Chattering Class

Looking Back at Toshiro Mifune’s Legendary Career

Oscar-winning documentarian Steven Okazaki explores the actor’s origins and looks at how Mifune left his mark on cinema, despite being thousands of miles away from Hollywood.

From the 1940s and into the ‘80s, Toshiro Mifune was known around the world as Japan’s answer to John Wayne. He starred in almost 200 movies, including a slew of classics directed by the great Akira Kurosawa.

His life is now the subject of a new film called, “Mifune: The Last Samurai.” It’s from Oscar-winning documentarian Steven Okazaki, and he chatted with us about the unexpected start of Mifune’s on-screen career, his rebellious spirit, and more.

Interview Highlights:

On watching Mifune’s films as a kid in 1960s California

Steven Okazaki: There were several Japanese movie theaters in Los Angeles. And we went to them devotedly, and it was kind of cool. They had green tea as well as Coca-Cola. I had senbei, which is the rice crackers. You pour them in your popcorn and mix them up. The Hawaiians call it mochi crunch.

And so, there was…I don’t know, just that experience of feeling a little more international and seeing the Toshiro Mifune films when I was a kid.

Koji Tsuruta and Mifune in SAMURAI TRILOGY

On why Mifune ended up being a longstanding figure of rebellion

Mifune was always sort of bred to be a bit of an individual. He did not grow up in Japan. He grew up in Japanese-occupied China and did not step into Japan until he was 21.

And then, when he was in the army, he trained kamikaze pilots, and he always got in trouble. When he was a kid, we talk about how he always got into got into fights defending his brother. So, he was kind of always a bit of a rebel.

On how the start of Mifune’s acting career was kind of a fluke

Mifune in a yukata

Japan was just devastated after the war, and you had all these young men and women without jobs. Mifune was just looking for a job, and, because his father had run a still photography studio, he had some technical skills.

So, he applied to be a camera assistant at Toho Studios. Which later brought us Godzilla. And, one thing about Mifune — he’s strikingly good-looking. He’s just striking, you know? So, somebody pushed his resume over to the acting competition. It was called “New Faces.” And you can see, in the photos of the young men who are competing — I mean, you can see the rib cages on most of the men. They’re basically starving, looking for a job.

Mifune, likewise, just wanted to get a job and happened to meet one of the great Japanese directors, Akira Kurosawa. And they formed this collaboration, alliance, and made 16 incredible films together.

On what director Akira Kurosawa might’ve seen in a young Mifune

I think that, for Kurosawa, Mifune was clearly someone who could be different than the traditional matinee movie star of Japan at the time. In the film, someone’s commenting on Mifune’s big breakthrough film, “Rashomon,” and he just says, “We didn’t know what to think. We just went, ‘What?'”

He was so gruff and raw in that film. And Martin Scorsese is in the film and comments that Mifune studied lions and tigers in the zoo for his part, and you can really feel that.

On a single scene that sums up Mifune’s work for Okazaki

I saw this film called “Samurai Trilogy” when I was a teenager, and it made a huge impression on me. At that time, we would mostly play cowboys. Occasionally, we’d split into Jets and Sharks and reenact “West Side Story.” But when I saw “Samurai Trilogy,” I wanted a samurai sword.

And there’s a scene in that film that my friends and I would just — we talked about it endlessly — where Mifune’s sitting quietly, having some soba noodles, and these hoodlums crowd around, and they threaten him, and he doesn’t bat an eyelid. He just — with his chopsticks –starts plucking flies off his soba and out of the air. And the bad guys just go, “Whoa,” and they tear out of there. You know, he doesn’t pull out his sword. He doesn’t hurt anybody. He’s just so cool. He can just have lunch and scare people.