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Six definitive films: A beginner's guide to Toshiro Mifune

Japanese actor Toshiro Mifune is widely regarded as one of the greatest acting talents of all time. In a career that spanned more than 150 feature films, Mifune is well-known all over the world largely for his spectacular collaboration with Japanese master Akira Kurosawa. They worked together on 16 different projects and the result was cinematic magic due to the brilliant combination of Mifune’s spellbinding performances and Kurosawa’s unique sensibilities.

Born in 1920 in Japanese occupied China, Mifune grew up working in his father’s photography shop. After serving in World War II, Mifune initially wanted to become a cameraman but his friends submitted his photograph and resume for acting to the famous Toho studios. That’s where Kurosawa discovered the burgeoning actor who instantly impressed the filmmaker with his natural talent.

In his autobiography, Akira Kurosawa famously praised Mifune’s skill, staying: “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.”

Adding, “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.”

On the 101st anniversary of his birth, we take a look at Toshiro Mifune’s illustrious filmography as a tribute to his undeniable talents.

Toshiro Mifune’s 6 definitive films:

Rashomon (Akira Kurosawa – 1950)

While Mifune and Kurosawa had previously collaborated on films like Drunken Angel and Stray Dog, Rashomon was the first project that earned both of them international acclaim. A philosophical masterpiece about violence, human nature and truth, the film starred Mifune as a bandit who is symbolic of the corruption of modernity.

Rashomon was a failure in Japan,” Mifune said. “We had no idea that it had been submitted to Venice. Kurosawa didn’t go to the festival, neither did I. And hardly anyone [at home] knew it won the grand prize. There was a small article in a Japanese newspaper, that was all.”

Samurai Trilogy (Hiroshi Inagaki – 1954-56)

Based on Eiji Yoshikawa’s epic novel, the Samurai Trilogy featured Mifune in the role of the legendary swordsman/philosopher: Miyamoto Musashi. The trilogy is now regarded as one of the best samurai series of all time and has even inspired other filmmakers like Quentin Tarantino who borrowed elements while making Kill Bill.

The director of the 2015 documentary on Mifune’s career, Steven Okazaki said: “My favourite Mifune scene is in The Samurai Trilogy when he casually uses his chopsticks to pick the flies off his soba noodles and the bad guys realise they’re messing with the wrong samurai. I would have been really unhappy if we weren’t able to include that scene in our documentary.”

Seven Samurai (Akira Kurosawa – 1954)

Perhaps the most famous Kurosawa-Mifune collaboration of all, Seven Samurai has it all. Set in 16th century Japan, this glorious epic investigates the disparity between the moral code of the samurai and the parasitic forces of the lawless bandits. For his flawless performance, Mifune even received a BAFTA nomination for Best Foreign Actor.

Kurosawa later wrote about how he discovered Mifune at an acting competition, “A young man reeling around the room in a violent frenzy…it was as frightening as watching a wounded beast trying to break loose. I was transfixed. I am a person rarely impressed by actors but in the case of Mifune I was completely overwhelmed.”

Yojimbo (Akira Kurosawa – 1961)

Partially inspired by George Steven’s Shane (1952), Yojimbo (“Bodyguard”) stars Mifune as a wandering ronin who chances upon a small town where crime is rampant. Mifune received the Volpi Cup for Best Actor at the Venice Film Festival and Sergio Leone even made an unofficial remake of the film: A Fistful of Dollars (1964).

Mifune elaborated on his work-relationship with Kurosawa on the set of Yojimbo, “One day Kurosawa said, ‘I won’t mention names, but the actors are late.’ I said. ‘What are you talking about? I’m the actor.’ Every day after that, when Kurosawa arrived, I would be there already, in costume and makeup from 6 a.m. I showed him.”

The Sword of Doom (Kihachi Okamoto – 1966)

Based on Kaizan Nakazato’s novel, The Sword of Doom stars Tatsuya Nakadai as a government weapon who is essentially a killing machine. However, his arrogance and his way of life is unsettled when he witnesses another master swordsman in action (played by Mifune).

Mifune’s co-star Tatsuya Nakadai explained just how influential the actor was, “My first role with Mr. Mifune was in Yojimbo, I believe. I played the role of the sliced-up actor. The next time was in Sanjuro, where once again, at the very end, blood just gushes out of me.

“We also were cast together in Kurosawa’s High and Low, so I would consider Mr. Mifune my most respected ‘senpai’ [superior, or elder]. He’s also in Sword of Doom. His chanbara—his swordplay—is astounding. I would always work hard on my swordplay, just so I could catch up with him. I would consider him my great mentor, and inspiration.”

Samurai Rebellion (Masaki Kobayashi – 1967)

One of Masaki Kobayashi’s acclaimed works, Samurai Rebellion is a fascinating period drama that is set in the early 18th century. It stars Mifune as a conflicted samurai who chooses to go against his clan in order to stay faithful to his own morality. Samurai Rebellion received several “Best Film of the Year” awards and earned the FIPRESCI Prize at the Venice Film Festival.

The director revealed, “I have a funny story about him. It was really hard to hear his dialogue. I isolated all his bad audio. I tried all kinds of things with Mr. Okuyama and Mr. Takemitsu. We brought it all out [by changing the frequency]. NHK had the equipment to do that. Mr. Fujimoto came to the screening and said, ‘I can hear all of Mifune’s lines!'”