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New Documentary Pays Tribute To Japanese Actor Toshiro Mifune

Mifune: The Last Samurai’ opens at Landmark this weekend

Director Akira Kurosawa and actor Toshiro Mifune enjoying a quiet moment on t...

Credit: Strand Releasing

Above: Director Akira Kurosawa and actor Toshiro Mifune enjoying a quiet moment on the set in the documentary "Mifune: The Last Samurai."

'Mifune: The Last Samurai' opens at Landmark this weekend

Companion viewing

"Rashomon" (1950)

"The Seven Samurai" (1954)

"Yojimbo" (1961)

Note: "Drunken Angel" screens April 14 at MOPA as part of Famous Firsts since it marks the first collaboration of Mifune and Kurosawa

The documentary "Mifune: The Last Samurai" played at the San Diego Asian Film Festival last year. Now it gets a theatrical engagement at Landmark's Ken Cinema.

In the program for the San Diego Asian Film Festival screening, artistic director Brian Hu said this about Mifune: "Known as Japanese cinema’s biggest export after Godzilla, Toshiro Mifune blew up as an unlikely international star in the 1950s, not least because he never intended to be an actor to begin with. In the post-war period, when Asian men were stereotyped as buck-toothed dweebs in Hollywood, Mifune managed to burst onto the scene as a magnetic action icon. What he had could not be denied or ignored: a screen charisma made for the close-ups, kinetics, and textures of celluloid. Teamed with the great Akira Kurosawa, he was invincible."

The first word that comes to mind when describing Toshiro Mifune is intensity. He could rivet you to the screen with just a look. He rose to international prominence through a series of collaborations with director Akira Kurosawa, most notably on "The Seven Samurai" in 1954 (it would be remade in America as "The Magnificent Seven" six years later).

In the documentary "Mifune," Steven Spielberg (who directed Mifune in "1941") recalls seeing the actor for the first time in "The Seven Samurai."

"The character that Toshiro played was much more a wild character from the earth itself, like he had been created by the forces of seismic activity from underground. We don’t make the heroes, it’s up to the audience to turn a character into a hero and the power of that is really in the performance of the actor, it’s up to the actor," Spielberg said in the film.

Every character Mifune created rocked the screen in some way. The documentary begins by looking to the samurai in Japanese culture and to the tradition of the “chanbara” film, which featured stock samurai characters. Mifune and Kurosawa exploded those stereotypes in a series of films in the 1950s and '60s.

Trailer: 'Mifune: The Last Samurai'

Documentary director Steven Okazaki also looks to the actor’s career and and private life. Since both Mifune and Kurosawa have passed on, Okazaki gets Mifune's and Kurosawa's family members to talk about the two men and their creative partnership. The film is filled with great archive materials and Mifune remains a charismatic screen presence.

But Okazaki doesn't make a film that approaches the stature of his subject. His choice of Keanu Reeves as narrator proves a bad one, with Reeves maintaining a flat tone throughout. Okazaki has Spielberg and Martin Scorsese in interviews but neither has the opportunity to provide any in depth commentary.

"Mifune: The Last Samurai" (in English and Japanese with English subtitles) could have gone into more depth and explored the relationship between Kurosawa and Mifune more fully (they had a falling out at the end) but even with its shortcomings the documentary is still a joy to watch. There are great moments from the set as when we are told that the arrows shot at Mifune in "Throne of Blood" were real. What the film does succeed at is reminding us what a genius Mifune was and hopefully it will inspire a new generation to discover him.

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