Looking at the documentary Mifune: The Last Samurai, I am reminded of Gimme Danger, the Jim Jarmusch documentary about Iggy & The Stooges, which I didn’t get around to reviewing. That film and this one, which details the life legendary actor Toshiro Mifune, have little to offer outside of an engaging, cinematic version of Wikipedia research, but there is plenty to enjoy. For Mifune, there is a bonus that comes in the form of hearing Spielberg and Scorsese share their insight, in addition to many others. Various clips and archival footage make a good case for why the actor deserves all his acclaim as well, regardless of whether this doc has any other impact outside its key subject.
Narrated by Keanu Reeves, Mifune is a fairly straightforward presentation of the life and films of Toshiro Mifune. The film is populated by various archival clips from early Japanese features, stills from Mifune’s life, film clips from his more popular features and many interviews. The interviews range from acclaimed directors to fellow actors and notable relatives and friends of Japan’s most revered star. Directed by Steven Okazaki, the film does not go any further than it has to in its presentation, but is certainly revealing to those who may only know him for his major features such as Seven Samurai and Yojimbo.
It is certainly cool, among other things to watch a highlight reel of Mifune’s greatest parts and key scenes that emphasize how strong of an actor he was and how important he was to both Japanese cinema and other actors that would go on to try an emulate his talents. The interviews certainly add texture, as you get insight as to the kind of man Mifune was. Typical for these kinds of documentaries that cover acclaimed artists, Mifune had his complications that largely stemmed from his penchant for drinking and getting older, while trying to continue pushing himself. Mifune was not necessarily known for controversy, though the film does show how things changed in the later parts of his life.
That’s the unfortunate aspect of Mifune. This documentary is so straightforward that it really has nowhere to go but down as far as enthusiasm for the man’s career. It’s not that Mifune faded, but he certainly didn’t make classics and startlingly amazing features later in his life. This means the film chronicles what happened, which had the actor going out on not much of note, in addition to never reconciling his relationship with equally acclaimed director and auteur Akira Kurosawa.
Detailing the relationship between Mifune and Kurosawa is particularly interesting, as the two made some of the best films ever thanks to their collaborations, only for them to part ways, following the film Red Beard. The film does not do much to play up this relationship, aside from how good they were together and what happened when they split, making me wonder if a stronger narrative could have been formed by directly digging into what happened there, beyond the straightforward facts. The same could be said about learning of Mifune’s early life as a photographer and one who was drafted into the Imperial Japanese Army during World War II.
While we are able to hear about the kind of man Mifune was, there is not much of an attempt do more than provide history from a fan’s perspective. Perhaps that is all that is really needed and Mifune’s life does not require complex analysis for the sake of making a documentary that digs deeper. There’s nothing wrong with that, as the film is engaging and insightful. It also provides the rare opportunity to see footage from some of the earliest Japanese films for the sake of context. The interviews are all certainly worthwhile, as you not only get someone like Scorsese, but Haruo Nakajima, an actor who was in Seven Samurai and was the performer inside the original Godzilla suit. It is somewhat of a shame, however, that there is no footage of Mifune speaking, outside of any film clips, to add even further perspective.
I’m trying not to make Mifune: The Last Samurai sound slight, because it isn’t. There is a fascinating look at one of the great film actors featured in this documentary. I only wish it was attached to some stronger ideas to make it even more impactful. That in mind, you get a good look at Mifune’s tremendous talent through different spectrums and that allows for plenty of neat information and appreciation, let alone an easy reason to head to a library of Criterion Collection films and enjoy more of his work.