Toshirô Mifune was born in 1920, in a Japanese settlement of China where his father worked as a photographer, often capturing images of his eldest son to publicise the business. This early camera experience seems to have put the boy in good stead for the film career he started on his arrival in Japan, after his war service, for he would go on to become one of the most famous Japanese film stars who ever lived, largely thanks to his work with esteemed director Akira Kurosawa. This is a documentary that extensively covers his career with interviews and clips.
Although Mifune became one of the most celebrated Japanese men who ever lived back in the twentieth century, this film was apparently made to both pay tribute and as an attempt to keep his name well in the public eye, for as with many stars who were enormously famous, the danger was that he could surprisingly easily be forgotten so director Steven Okazaki and his co-scripter Stuart Galbraith IV were seeking to remedy that by placing his name front and centre here. Therefore there was a wealth of material from his films in photographs and clips, and plenty to choose from since he was prolific.
What there was not, and this harmed the documentary somewhat, were any words from the actor himself, as we are told he was an intensely private man who kept out of the public eye when he was not acting. Nevertheless, you hankered after even a quote from Mifune to let us know what he was thinking rather than refer to others to give their opinions, no matter they were from people who had known him, be that colleagues or family members; you got to the end of this and think, was there not a Japanese equivalent of The Tonight Show with Johnny Carson that he showed up on? The lack of his opinion on Kurosawa, even, was rather blatant.
Even a photo call where he could deliver a few words to his fans would have done. This was notable when the interviewees at times did not tally with each other, some describing Mifune as a controlled, strictly principled man, while others said he was a heavy drinker who would get to the end of the working day and basically get hammered and pick fights with gangsters. He could easily have been both, of course, but you do wonder if you knew him as a person any better through his performances than anything that was related here, with his charisma, his silences, and that withering glare. The reason behind his creative split with Kurosawa was confused as well.
Keanu Reeves narrated the film modestly and straightforwardly, apparently present to lend some celebrity power for those outside of the East who would not normally take a chance on a film documentary, and as far as talking heads went, Steven Spielberg (who worked with Mifune on flop mega-comedy 1941) and Martin Scorsese (who knew Kurosawa), served much the same purpose. There was a go at linking Japan's Chanbara films, their samurai equivalent of Hollywood's Westerns, to the history of their industry and positing Mifune as the most integral player in that account, which was not wrong exactly, but he was not the only samurai star in town throughout the Golden Age of the genre. Still, for sketching in the life of one of the greats of cinema, this was to be valued, and would, as the makers desired, keep its subject's name alive. Music by Jeffrey Wood.
[The BFI have released this on DVD. Those features in full:
Steven Spielberg on Toshiro Mifune (2016, 20 mins): the Oscar®-winning director discusses Mifune's career, including his collaborations with Kurosawa, his influence on western cinema and working with him on 1941
Toshiro Mifune Guardian Interview (1986, 61 mins, audio only): the legendary actor discusses his life and career in this interview with critic and writer David Shipman, recorded at the NFT
Illustrated booklet with new writing by Steven Okazaki and Stuart Galbraith lV, an interview with the director, biography of Toshiro Mifune by Philip Kemp and full film credits.]