Perhaps the most illuminating passage of Mifune: The Last Samurai—Steven Okazaki’s documentary about legendary Japanese actor Toshiro Mifune—comes early in the film, in the form of a brief history of early Japanese cinema, especially the 1920s. Samurai films had become especially popular among young people, drawn to its nostalgic look at codes of honor in an older time in the wake of World War I and its devastation. With its inclusion of rare footage from some of these films and Keanu Reeves’s soft-spoken recitation of Okazaki and Stuart Galbraith IV’s narration in voiceover, this sequence puts us in the frame of mind not just of a standard talking-heads documentary, but also of a piece of video criticism of the type that film critics like Kevin B. Lee and Matt Zoller Seitz have been pioneering in the past decade-plus. It instills hope that Okazaki’s film will have something genuinely revelatory to offer on the much-discussed subject of Mifune, particularly regarding the 16 films he made with Akira Kurosawa, the filmmaker who brought him to prominence on the world cinema stage.
Alas, it’s a hope that turns out to be fulfilled only partially, at best. No doubt those who only know Mifune through his screen acting will find the biographical details fascinating: Born to Japanese missionaries in China in 1920, he was drafted into the Japanese army during World War II, where he developed the rebellious streak, distrust of authority and humane empathy he would later bring to his live-wire performances. And some of the interview subjects provide enlightening context. Mifune’s son, Shiro, fills us in on heartbreaking personal details about his father, especially his alcoholism, which led him to turn violent at times. There are colorful anecdotes from Mifune’s collaborators testifying to his intense work ethic and generosity toward other actors. We learn, for instance, that Kurosawa, known for being super controlling with most of the other actors on set, tended to leave Mifune alone in his direction of him. And Martin Scorsese and Steven Spielberg—the latter of whom directed Mifune in his 1979 comedy 1941—pop up to offer their own commentaries on the actor’s work.
Nevertheless, even at its most insightful, Mifune: The Last Samurai never quite shakes off a feeling of superficiality in its approach to this famous subject. Much of his non-Kurosawa-directed work is relegated to one-off mentions at best, with only his performances in the three films that constitute Hiroshi Inagaki’s Samurai Trilogy (1954-56) being explored in any depth. And outside of some of those aforementioned anecdotes, his personal life gets an even shorter shrift, with his struggles outside of his work with Kurosawa touched on in a rather perfunctory manner, as if Okazaki merely includes them because those were the facts of his life. In the end, Okazaki’s film may leave us with a slightly greater appreciation of his performances—especially when we learn about the mortal danger Mifune willingly put himself in for his harrowing death scene in Throne of Blood—but the man himself remains beyond our grasp.
Director: Steven Okazaki
Writers: Stuart Galbraith IV, Steven Okazaki
Starring: Keanu Reeves, Kyoko Kagawa, Shiro Mifune, Koji Yakusho, Martin Scorsese, Steven Spielberg
Release Date: Nov. 25, 2016
Kenji Fujishima is a freelance film critic, contributing to Slant Magazine, Brooklyn Magazine, The Playlist, and the Village Voice in addition to Paste. He is also Deputy Editor of Movie Mezzanine and former editor-in-chief of In Review Online. When he’s not watching movies and writing and editing film criticism, he’s trying to absorb as much music, art and literature as possible. He has not infrequently been called a “culture vulture” for that reason.