Film documents the legendary Mifune, ‘The Last Samurai’

MIFUNE, THE ICONIC SAMURAI ­— Toshiro Mifune starred in legendary director Akira Kurosawa’s “Rashomon,” among a host of other samurai films. photo courtesy of Strand Releasing

There are few actors more deserving of a feature-length documentary than Toshiro Mifune. Yet none existed until filmmaker Steven Okazaki directed “Mifune: The Last Samurai” (80 minutes), which hits Bay Area theaters Friday, Dec. 9.

The Academy Award-winning director of documentaries on subjects ranging from the stories of victims of the atomic bombings of Hiroshima and Nagasaki to the struggles of heroin users in Cape Cod, Mass., Okazaki was granted rare access to key footage from Mifune’s career and interviews with some of the iconic actor’s direct descendants and closest collaborators. The resulting documentary is informative and poignant — and a lot of fun too. And, for Okazaki, something of a dream project.

“I would have never have been so bold as to propose making the official documentary about Mifune on my own. It would be like making the official Beatles documentary,” the Berkeley, Calif.-based director explains.

But the chance presented itself when Okazaki was in Tokyo, looking for potential projects. He was told that Toshiaki Nakazawa, producer of 2008’s Academy Award-winner for best foreign language film “Departures,” was looking for someone to do a biographical documentary on Mifune.

“I said, ‘Listen, tell him, call him up immediately, tell him to stop looking, I’ll do it better than anyone you can find.’ Even though it was too bold an idea for me to come up with, when it was in front of me, I said, ‘I can’t let this get away.’”

Okazaki had been a fan of Mifune since childhood, when he and his family went to see longtime Mifune collaborator and legendary director Akira Kurosawa’s “Seven Samurai” at the Venice Japanese Community Center in Southern California.

“It was kind of a funky facility at the time,” Okazaki recalls. “The screen was a king-sized bed sheet and every time someone opened the door, the screen would fly up into the air.”

But despite the unruly makeshift screen and the clatter of the rickety projector, the future Oscar-winner found himself engrossed.

“I remember watching the big battle climactic scene in the rain and just going, ‘Wow, what is this? To this day I still can’t think of any action sequence as thrilling and riveting.”

From that point on, his family sought out Mifune’s films, going on outings to the various Japanese theaters that existed in the Los Angeles area at the time, such as the Kokusai on Crenshaw and the Toho La Brea.

“Those venues were really distinct,” Okazaki reminiscences. “I remember being struck that they served senbei (Japanese rice crackers) and green tea alongside the popcorn and fountain soda.”

Mifune’s chanbara (Japanese sword fighting) film output at the time was immensely popular among Nikkei youth of the time, particularly the “Samurai Trilogy.”

“The neighborhood kids would re-enact scenes from the movies. We’d ask our parents over and over to go to Little Tokyo and get us wooden samurai swords to play with,” he recalls. “Those films always had a special place in my heart. Mifune’s character was this no–nonsense samurai, but with a heart and sense of humor — and a real explosive quality.”

And it wasn’t just Nikkei whom Mifune meant a lot to.

“When we started work on the documentary, a Mexican American friend said to me, ‘Mifune was really before anyone else, before Bruce Lee, before any African American or Latino action stars,’” Okazaki adds, saying that he was the first person of color to achieve prominence as an international action star. “I tried to keep that in mind with the film. I had an informal group of guys my age who grew up with the films and wanted to make sure it touched bases with them.”

While Mifune himself passed nearly two decades ago, working on the documentary gave Okazaki the opportunity to interview and tell the stories of many of the people who worked with the legend on the films Okazaki has been a lifelong fan of, such as Kyôko Kagawa and Yoshio Tsuchiya.

“We essentially just looked at all the film credits and went through and found whoever was around and what we found were some really fascinating people with really storied lives and careers, many of whom really deserve documentaries of their own,” Okazaki told the Nichi Bei Weekly.

The Japanese interview subjects shed light on who Mifune was as a person and a performer; what it was like to work with him and be his friend. But to really communicate his impact on film history, Okazaki had to turn to key figures in American cinema, like Steven Spielberg and Martin Scorsese.

“We had a really nice but perhaps gentler film with just Japanese interviews in it,” he explains. “They were really hesitant to brag and make bold statements, and we needed Americans to do that.”

Indeed, creating this film and bringing it to festivals around the world, from England to India, really drove home for Okazaki just how big a figure Mifune was for people around the world.

“The screenings have been really warm,” he says. “All the people who made films with Mifune say, ‘We were part of something special,’ and I think the audiences that went to see his films felt the same thing. These films are uniquely powerful, artistic and thrilling, that’s something I learned from all this. That there’s really nothing like them.”

For more information on upcoming screenings, visit www.farfilm.com/#/mifune-the-last-samurai/.

Comments

  1. Scarlet Timphony says

    The documentary was not complete. What happened to the films like MUTEKI 1952 with Yamaguchi Yoshiko and Bob Booth
    Nothing from 1950 to 1953 I have the posters and the pictures from the outtakes.

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