Film Forum in New York City recently held a four-week retrospective of Toshiro Mifune films, 33 in all. I’ve loved Mifune on screen for years, so this series was like a gift. I’d seen many of the titles being shown and have nearly as many on DVD, but the opportunity of seeing them again on a theater screen was too great to pass up. I ended up seeing 15 of the films in the series, including a documentary on Mifune’s career. The following Film Forum trailer is an excellent collection of clips from his films.
In 1984, the Japan Society here also had a Mifune retrospective, showing 40 films over eight weekends from March 7 to April 29, with Mifune in attendence at the start. I attended as many screenings as I could. The night before the official opening of the series there was a benefit with plenty of celebrities on hand, including Lee Marvin, with whom Mifune had co-starred in John Boorman’s Hell in the Pacific (1968), and Robert De Niro, seen with Mifune in the photo below.
That benefit was above my pay grade, but I was there the following night to see Yojimbo (1961). It was either that night or the next that I encountered Mifune himself in the lobby of the Japan Society. I’d gotten there very early to pick up my ticket. People hadn’t started to arrive yet, so the lobby was basically empty. I was talking with the person at the ticket desk when I saw that Mifune had entered with a Japanese woman who I think was his translator. This was a surreal moment for me. Not being able to speak Japanese, I probably stammered something like, “Mifune-sama,” and attempted a bow, undoubtedly inept. It still made my day. I remember that he was shorter than I am, and I’m only 5′ 8″. I expected he’d be taller. But he was Toshiro Mifune, so what did it matter? Not having a camera with me that night, the closest I could come to a picture of myself with him was this shot taken several days later next to a photo in the lobby that he’d autographed.
Mifune made 16 films with director Akira Kurosawa, all of which were shown in the Film Forum series. The importance of this collaboration cannot be over-estimated. It brings to mind the films that Martin Scorsese and Robert De Niro have made together. Here are some shots of Mifune and Kurosawa both on-set and off.
Scenes and posters, clips and quotes from Mifune’s films with Kurosawa.
Seven Samurai (1954)
The scenes below take place during the final battle in the rain. Mifune is crouched at left in the first shot, and is at lower right in the second. This battle lasts approximately 25 minutes on screen. It’s simply spectacular.
High and Low (1963) This is one of my favorite films, an intense police procedural based on Ed McBain’s novel King’s Ransom. It’s really extraordinary.
Yojimbo (1961) Who doesn’t love this film?
Drunken Angel (1948) Mifune’s first film with Kurosawa, in which he plays a tubercular gangster treated by an alcoholic doctor, played by his frequent co-star, Takashi Shimura. His final film with Kurosawa would be the epic Red Beard (1965). In Something Like an Autobiography (1983), Kurosawa wrote this about Mifune in Drunken Angel:
“Mifune had a kind of talent I had never encountered before in the Japanese film world. It was, above all, the speed with which he expressed himself that was astounding. The ordinary Japanese actor might need ten feet of film to get across an impression; Mifune needed only three feet. The speed of his movements was such that he said in a single action what took ordinary actors three separate movements to express. He put forth everything directly and boldly, and his sense of timing was the keenest I had ever seen in a Japanese actor. And yet with all his quickness he also had surprisingly fine sensibilities. I know it sounds as if I am overpraising Mifune, but everything I am saying is true. Anyway, I’m a person who is rarely impressed by actors, but in the case of Mifune I was completely overwhelmed.”
Throne of Blood (1957) Kurosawa’s adaptation of Shakespeare’s Macbeth. It’s dark and heavy and pretty great. Reportedly, Kurosawa had real arrows fired at Mifune in the final scene, which may have added to his terrified reaction.
Samurai Rebellion (1967) This is my favorite Mifune film made by a director other than Kurosawa, in this case, Masaki Kobayashi.
Snow Trail (1947) This is a title I regret missing at Film Forum. Directed by Senkichi Taniguchi, it was Mifune’s first film and his first time acting with Takashi Shimura, who played the doctor in Drunken Angel and the samurai leader in Seven Samurai. It was also scripted by Kurosawa, which is an interesting connection.
It wasn’t only samurai films that Mifune appeared in, though those are probably what he’s best known for, in this country at least. Here are two examples.
A Wife’s Heart (1956) This was at Film Forum. I hadn’t heard of it before and wanted to see it because it was made by Mikio Naruse, a director with similarities to Yasujiro Ozu, and starred Hideko Takamine, an actress I liked. And because it had Mifune in a contemporary, rather straight role. I liked it quite a lot.
Perhaps the most unusual film in the Japan Society series in 1984 was one Mifune had made in Mexico in 1961 playing a Mexican Indian. This was The Important Man (Animas Trujano: El Hombre Importante), directed by Ismael Rodriguez. Reportedly, Mifune was not dubbed for this role, but spoke his lines in Spanish after a Mexican actor had recorded them for Mifune to learn. I don’t think it’s very well known, at least not today. Interestingly enough, it was nominated for both a Golden Globe and an Oscar.
Photos of Mifune, both posed and candid, from a range of years.
Here’s a shot that perhaps goes back too far. Mifune Year Zero.
Toshiro Mifune was born on April 1, 1920 in China. He lived there until he was 19. His parents were Methodist missionaries! He appeared in over 150 feature films. From 1950 to 1960, he acted in 64 films. He slowed down from 1961 to 1970, appearing in only 38 films. This guy worked a lot. He was a great actor with a forceful presence and no shortage of charisma. He died at age 77 on December 24, 1997. I wish he was still here, but we have his films.
Note: Many of these titles are available for streaming from Amazon Prime and other sources.
That’s all for now. Stay safe. See you at the movies. — Ted Hicks
Mifune at 28. Getting ready.