Toshiro Mifune was the first Japanese — or, for that matter, Asian — actor to become an international action star. Born in 1920, he became one of the few Japanese known to foreign film fans, with the director who made him famous, Akira Kurosawa, being another.
But while the films Mifune made with Kurosawa in the 1950s and ’60s defined his image for many — the untamed, impetuous warrior of “Shichinin no Samurai” (“Seven Samurai”) or the scruffy, canny ronin (masterless samurai) of “Yojimbo” — he worked extensively with other directors at home and abroad. The results, such as Steven Spielberg’s widely panned 1979 World War II comedy “1941” or the highly rated but culturally tone-deaf 1980 mini-series “Shogun,” may not have revealed his best work, but they insinuated his name even deeper in the Western popular consciousness. When he died in 1997 at age 77 he had appeared in nearly 170 feature films.
So when Steven Okazaki’s “Mifune: The Last Samurai” made its Japan premiere at the Kyoto International Film and Art Festival in October, my first question was why this sort of English-language feature documentary had been so long in coming.
The short answer: The many rights-holders involved, including some notoriously uncooperative local film companies, presented a major barrier for any would-be Mifune documentarian. But veteran producer Toshiaki Nakazawa, who made the Oscar-winning 2008 drama “Departures,” proposed a Mifune documentary to one of those rights-holders, Mifune Productions, as an offshoot of a Mifune biography he was then working on.
Founded by Mifune himself and now headed by his son Shiro, assisted by his grandson, Rikiya, Mifune Productions gave its blessing to the book, which was published in 2014, and also to the documentary.
“Fortunately the book was a very big success, so (Nakazawa) started to create a production committee,” Rikiya explained at the Kyoto festival. “That’s how this project began.”
Hearing about the project from another producer, Okazaki pitched himself as director. Given the U.S.-based filmmaker’s numerous honors, including an Oscar for his 1991 documentary short “Days of Waiting” and an Emmy for his 2007 HBO documentary “White Light/Black Rain,” the producers didn’t need a lot of persuading.
“I worried about the licensing for the film,” Okazaki tells The Japan Times. “No one had made an ambitious documentary about Mifune or Kurosawa. But we got through it. We used everything we could find.”
In addition to clips and stills from Mifune’s films, Okazaki and his staff interviewed not only former members of the Kurosawa-gumi (“Kurosawa production unit”), such as long-time script supervisor Teruyo Nogami, but also director Martin Scorsese, who in the film likens Mifune in his 1950 international breakthrough, “Rashomon,” to “a caged animal.” Spielberg praises Mifune’s performance in “1941,” saying “He had so much courage — he would explode on the screen.”
Born and raised as a sansei (third-generation) Japanese-American in Venice, California, Okazaki has also long admired Mifune.
“I grew up on the Mifune films, especially ‘Seven Samurai’ and the ‘Samurai Trilogy,’ ” he says. “They made a powerful impression on me as a young man, seeing an Asian man with so much dignity, who could kick anybody’s butt. He stood apart from everyone else.”
But the 16 films Mifune made with Kurosawa — the documentary’s focus — were made more than half a century ago. The last, “Akahige” (“Red Beard”), was released in 1965. Okazaki worried that the surviving cast members and co-workers might not be up for interviews.
“But they were all so genki (lively), so happy to talk about Mifune and the good old days,” he says. “The first people I met were Kanzo Uni, the sword-fighting choreographer, and Kyoko Kagawa. Uni was so excited he jumped up and showed us Mifune’s sword style. Kagawa was so wonderful and gracious, the star of some of my favorite films, including ‘The Bad Sleep Well.’ I thought, ‘Wow, I think we can do it.’ “
The film, which had its world premiere as this year’s Venice Film Festival, is hardly a hagiography — subjects include Mifune’s heavy drinking, hot temper and extravagant lifestyle — but Okazaki also says that his research did not change his basic view of his subject.
“Mifune was who he seemed to be,” he explains. “Dignified, earnest, funny, potentially volatile. His childhood in Manchuria and his experience of seeing young men go off to die during World War II clearly shaped the person he became. I didn’t find anything that contradicted his public image. Not really.”
Rikiya, who was close to his grandfather in the last decade of his life (“When I was in elementary school he lived right next door and I’d go directly to see him after school was out,” he says) remembers him as “internationally minded.” “But he was proud of being Japanese,” he adds. “He wanted to spread Japanese culture overseas.”
“Mifune: The Last Samurai” might be described as a posthumous contribution to that mission. Strand Releasing is distributing the film to festivals and U.S. theaters, starting with the San Diego Asian Film Festival on Nov. 11. Also, Mifune got a star on the Hollywood Walk of Fame in a ceremony on Nov. 14. A Japan release is in the works for next year, but dates and venues have yet to be decided.
Okazaki says his aim in making “Mifune” and other documentaries is less to educate than to “humanize the subject and tell a good story.”
“But I hope people who love Mifune and Kurosawa will enjoy it and get something out of it,” he says. “These are the guys who influenced Spielberg, Scorsese and George Lucas. They continue to be a huge influence on the films we see today and young viewers ought to know their work.”
But those viewers, he laments, are ignorant of Kurosawa and Mifune and many other greats of 20th-century cinema.
“They would love ‘Seven Samurai’ if they were aware of it — but I don’t have any power there,” he says. “There’s so much great cinema to be seen that’s not on Netflix.”