The Japanese actor Toshiro Mifune (1920–1997) is widely regarded by Japan film critics as the greatest film star of the 20th century. Appearing in more than 140 films, Mifune worked with the most talented Japanese directors of his day, most prominently Akira Kurosawa. In his films, he often displayed a brooding anger and physicality that proved compelling to audiences and made him famous throughout the cinematic world.
Known among Japanese audiences as “Worldwide Mifune” because of his international success, Toshiro Mifune was born on April 1, 1920, in Qingdao, China, and did not set foot on Japanese soil until he was inducted into the country's air force during wartime. His father ran an import business and operated a commercial photography studio, and at the time of his son's birth the city of Quindao was under Japanese control. By the time he attended Dairen High School, Mifune had developed his natural talent in karate, fencing, and archery, learning lessons in tenacity and endurance that would benefit him during his film career. He also learned something about film: Increasingly often, he helped out at his father's photography business, and by his late teens he was managing it.
When Mifune was 20, he began his obligatory service in Japan's military. He was assigned to the air force because of his photography skills, joining an aerial photography unit. His experiences during World War II have not been documented in detail, but he was apparently unenthusiastic in his support of Japan's war effort. He used the opportunity to earn money, photographing his comrades and charging them money for prints they could send to their families. Unfortunately, his profits were not enough to support him once the war ended. With Japan defeated and in ruins at the war's end, he received two blankets and nothing more upon his discharge. Mifune set to work transforming his blankets into makeshift clothing and then called on an air force friend in Tokyo who gave him a place to sleep.
Although work for photographers was scarce, Japan's film industry was rebuilding, and in 1946 Mifune heard from a friend about an assistant cameraman opening at the Toho studio. He applied, but his application was misrouted to an acting audition list, and when he showed up for an interview he was asked to laugh, and then to play a drunk man. Confused and angry, Mifune stormed around room, delivering a drunken tirade that was given force by his actual frustration. At first ready to dismiss Mifune, the studio's acting judges realized that they might be able to make use of his forceful personality. Either at this audition or shortly afterward, Mifune was noticed by one of the studio's young directors, Akira Kurosawa (1910–1998), and a creative partnership was born.
The film that brought Mifune—and indeed Japanese cinema in general—onto the world stage was Rashomon, based on a short story by Ryunosuke Akutagawa and written and directed by Kurosawa. The film depicts four conflicting accounts of the death of a samurai warrior who has been found murdered in a forest; each segment of the film dramatizes the account of one of the characters. Mifune's character is a bandit who claims to have fought a duel with the samurai. Kurosawa instructed the actor to act like a panther during filming, and Mifune complied, offering high-intensity swordplay captured effectively by Kurosawa and cameraman Kazuo Miyagawa. Popular among sophisticated filmgoers, Rashomon won the Golden Lion award at the Venice Film Festival in 1951. It also made Mifune a star, not only in Japan, but in Europe and the United States, where Rashomon won an Academy Award for best foreign film.
Mifune made other highly regarded films in the early 1950s, working with Kurosawa as well as other directors. Kurosawa's Hakuchi (1951) was based on Russian novelst Fyodor Dostoevsky's The Idiot, and Kenji Mizoguchi's 1952 film The Life of Oharu starred Mifune as a young samurai who enters into a doomed love affair with a beautiful courtesan. The next Mifune film to gain wide recognition was The Seven Samurai, another Kurosawa ensemble project. The 1954 film featured Mifune as one of a group of seven freelance samurai who band together to defend a farming village against a pack of bandits. In 1960 The Seven Samurai was remade as a western in the United States and called The Magnificent Seven.
In the late 1950s and early 1960s Mifune continued to appear in samurai roles. He once again won international acclaim in Throne of Blood (1957), Kurosawa's adaptation of William Shakespeare's Macbeth, as well as in the gangster film Yojimbo (1961). Mifune was awarded a Venice Film Festival best actor award for his role in the latter film, which was reprised by Clint Eastwood in the Italian adaptation A Fistful of Dollars. He never allowed himself to be typecast as a samurai, however; throughout his career he stretched himself with films like I Live in Fear (1955), in which he played a Japanese businessman who starts a family conflict with his decision to move to Brazil to avoid the outbreak of a nuclear conflict.
With his brooding presence and his affinity for epic action films, Mifune was often characterized as a Japanese counterpart to American Western film star John Wayne. Ronald Bergan, writing in the London Guardian, likened Mifune to James Cagney, pointing to both actors’ gangster roles and noting that Mifune “certainly had Cagney's anger, swagger, and bravado.” In addition to Worldwide Mifune, another Mifune nickname was “The Wolf,” which was suggested by one of his early films and hinted at the intensity and quiet, suppressed energy he brought to many of his roles.
Other evaluations of Mifune's talent pointed to his commanding presence on screen. Kurosawa, as quoted by James Kirkup in the London Independent, wrote that “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.” For Esther Yi, commenting on the actor's career in Cineaste, Mifune on film “juts out like a nail head that hasn't been entirely hammered in. Every movement has a sharp particularity that makes the viewer feel as though he or she is watching it unfold for the first and only time…. Why is it so much fun to watch him? Why do most of us find Mifune, of all seven, the hardest samurai to forget?”
In 1963 Mifune formed Mifune Productions, stepping behind the camera to make the film The Legacy of the Five Hundred Thousand. Two years later he rejoined Kurosawa for Red Beard, a 1965 film whose 50-day filming schedule ballooned to more than a year and distracted the actor from work that might have benefited his own studio. That could have been a factor in a disagreement that ended the working relationship between the two after that film; neither Mifune or Kurosawa ever discussed what caused the break.
In 1961 Mifune appeared in a Mexican film, Animas trujano: El hombre importante. He spoke no Spanish but memorized his lines from taped readings by a Mexican actor. He also never became fluent in English, but during the later part of his career he appeared in a variety of U.S. films including Grand Prix (1968), Hell in the Pacific and Red Sun (both 1972), and 1941 (1979), the last a World War II spoof directed by Steven Spielberg. Among American television audiences of the late twentieth century, he is likely best known for his appearance in the popular television miniseries Shogun (1981), in which he played a central role as the Japanese warlord Toranaga.
Mifune was offered the roles of Obi Wan Kenobi and Darth Vader in the original 1977 Star Wars directed and produced by George Lucas, an admirer of his work. The Japanese actor turned both roles down because he thought of science fiction as a low-budget genre that would present caricatured images of war. He occasionally appeared in cameo roles after the early 1980s, but a battle with Alzheimer's disease ended his career.
Richie, Donald, The Films of Akira Kurosawa, third edition, University of California Press, 1999.
Cineaste, fall 2014, p. 10.
Economist, February 11, 2002.
Guardian (London, England), December 27, 1997, p. 17.
Independent (London, England), January 2, 1998, p. 18.
Times (London England), December 26, 1997, p. 19.