Toshiro Mifune Featured

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Toshiro Mifune Photograph courtesy of Emma Griffiths PR

Toshiro Mifune

Mifune: The Last Samurai 

Toshiro Mifune (1920-1997) is one of the most prominent and revolutionary actors in the history of Japanese film. With his iconic acting, Mifune opened the door to a new era that brought Japanese cinema to the world stage. He appeared in over 170 feature films, but is best known for the 16 films that he made with legendary filmmaker Akira Kurosawa, including Rashomon, Seven Samurai, The Hidden Fortress and Yojimbo. He starred in Hiroshi Inagaki’s Samurai Trilogy, the groundbreaking NBC television miniseries Shogun and Steven Spielberg’s 1941. He also portrayed Admiral Isoroku Yamamoto, who bombed Pearl Harbor, in three films. He was awarded Best Actor at the Venice Film Festival twice. On November 14th, 2016, he was honored with a posthumous star on the Hollywood Walk of Fame for his work in the motion picture industry. On November 25, 2016, the documentary Mifune: The Last Samurai, directed by Steven Okazaki, was released.

Son and Grandson Shiro and Rikiya Mifune
Toshiro Mifune’s descendants are striving to pass down the legacy of Mifune and further the contribution of the Mifune name to the film industry. Shiro Mifune and Rikiya Mifune, Toshiro’s son and grandson, respectively, have experience working as actors. They now run Mifune Productions, a film production company originally established by Toshiro. Tokyo Journal Executive Editor Anthony Al-Jamie sat down with Shiro and Rikiya at Mifune Productions to hear about their memories of Toshiro Mifune, their thoughts on the film industry and their plans for the future.


TJ: How did your father begin his career?
SHIRO: Toshiro Mifune was born in Qingdao, China and grew up in Dalian [China]. He didn’t come to Japan until the end of World War II. His father owned a photo studio in Dalian, so Toshiro would sometimes help out when he was younger. Once the war ended, he returned to Japan thinking that he would find a job in the photography department at Toho [a film production company]. A cameraman from Toho that supported Toshiro during the war told him that if he came to Toho, there would be work as an assistant cameraman. But it turned out that the photography department didn’t have any openings. Around the same time, Toho was holding an audition for a “new faces” contest. Toshiro Mifune’s resume was sent into that contest and he ended up auditioning for the contest.

TJ: Can you tell us about his relationship with Akira Kurosawa?
SHIRO: Mr. Kurosawa was 10 years older than my father, so I think he respected Mr. Kurosawa in terms of work. I heard that Mr. Kurosawa didn’t give strict orders on site and let my father do what he wanted to do freely. When Mr. Kurosawa was making the movie Yojimbo, he founded his own production company called Kurosawa Production. Likewise, my father was one day told that Toho was shutting down its Kinuta Studio and he would have to create his own company to make movies with Toho’s financial support. Once he founded the company, my father was responsible for the livelihood of its employees and it became difficult to work for Mr. Kurosawa’s movies, which would restrict him for a year or more. For example, when Mr. Kurosawa was shooting a movie of the Soviet Union, he apparently wanted Toshiro Mifune to play the lead, but my father turned down the offer to work for Mifune Productions. That was how their relationship sort of grew apart.

TJ: I read that Toshiro Mifune was great at memorizing all of the lines — not just his own, but those of other actors as well. What was his technique?
SHIRO: The only instance I remember was when he was in a Mexican movie called The Important Man, which was made after Yojimbo. All the lines in the movie were in Spanish. My father invited Mexican-Japanese students as lodgers in the house and practiced Spanish with them. He also wrote down the lines in katakana (Japanese syllabic writing) and put it up everywhere in the house, like in hallways and the bathroom, in order to memorize them.

TJ: What were his greatest strengths as an actor?
RIKIYAHe had a sensitive side as well as a wild side. Not many people have the two opposite traits. He was the breakthrough for Japanese actors to enter the worldwide market, and that was not an easy thing that anyone could do. He’s a Japanese icon for samurai, so I think that’s impressive too.

TJ: Do you think it is easier or harder to become an actor now compared to Toshiro Mifune's times?
SHIROI think it must have always been a tough job to become an actor. Even now, there are only a handful of people who can make a living out of acting, so I think that it must be as difficult now as it was back then.
But hearing stories from my father, who worked with Mifune, [I learned that] he faced a lot of life and death situations during shooting. People shot real arrows at him, and for Seven Samurai, everyone was freezing because the main scene was shot in February and they had to lie on the icy ground for a long time while the staff set up the camera and stuff. So regarding that – I don’t know if this is the right word – but I think some actors are treated well and spoiled now.

TJ: How do you inspire young people to watch your grandfather's movies?
RIKIYA: There’s not much acknowledgment of Mifune in the young Japanese generation. That’s one obstacle we’re facing right now: how to get younger people interested in the old Mifune and Kurosawa films. In Europe and the U.S., there is more acknowledgment of Mifune among the younger generation compared to in Japan. I’d like to keep the Mifune legacy going on. As a producer, I would like to create content that would be appealing to international audiences and be able to create something completely new.

Mifune: The Last Samurai
Director Steven Okazaki
Steven Okazaki is a sansei (third generation) Japanese-American Academy-Award winning filmmaker. Tokyo Journal Executive Editor Anthony Al-Jamie talked with Steven Okazaki to learn about how he got involved in the documentary and about people who knew Toshiro Mifune. 

steven okazaki1

TJ: How did you get involved with the documentary?
OKAZAKI: I was in Tokyo looking around for projects and I met with the producer. I pitched a history of samurai films from the first silent films to the present. He said there was a producer that came up through Mifune Productions, who felt this great debt to Mifune and wanted to do a film about him. His name is [Toshiaki] Nakazawa and he made a film that won an Oscar for best foreign film a couple years ago called Departures. I told him to stop looking and let me make the film and they agreed.

TJ: I imagine you're a fan of Kurosawa as well?
OKAZAKIYeah! Although I have to say as a kid, sometimes his films were a little too hardy for me.

TJ: Did you meet with Akira Kurosawa's assistant director Teruyo Nogami?
OKAZAKI: Yes. I was a little afraid of Nogami, to be honest. I had seen some interviews she did and she seemed to be a no-nonsense person. When I met her, she was a terrific person and we hung out for four hours with filming and setting up. I was in the editing room with her for eight to 10 hours a day for months and months. I really grew to admire her honesty and her sweetness as a person.

TJ: Did you work closely with Mifune's family, or with former actors that knew him?
OKAZAKI: His family was very supportive of the film and they went into his archives. That certainly made a difference when we approached Mifune’s colleagues.

TJ: Did you learn anything about the Kurosawa/Mifune struggle?
OKAZAKI: I just think circumstantially and economically, there clearly was tension on some of the films. I think Mifune started to feel unappreciated. Japan was really changing at that time; 1965 was the year after the Tokyo Olympics and television had really changed moviemaking in Japan. Mifune was about to take on his own studio and had to support that. tj

The complete article can be found in Issue #279 of the Tokyo Journal.

Written By:

Anthony Al-Jamie

Anthony Al-Jamie lived and worked in Japan for over 20 years. His in-depth understanding of Japanese language and culture has allowed him to carry out interviews with many of the most renowned individuals in Japan. He first began writing for the Tokyo Journal in the 1990s as Education Editor, later he was promoted to Senior Editor, and eventually International Editor and Executive Editor. He currently serves the Tokyo Journal as Editor-in-Chief.


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