Over the course of his legendary acting career, Toshiro Mifune was a samurai, a stray dog, and a shoe tycoon. He was a muse for one of the greatest filmmakers of the 20th Century, a beacon for Japanese cinema, and a howling ambassador for the entire country and its culture. He was a feral force of nature who prized combustion over control, a wild gust of wind whose energy only a precious few collaborators knew how to harness. He was even, according to his daughter, almost Obi-Wan Kenobi.
The one thing that Toshiro Mifune wasn’t — wasn’t even capable of being — was boring. At least not on screen. At least not until now.
A thin, dull, and by-the-numbers biography that fails to capture its subject’s irrepressible spirit or properly contextualize his importance, Steven Okazaki’s “Mifune: The Last Samurai” might have made for a solid bonus feature on a Criterion Collection DVD, but feels too feeble to survive on its own. It’s hard to imagine who the film might be for: Fans of Mifune’s work will glean precious little from such a dry retelling of his life story, while those who are unfamiliar with the actor would be wise to meet him on his own terms and watch one of his movies, instead. The guy’s raw appeal remains perfectly self-evident.
Sleepily narrated by Keanu Reeves, “The Last Samurai” begins with a brief history of Japanese film and its genres, suggesting a scope that Okazaki can’t hope to sustain during a doc that’s barely 80 minutes long. And while it’s fun to see snippets of footage from early chanbara silents (1926’s “Chokon” looks particularly awesome), neither Okazaki nor his impressive collection of talking heads are given the chance to explore how Mifune was informed by — or subverted — pre-existing archetypes.
Reeves tells us that Mifune “reinvented the modern movie hero,” but you won’t be able to fully appreciate why unless you’ve seen some of the 16 films that he made with Akira Kurosawa. Snippets from “Rashomon,” “Seven Samurai,” “Yojimbo,” and more are drizzled into the mix as you might expect, but none of these brief clips convey how you could watch one of Mifune’s performances 100 times and still have no idea what he might do next.
Part of the problem is that it’s too easy to be dazzled by the details of Mifune’s bizarre trajectory, which started in China (where his parents worked as missionaries), led to a stint in the Imperial Japanese Army during World War II, and then to a gig as an assistant cameraman at Toho Productions. Mifune only became an actor when his friends submitted his photo to a casting contest on a lark. “His journey was completely unexpected,” Reeves intones, “but he took each step as if it were meant to be.”
Destinies can be fascinating, especially in hindsight, but Okazaki never brings Mifune’s to life. Absent the kind of dynamic source material that electrified last year’s astonishing “Listen to Me Marlon,” the director is left to rely on nothing but archival photographs and the hagiographic testimonies of Mifune’s kids and colleagues. Fortunately, Okazaki is too thorough and hard-working not to find a few interesting tidbits. One interviewee memorably relates how Mifune would feed sukiyaki to kamikaze pilots before their final flights, telling them to reserve their dying thoughts for their mothers. Later, Martin Scorsese reflects on how collaborations between directors and their actors can sour or exhaust themselves over time, the American auteur drawing an unspoken parallel to his faded partnership with Robert De Niro.
But whenever “The Last Samurai” addresses Mifune directly, Okazaki pulls away from anything that might complicate our impressions of its leading man. There’s a brief aside about the performer’s affinities for cars and alcohol (and how he often enjoyed pursuing both passions at the same time), but it’s swept over like so many other parts of his life and replaced with dead air.
Few movies so short feel so strained, which is particularly bizarre considering that credited writer Stuart Galbraith IV once penned an addictive 1,000-page epic about the working relationship between Kurosawa and Mifune, “The Emperor and the Wolf.” Perhaps someone out there has just seen “Drunken Angel” and doesn’t fully understand that they’ve stumbled upon one of cinema’s most dazzling and volatile stars. For them, “The Last Samurai” might be the key to a world that everyone needs to see for themselves. For everyone else, it’s the rare Mifune movie that isn’t worth seeking out.
“Mifune: The Last Samurai” opens in theaters on November 25th.