J.B. Spins

Jazz, film, and improvised culture.

Monday, November 21, 2016

Mifune: The Last Samurai

It is a story of a film role that got away that rivals Tom Selleck’s nearly appearing as Indiana Jones in Raiders of the Lost Ark. While the regretful Selleck was forced out by contractual obligations beyond his control, Toshiro Mifune could only blame his agent’s bad advice for turning down what would be the iconic role of Obi-won Kenobi. Yet, even without the Star Wars franchise, Mifune has attained legendary status, in great part due to his acclaimed collaborations with Akira Kurosawa. Steven Okazaki surveys the towering actor’s life and work in Mifune: The Last Samurai (trailer here), which opens this Friday in New York.

Obviously, Okazaki had a wealth of historically significant films to draw from, including arguably the greatest death scene ever in Kurosawa’s loose Macbeth adaptation, Throne of Blood. He also found some tremendously illustrative photos, such as the montage of sports cars Mifune wrecked during hard-drinking benders. The working class Mifune essentially fell in acting almost accidentally, but he became the top Japanese box-office draw of his era and one of its most exportable movie stars.

Unfortunately, Mifune acted on a lot of dubious advice during his post-Kurosawa career, particularly a studio boss’s counsel to start his own production company. When times got tough, Mifune was forced into television work to keep his company afloat. None of the footage Okazaki shows from this period will look familiar to most American Mifune fans. It might be a huge step down from his Kurosawa classics, but it is Mifune we haven’t seen—and evidently there is a great deal of it.

Steven Spielberg would probably only talk about 1941 to pay tribute to Mifune, but he does indeed discuss directing the actor in one of his least regarded films. We also hear from Mr. Movie Documentary himself, Martin Scorsese, as well as Mifune’s son Shirô, and Haruo Nakajima, a contemporary now most closely associated with the Godzilla franchise. Kôji Yakusho, perhaps the closest contemporary heir to Mifune’s gruff leading man mantle also provides some context. However, the most endearing moments are spent with the great-in-her-own-right Kyôko Kagawa, who regrets not having the opportunity to play a late-in-life Marigold Hotel-style romance with her co-star from High and Low, The Bad Sleep Well, and Red Beard.

Last Samurai is a classy film that is so unflaggingly respectful, its interview subjects often speak in the hushed tones typically used in church pews and the like. Keanu Reeves’ narration is crystal clear, but sometimes borders on the reverent. Yet, Okazaki and his interview subjects deal forthrightly with Mifune’s conspicuous but readily forgivable character flaws. Most tellingly, the doc puts viewers in the mood to binge watch several dozen Mifune films, which suggests it is ultimately quite effective. Highly recommended for all fans of classic cinema, Mifune: The Last Samurai opens this Friday (11/25) in New York, at the IFC Center.

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