Arts & Events

The Magnificent Seven One:

Mifune Memorialized Magnificently

Gar Smith
Thursday December 08, 2016 - 01:15:00 PM

At the Landmark Shattuck, December 9

It is fair to say that, without director Akira Kurasawa and actor Toshiro Mifune, there would have been no Magnificent Seven, No Clint "Fistful of Dollars" Eastwood, No Dirty Harry, and no Darth Vader.

George Lucas has admitted that Star Wars was inspired, in large measure, by Kurasawa's samurai epics. (Look no further than Darth Vader's Space Samurai costume.) Lucas even tried to get Mifune to play the role of Obi-Wan Kenobi in the first Star Wars film but, when the Japanese legend turned down the offer, the role went to Sir Alec Guiness. (Spielberg had better luck many years later when Mifune signed on for a role in the WWII comedy, 1941, where Mifune co-starred with the likes of John Belushi and Dan Aykroyd.)

There are two towering legends in Japanese cinema and Godzilla takes second place to Mifune. You wouldn't want to run afoul of either one of them. Toshio Mifune made 27 films in four years, a testament to the grueling task of a contract employee. Mifune and many of his colleagues routinely worked 350 days out of every year. 



It was a special treat to catch a press screening of Steven Okazaki's new documentary on the life and times of Toshiro Mifune— star of Rashomon, Yojimbo, Red Beard, Throne of Blood and The Seven Samaurai—at Berkeley's Fantasy Film building. For once, there was no need to commute to a press event in San Francisco and the local site included a table spread with an abundance of sushi and other locally sourced treats. 

But it made sense. Okazaki (whose films include the Oscar-winning Days of Waiting) is a Berkeley-based filmmaker. Furthermore, the soundtrack for Mifune was edited right here at the West Berkeley studio. Members of the orchestra that created the accompanying music—including a team of Taiko drummers—were in attendance as special guests. Some barely made it, arriving just in time from a drive over the Bay Bridge. 

Although there are a number of film studios in Japan, they are notoriously competitive and they generally refuse to have anything to do with one another. Because there is no spirit of cooperation, the process of obtaining permissions for the use of various film clips took nine months. Okazaki and his crew were unable to get any of the film clips from Mifune's non-samurai roles so we don't get to see any films in which he plays a contemporary rogue, gussied up in a business suit with a well-groomed modern hairdo. 

It took three years to make the film, including months spent waiting to organize interviews with Martin Scorsese and Steven Spielberg—whose lives are understandably overscheduled. However, Okazaki recalled, as soon as they were approached, both Spielberg and Scorsese immediately accepted the invitation. Onscreen their enthusiasm and admiration for Kurasawa's work is quite clear. 

In addition to the compelling film clips from Mifune's long, swashbuckling career, the film contains many stills that remind us that the bearded, fierce-eyed sword-wielding maniac also was a dashing, down-right, good-looking guy. And all of the aging actresses who stood by his side on the screen during these long-ago days of glory are still clearly enamored of the man. One of the still images (taken by his photographer father) shows Japan's most notorious rogue as you've never seen him before—a baby photo of Toshiro as a chubby infant naked and smiling on a table. 

During an interview with Kanza Uni (still filming fight scenes well into his 80s), the actor sports a fresh Band-Aid on his right arm. Was this wound picked up in the fight scene that immediately precedes the interview? (In this clip, the gray-haired martial artist takes on a ring of much younger warriors in the backyard of a temple.) 

According to Okazaki, serious injuries were not that much of a problem in chanbara films. The fight scenes were as carefully choreographed as dances. Moreover, there was no overt bloodshed. The samurai swords would land blows but they never seemed to cut flesh or even cloth. (Spoiler footnote: According to Okazaki, the huge swords seen splitting the air with such ferocity were never really much of a danger. They were made from bamboo and covered with foil to make them look like metal.) 

There was some hazard, however. In one film, Mifune was targeted to be stabbed in the chest. A wooden block beneath his costume was supposed to offer protection but the attacking actor managed to miss the wood and plunged his dagger deep into Mifune's skin. According to the Okazaki, this wound, while not life-threatening, left the actor with a vivid scar that lasted throughout his life. 

During WW II, Mifune's family had been living in Manchuria but they were called back to fight for the Emperor. We learn that, in the service, Mifune was frequently assaulted by his superiors—because had a "commanding voice" and demonstrated what some felt was a "cocky attitude." And for this he was frequently singled out and forced to stand at attention while being slapped with the soles of an officer's shoes. Mifune refused to buckle in the face of this abuse. It was in the military that the actor learned to grit his teeth and suffer a beating while silently maintaining his dignity. 

Towards the closing days of the war, one of Mifune's duties in the service of the Emperor was to send young boys off on suicide missions. He had no illusions about the fate that awaited them. He would tell the young boys: "Don't bother to say 'bonsai!' for the Emperor," he told them. "Take the time to say goodbye to your mothers." 

During the impoverishment that followed the end of the war, Mifune at one point purchased a blanket so he could cut it up and use the cloth to hand-sew a jacket and trousers. (This suit is still hanging on display in the home of Mifune's grandson.) 

Kurosawa was a demanding director. He insisted that the actors all keep their eyes open during the scene shot in a sandstorm kicked up by a hidden barrage of portable airplane propellers. 

Mifune's surviving coworkers recall his quiet generosity. He was always ready to offered seats to actors, to make sure people had enough food—and was always on hand to refill their sake cups. Others remember how he would stay behind after shooting to clean out the ashtrays on the sets or take time to sweep parking lots clean. 

And here's one more reason to catch Mifune. The film is narrated by Keanu Reeves. Why Keanu Reeves? According to Okazaki, it was the "echoes of Mifune" in Keanu's style. "He showed up on his motorcycle, removing his helmet and signed a contract on the spot with an enthusiastic 'Let's do it!'" Like Mifune, "an independent actor, in charge of his own life and career. No agents required."