We don’t really have any great film actors anymore. I don’t mean that we don’t have any good actors anymore. We have loads. Fantastic actors that can take any character and make them living beings. I mean great actors; the ones that go from standard film stars to cultural icons that almost dwarf the film itself. The ones whose name can not only mean the making or breaking of a movie but act as a hallmark of quality for the film you are about to watch.
One such actor was Toshiro Mifune. Even if you are not a fan of Japanese cinema, Mifune’s influence as an actor has had a major effect on most of the cinema you have watched. A true giant of cinema, he was, and in many ways still is, the face of Japanese film. Mifune: The Last Samurai (2016) is a celebration of his legacy and life told by those closest to and inspired by him, out now on DVD and Blu-Ray from BFI.
Narrated by Keanu Reeves, Last Samurai charts the life of Mifune. Born in China to Japanese nationals, we follow Mifune’s life from an impoverished drafted soldier in the Imperial Army during the Second Sino-Japanese War and World War Two, through to the allied occupation of Japan to the burgeoning Japanese film industry of the post-war years. But the documentary spends its lions share examining the fruitful relationship between Mifune and director Akira Kurosawa. Together these men made films that influenced cinema and filmmaking worldwide. From the multi-narrative and subjective psychological thriller Rashomon (1950) to the epic Seven Samurai (1954), they created films that cut down cultural and language barriers. Without their The Hidden Fortress (1958) and Yojimbo (1961) there would be no Star Wars franchise or Dollars Trilogy. And since those films affected the course of modern cinema there would be none of your favourite films from the last 40 years.
Last Samurai is a who’s who of Japanese film, with interviews from those that knew him both on and off the set such as Kaoru Yachigusa, Yoko Tsukasa, Yoshio Tsuchiya and his Mifune’s son, Shiro. Figures such as Steven Spielberg and Martin Scorsese explore the debt they owe to Mifune and the legacy of his work with Kurosawa.
In many ways, the film is a celebration and history of Japan’s Cinema. From the silent period set Chanbara films to wartime propaganda to the golden age of Japanese Film, Last Samurai shows the impact Mifune’s films had on Japan.
It’s not without its issues though. Sometimes it has the feel of a Sky Arts or BBC 4 program. Not that that’s bad, just that it makes it feel a bit small for the subject matter. It could do with another quarter of an hour in run length and it does tend to focus more on Mifune’s career instead of his life. Though that said when it does show his personal life it doesn’t gloss over any of the facts or story.
The DVD comes with several features including Steven Spielberg on Toshiro Mifune, Toshiro Mifune Guardian Interview from 1981 and an illustrated booklet written by director Steven Okazaki and film critic Stuart Galbraith IV.
Even if you are not a fan of Japanese cinema I would recommend that you go out and get this one for yourself.
Dir: Steven Okazaki
Src: Steven Okazaki, Stuart Galbraith IV.
Cast: Keanu Reeves, Kaoru Yachigusa, Yoko Tsukasa, Yoshio Tsuchiya, Shiro Mifune, Steven Spielberg, Martin Scorsese, Toshiro Mifune (Archival Footage), Akira Kurosawa (Archival Footage)
Prd: Toshiaki Nakazawa
DOP: Tohru Hina, Yasuyuki Ishikawa
Music: Jeffrey Wood
Runtime: 80 minutes
Mifune: The Last Samurai is available on DVD now.