Toshiro Mifune (right) as Musashi Miyamoto duels with Rentaro Mikuni in The Samurai Trilogy – a series that influenced future films like Kill Bill. Photo: Strand Releasing
Toshiro Mifune (right) as Musashi Miyamoto duels with Rentaro Mikuni in The Samurai Trilogy – a series that influenced future films like Kill Bill. Photo: Strand Releasing

Japanese actor Toshiro Mifune, who appeared in 16 films by legendary director Akira Kurosawa, is well-known for that rare combination of physical power and grace that he embodied in his roles.

But at the start of his career, in films like Rashomon (1950), his rugged charm came as a shock to Japanese audiences, says Steven Okazaki, whose new documentary Mifune: The Last Samurai, charts the life of the actor.

“He wasn’t like most actors of that time, as he brought something rough and very real to his roles. That was startling for Japanese audiences,” says Okazaki.

Kurosawa’s 1954 classic Seven Samurai, in which Mifune played a ronin, or masterless samurai, is a case in point. “He’s riding around on a horse barely clothed. Mifune had a wildness that came through in his characters, and that was unusual back then. There was shock value to it that made him hard to ignore.”

Mifune, who died in 1997 at the age of 77, was born in Shandong province in China, which was then under Japanese occupation. His parents were Christian missionaries. Mifune served in the Japanese army as an aerial photographer during the Second World War, and took a job as an assistant cameraman at Toho film studios afterwards.

It was when Mifune took part in an open audition for actors at Toho that he caught Kurasawa’s eye.

Mifune in a scene from 1950 jidaigeki film Rashomon. Photo: Strand Releasing

Kurosawa was immediately impressed by Mifune’s power and presence, and the two went on to make a number of classic films together, including a samurai adaptation of Shakespeare’s Macbeth called Throne of Blood (1955), and the popular samurai action-drama Yojimbo (1961).

Mifune was the perfect fit for the master director, who occasionally referred to him as his muse, says Okazaki: “He had a unique screen presence, the kind that every director is always looking for in an actor. He was special, because although he had a kind of rough grace, there was a volatility to him. He seems easy going, and a little wry, but he was capable of exploding into action at any time in front of the cameras.”

Looking relaxed: Mifune in a yukata. Photo: Strand Releasing

Kurosawa and Mifune fell out during their collaboration, although the specific reason, if there was one, has never been clear. “Early production stills show them hanging out together, at the seaside, and places like that,” says Okazaki. “There was a lot of camaraderie at the start. But as Kurosawa’s films got more ambitious, and he started to reach an international audience, he focused much more on the idea of himself as the serious director, and that affected their relationship.

“I think that Kurosawa always delighted in what Mifune could do, but there was clearly a growing distance between them. People would tell Kurosawa that he needed Mifune for his success, and they would tell Mifune he needed Kurosawa for his success, and that interfered with their close friendship over time. My own opinion is that Kurosawa wanted to try and shine on his own,” says Okazaki.

After making his last film with Kurosawa, 1965’s Red Beard, Mifune formed his own production company.

He also appeared in some non-Japanese films and television series, like the Western production Red Sun, and Steven Spielberg’s wartime comedy 1941. Okazaki interviewed Spielberg for the documentary.

“They had talked about doing another project together,” says Okazaki. “They kept in touch, and Mifune sent Spielberg a letter before he died.”

Spielberg needed no convincing to talk about his old friend, says Okazaki: “When we got through to him, he said ‘yes’ immediately. He was very enthusiastic about it.”

Mifune: The Last Samurai  opened on November 25 in New York.

“I made this documentary for fans of Mifune,” says Okazaki, “and I hope it will win him some new fans, too.”