Rentaro Mikuni is one of those people whose every virtue is matched by a vice. For each endearing, admirable act he can recall from his 86 years of life, he seems to have a sin to match.
For this reason the actor’s ultimately failed attempt four decades ago to make a film in Afghanistan — an attempt that is the subject of a documentary television program airing on WOWOW in October — is quintessentially Mikuni.
But to understand the events that took place in central Asia in 1972, it is first necessary to turn back the clock even further, to the mid 1950s, when the square-jawed Mikuni was a star of the silver screen.
“I had far more income than the average salaryman at that time,” remembered the old actor, as he talked to The Japan Times in mid July. “My lifestyle became a little messy.”
Mikuni stumbled into acting in 1950, not long after returning from China, where he served in the Japanese Army during the war. His fame grew out of roles that took advantage of his solid build and good looks. Perhaps the best known is “Biruma no Tategoto” (Harp of Burma), a war tale by director Kon Ichikawa, in which Mikuni played an improbably kind-hearted captain who encouraged his subordinates to sing.
Based on a novel by Michio Takeyama, “Harp of Burma” is an idealistic paean to peace quite removed from the horrors of war — a fact that Mikuni found distressing. “In my experience it was simply not possible for someone with such pure ideals to survive the war,” he says.
Mikuni had been skeptical of the war from long before he became a participant — he twice tried to escape when he received his conscription papers, refused to learn the Charter Oath that recruits were supposed to memorize, and when he did eventually make it to battle, he recalls, he refused to fire his gun.
“Working with Ichikawa made me realize that I wanted to make my own statement, present my own antiwar message,” Mikuni says. Unfortunately, he adds, “Ichikawa found out what I thought of his film, and that was pretty much the last time we worked together.”
From that point Mikuni began working on low-paying independent productions, collaborating with leftwing directors on films with a social conscience — such as Tadashi Imai’s “Yoru no Tsuzumi” (Night Drum) and Miyoji Ieki’s “Ibo Kyodai” (Stepbrothers).
At first glance, this career shift presents Mikuni in an favorable light: Haunted by war memories, the film star insists on jobs with a conscience. But sure enough, there is another side to it — the side that involved his private life being a mess. By his own admission, Mikuni was a cad and a lecher. “I lost my humanity,” he says.
Worse still, the solution that emerged in the then-fading star’s mind was to “spend time alone.” The fact that by then, the early 1960s, Mikuni was living with his third wife and their young son didn’t enter the equation.
“I abandoned my son and wife and all my assets. I started living by myself,” he recalls.
Further prodding reveals that he didn’t quite live by himself. “The independent films didn’t pay well, so I didn’t have any money,” he says. “For three years I lived in a friend’s apartment — a nice place with an elevator — and in that entire time, I didn’t pay a cent of rent.”
It was around this time that Mikuni began preparing to direct his own film in Afghanistan. Although he doesn’t use the term himself, he saw the project as a kind of quest for redemption.
“I heard at the time that some damage had been done to the Buddha statues at Bamiyan,” he explains. “I had the idea that capitalism had sent Japan off on the wrong path, and that my own faults were part of that.”
Mikuni saw the neglected Buddhas of Bamiyan (three decades later the Taliban destroyed them completely) as a symbol of Japan’s and his own spiritual decline.
The second vague motivation behind his eventual departure to Pakistan in 1972 was that he wanted to explore his own failings as a father. “I wanted to make a film about paternal relationships,” he says.
After crossing into Afghanistan through the Khyber Pass, Mikuni and his Japanese crew arrived at the area he had planned to shoot.
“We had a Pakistani interpreter and he helped us find a young Afghani boy to act in the film,” Mikuni says.
Coincidentally, the boy was exactly the same age as his own estranged son, Koichi Sato (Mikuni’s real name is Sato; Mikuni is a stage name).
The young Afghan boy was malnourished, and this gave Mikuni the idea to create a story of a Japanese doctor (played by himself) who would befriend a sick young boy in Afghanistan but be unable to help him. The boy would eventually die, with the Buddhas of Bamiyan in the background.
“I was making it up as I went along,” Mikuni admits.
The 86-year-old’s memory is hazy, but it appears he marshaled his crew from one scenic location to the next, shooting, as he admitted, “without a script.” Eventually, the small savings he had scraped together to fund the project dried up and everything ground to a screeching halt.
Mikuni returned to Japan with over five hours of film, but was so short of cash he had to start taking as much acting work as he could get. He is hoping to finally complete the editing of the film, which is titled “Kishi no Nai Kawa” (The Endless Stream), later this year. He is also trying to locate the Afghan boy, who he knew only as Nabi.
Portions of the Afghanistan footage, which shows the stubbled and sunglassed Mikuni, wandering around and eventually becoming close to the young boy, will be shown in the WOWOW documentary.
Mikuni’s career eventually regained a semblance of normalcy. For the last 20 years he has appeared in the long-running salaryman comedy film series, “Tsuribaka Nisshi” (Free and Easy), playing the role of the gruff company president reawakened to his own humanity by an underperforming employee with a passion for fishing.
Ironically, Mikuni’s stature has also been helped by the successful career of his son, who, as any contemporary filmgoer knows, eventually grew up to become one of Japan’s most famous actors. Koichi Sato’s strong build and square jaw remind viewers of Mikuni in his heyday, while the occasional public spats that flare up between the until-recently estranged father and son serve equally as reminders that while there is plenty to like about Rentaro Mikuni, there is just as much that is hard to forgive.
The documentary “Maboroshi no eiga ‘Kishi no nai Kawa’ — Kantoku Mikuni Rentaro no Saisei” (The Phantom Film, ‘The Endless Stream’ — The Rebirth of Director Rentaro Mikuni) airs on WOWOW on Oct. 12.