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Mifune: The Last Samurai

November 25, 2016
Mifune: The Last Samurai

Run down any list of classic Japanese films and you’ll find Rashōmon, Seven Samurai, Throne of Blood, The Hidden Fortress, Yojimbo. Everyone remembers the influence Kurosawa Akira had on the Japanese film industry as it rose from the ashes of World War II, but none of his greatest works would have been possible without his star, Mifune Toshiro.

The new biographical documentary, Mifune: The Last Samurai, is spare and almost perfunctory in comparison to the grand and glorious madness that Mifune himself could bring to the screen. Where co-stars like Shimura Takashi brought gravitas, Mifune brought fire. He was the braying bandit Tajōmaru, the mercurial would-be samurai Kikuchiyo, the murderously striving Lord Washizu.

The film, narrated by Keanu Reeves, starts with two sections that set the stage for Mifune’s career. It reminds us of the long popularity in Japan of “chanbara” or sword-fighting movies, going well back into the silent era. But then the industry was nationalized to make war propaganda films. This is where Kurosawa got his start, and his regrets would inform much of his later filmmaking. As for Mifune, he was enlisted, like all able-bodied Japanese men, but his superiors found him cocky and arrogant, which comes as little surprise.

After the war, the remnants of the film industry were one of the few places people could still find work. Despite no great passion for it, Mifune fell into acting. Kurosawa recognized his natural talents, building roles around him, and allowing him far more leeway than he granted most of his cast and crew.

And the results were incredible. Seven Samurai spawned two American remakes, including this year’s The Magnificent Seven. Yojimbo was the direct inspiration for Sergio Leone’s iconic A Fistful of Dollars, which launched Clint Eastwood’s career, as well as Sergio Corbucci’s Django. And The Hidden Fortress was, along with classic Flash Gordon serials, George Lucas’ main reference in writing Star Wars. In fact, Mifune himself was offered the role of Obi-Wan Kenobi, and Darth Vader’s helmet and armor are designed after samurai gear.

It’s no coincidence that so much of Mifune’s influence on American and European film comes across in genre fare, and particularly in westerns. Despite arising in vastly different cultures, there are some deep resonances between the samurai and rōnin of jidaigeki period films and the cowboys and gunslingers of our mythologized Old West. Mifune and Kurosawa’s artistic credentials were surely instrumental in getting critics to take westerns seriously, as more than just money-making oaters. That gave up-and-comers like Lucas, Spielberg, Coppola, Scorsese, and their whole generation cover to indulge in genre movies. And without that, science fiction, fantasy, superhero, and any number of other sorts of movies would never have taken on the importance they have in our culture.

Further blending the realms of serious art and popular entertainment, Throne of Blood remains among the best film adaptations of Macbeth. And Hamlet found new life as a critique of postwar corruption in The Bad Sleep Well. These adaptations helped break ground to more radical reinterpretations of Shakespeare’s plays outside of their original periods and settings.

As a documentary, Mifune offers a pleasant enough recap of Mifune’s life, told mostly through talking-head interviews with many of his fellow actors and crew members. There aren’t any truly deep or radical insights into the man, but it provides a wonderful syllabus for anyone interested in learning more about classic Japanese cinema, as well as an reminder of the outsized influence this outsized actor had on the entire landscape of film around the world.

Worth It: yes.
Bechdel-Wallace Test: if it applies to documentaries, fail.

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