for newcomers it squeezes a good deal of information into its 80 minutes. Oscar winner Steven Okazaki’s documentary uses film clips, new on-screen interviews with Mifune collaborators and admirers, and rare behind-the-scene footage to tell Mifune’s life story. While it breaks no new ground for how such a film is put together, it’s still a handsomely produced documentary.
The film starts by showing us the history of the chanbara genre (samurai swordplay dramas) in Japanese cinema. This section includes some cool footage of silent samurai movies, many of which do not survive in their entirety today. From there the documentary shifts gears to WWII, in which a young Mifune trained pilots going off to war. Mifune was not a true believer in the goals of the Empire of Japan and told his soldiers to think more of their families than of the Emperor. When the war ended, Mifune hoped to use the skills his father taught him to become a cameraman’s assistant at Toho studios, but ended up becoming a movie star instead (quite by accident, according to some accounts). This section of the documentary shares a wealth of rarely seen images of Mifune’s youth, long before superstardom was ever part of the plan.
From there, we move into Mifune’s film career, which developed around the same time that director Akira Kurosawa was becoming a bigger name at Toho. Much time is spent detailing the working relationship between director and star, which is only right. It’s impossible to imagine many Kurosawa films without the inimitable Mifune, just as it is impossible to imagine Mifune becoming the same brilliant actor without Kurosawa. Their working relationship eventually soured, however, and they did not make another film together after 1965’s Red Beard. The documentary does not expressly state the reason for the falling out. Nor does the film go much into the attempts to patch things up, or the later roles that were seemingly written by Kurosawa with Mifune in mind.
Narrating the documentary is the voice of Keanu Reeves (John Wick Chapter 2). Some may take issue with Reeves’ narration, as he is very soft-spoken and monotone, but I had no problem with it. Reeves has a true love for the art of cinema, including martial arts cinema, and his inclusion in the documentary feels right to me.
Okazaki gathered an impressive list of interview participants for his film, including Mifune co-stars Kyoko Kagawa (High & Low) and Yoshio Tsuchiya (Seven Samurai), American admirers Martin Scorsese and Steven Spielberg (whose early film 1941 featured Mifune in a minor role), film critic Tadao Sato, modern Japanese movie star Koji Yakusho (13 Assassins), Mifune’s eldest son Shiro (After the Rain), and even Godzilla himself, Haruo Nakajima, who was a stunt player in earlier Mifune features. (Clint Eastwood, who played Mifune’s role in the Spaghetti Western remake of Yojimbo, A Fistful of Dollars, would’ve been a nice addition considering that movie solidified Eastwood as more than just a TV star. Also notably absent is Tatsuya Nakadai, who had second billing in many of Mifune’s finest films of the 60’s, and in the 80’s would play the roles in Kurosawa movies that seemed like they were written expressly for Mifune. But perhaps this is just the fan in me wishing for more, more, more.) All interviewees add their own take on Mifune, describing him as a consummate professional on the film set and something of a live wire when left to party. Though it does not spend a whole lot of time on the dark chapters of Mifune’s life, his tabloid scandals and his excessive drinking are among the topics of conversation.
In the film’s final moments, we hear a portion of Kurosawa’s farewell to Mifune that was read at the actor’s funeral (Mifune died in 1997 at age 77. Kurosawa died the next year at age 88). It’s an emotional moment… and then the film is suddenly over. It felt like there was much more that could’ve been said, not just on the topics already discussed but new topics as well. Much time is spent on chanbara at the start, but little is explored about how Mifune (and Kurosawa) reinvented the genre. Nor is there much said about Mifune’s lasting impact in cinema or the actors who took up the craft in his wake. That Koji Yakusho is the only modern Japanese actor in the documentary seems like an oversight.
When all is said and done, the documentary simply feels too short. Toshiro Mifune was a titan of cinema. More needed to be said about the man, his craft, and the movies he left behind (with the exception of the Samurai Trilogy, the movies not directed by Kurosawa only get brief mentions in the doc, if at all). What makes it puzzling is that the film is co-written by Stuart Galbraith IV, who wrote an epic 800-page book on Mifune and Kurosawa, titled The Emperor and the Wolf, so we know that there’s plenty more content that could’ve found its way into the film. Mifune: The Last Samurai is an entertaining documentary, one I’m sure to watch again sometime, but it doesn’t feel like much more than a well-polished special feature from a Criterion DVD. And, to be perfect honest, had it been released that way then I’m sure I would’ve been more forgiving to its shortcomings. Taken as is, it’s probably best viewed as an introduction to the actor’s legacy for newer fans. Mifune’s older fans won’t learn much that’s new to them, but it could make for a nice finale to your next Mifune movie marathon.
Kyle Warner’s Rating: 6.5/10