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Mifune: The Last Samurai

London Film Festival 2016 Review

Strand Releasing; 80 minutes

Director: Steven Okazak

Written by on October 20, 2016 

Mifune: The Last Samurai, the well-assembled documentary on the life of actor Toshirô Mifune, the long-time Akira Kurosawa collaborator, should be a worthy introduction to one of Japanese cinema’s greatest icons, if a little light on more revelatory findings. With a softly-spoken narration by Keanu Reeves and talking heads from the likes of Martin Scorsese and Steven Spielberg, as well as the sons of both Mifune and Kurosawa, Mifune offers a personal and professional tribute to an actor who reinvented the hero for a post-World War II age.


Mifune, the preeminent Japanese actor of his generation, had starring roles in some of the iconic samurai movies of the country’s golden age – including Rashomon, Seven Samurai, Throne of Blood and Yojimbo – and influenced a host of American icons from Clint Eastwood’s Man With No Name to Darth Vader (Mifune was supposedly offered Obi-Wan Kenobi in Star Wars). Director Steven Okazaki suggests that his power, the way he “energized everything around him” came from hard-hitting personal experiences. Born in mainland China to Japanese missionaries, he first came to Japan during the second World War, when he was stationed as a tutor to young kamikaze pilots, a time that lit a personal consciousness and a belated sense of injustice.

After 1945, he found work at Tokyo’s Toho studios as a photographer, before Akira Kurosawa discovered him and cast him in the lead in 1948’s Drunken Angel. Through Mifune, Kurosawa found a way to channel his own rebellious streak, after the director had been forced to make propaganda pictures in the early 1940s and vowed again never to be ordered around again. Mifune gave Kurosawa the palette to create a new type of traditional Japanese hero, especially through the character of the ronin, a figure from Japanese chanbara stories who are fuelled by their own sense of justice. And Mifune and Kurosawa’s first major samurai movie Rashomon was a huge success – or as the documentary rather flippantly says it put “Japanese cinema on the map” – and led to a sixteen-film collaboration.


Okazaki, who won a short film documentary Oscar in 1990, proves more than capable at bringing together archival footage, and found many of Mifune’s collaborators – including Kyoko Kagawa, Haruo Nakajima and stunt choreographer Kanzo Uni (who claims he was ‘killed’ by Mifune more than 100 times) –  for some quirky anecdotes. We’re told that despite being a notoriously exacting director, Kurosawa didn’t give Mifune acting instructions, instead allowing the actor to shape his characters from inside out (or “from the earth,” as one collaborator puts it). And that Mifune did the final scene of Throne of Blood – in which he’s shot at by real archers – without insurance because of a sense of duty and that he was indebted to Kurosawa for his career.

But these moments, in which Okazaki reflects on Mifune’s choices through the actor’s own experiences, are the best parts of the film. For much of the documentary, however, the director falls back on a casual run-down of the actor’s work, and singularly fails to draw much from Mifune’s personal life. His relationship with his wife and his children, one of whom is interviewed for the film, is glossed over. The influence of female figures, for instance, is almost totally overlooked. Still, for newcomers to Mifune’s work, or to Japanese cinema more generally, this should be fine taster.

Mifune: The Last Samurai screened at the London Film Festival and opens on November 25.


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