The modern movie hero owes a great debt to Toshiro Mifune, the longtime Akira Kurosawa star who provided a ferocious centerpiece to everything from “Seven Samurai” to “Yojimbo.” Steven Okazaki’s documentary “Mifune” chronicles the scope of the actor’s sprawling career as well as his lasting cultural impact. The filmmaker spoke to IndieWire about his interest in Mifune, gathering interviews with filmmakers such as Steven Spielberg and Martin Scorsese, and why more people should be appreciating Mifune’s legacy as “the first movie hero who wasn’t a white guy.
A version of this interview was original published at the Telluride Film Festival, where “Mifune” premiered this fall. The film opens November 25 at the IFC Center in New York with more cities to follow.
When did you first encounter Mifune’s performances?
I was 10 years old when I saw my first Mifune movie. “Seven Samurai” was shown at the Japanese Community Center in Venice, California. We sat on rickety wooden seats, the noisy 16mm projector was propped up on a table and the screen was two white bed sheets clipped together in the middle. I remember walking behind the screen and watching the last battle scene — the bandits roaring into the village, the horses struggling in the mud, and Mifune falling and dying in the rain. I was hooked. Is there any action movie that tops “Seven Samurai”?
What surprised you over the course of your research?
Japanese are very private people and Mifune was very private. I wasn’t aware of how much he was affected by the war, watching young soldiers sent off to die on kamikaze missions. But I guess what surprised me was that he was pretty much the samurai he played on screen – gallant, noble, sometimes volatile, sweet, funny, and he liked to get drunk.
The film contains both recollections of Mifune by his friends and family as well as expert insight from people like Martin Scorsese and Steven Spielberg. How did you go about finding the balance between these two perspectives on his achievements?
I was initially worried about how the Japanese and American interviews would work together. But Spielberg and Scorsese were both enthusiastic about talking about Mifune, so we did it. Japanese address things differently, revealing what they feel less directly, while Americans tend to say what they think. Somehow both approaches work when you talk about Mifune. He’s very Japanese and very un-Japanese at the same time. He was shy and brash, funny and cool, silly and deadly serious. That’s what made him so dynamic. But it’s his integrity as an artist and a person that made people love and respect him.
You include a lot of footage from Mifune’s career, including both performances and glimpses of his off-screen life. What were some of the hardest materials to track down?
I’m shaking my head. Collecting the old photos and footage was really hard. Japan is a paper and wood culture — expendable, impermanent. So much has been lost and forgotten. It’s heartbreaking.
I know it’s a stereotype that Japanese revere the past, but they’re much more drawn to what’s new, what’s next. Most of the stuff from the past has been thrown away. The long-established movie studios don’t really document and preserve their histories and old movies. Luckily, the Mifune family was very involved in the production from the beginning. His son, Shiro; Shiro’s wife, Akemi; and their son, Rikiya, gave us access to boxes and boxes of photos, old scripts, articles and letters, and helps us figure out what was what. Other materials came from Kurosawa’s production office and Toho Studios. The film also includes rare 8mm film shot by an assistant cameraperson who was on the “Yojimbo” crew.
With all of the access to various forms of media these days, relatively little attention has gone to preserving and sharing our movie heritage. In Japan, young people don’t know who Toshiro Mifune and Akira Kurosawa are, just as young people in the United States don’t know who John Wayne and John Ford are. Netflix only has four Cary Grant movies and not the great ones. That’s why we made this film, to remind people of all the great movies they’re missing.
What would you consider to be the essential Mifune performances?
I love Mifune in the Kurosawa films — “High and Low,” “Seven Samurai,” and “The Bad Sleep Well.” I also love his films with Hiroshi Inagaki – “Rickshaw Man,” “Samurai Saga” and “The Samurai Trilogy.” My favorite Mifune scene is in “The Samurai Trilogy” when he casually uses his chopsticks to pick the flies off his soba noodles and the bad guys realize they’re messing with the wrong samurai. I would have been really unhappy if we weren’t able to include that scene in our documentary.
Why do you think Mifune is under-appreciated by Western audiences?
I think it’s just exposure. Western audiences just haven’t seen the films in a long time. Young viewers don’t experience the incredible range of cinema history that’s available. They might see “Citizen Kane,” “Metropolis” and “The Cabinet of Dr. Caligari,” then skip over everything else until they get to the newer stuff.
They don’t realize what a huge influence the Kurosawa/Mifune films are on the movies they love – “Star Wars” and all the films influenced by that, Sergio Leone’s films and all the films influenced by him, “The Magnificent Seven” and all the films influenced by that.
Toshiro Mifune was the first movie hero who wasn’t a white guy. He didn’t demean himself or belittle his culture. And he didn’t take shit from anyone. You look at him, and then you look at the way Asians are portrayed in most movies and television.