Obituary: Toshiro Mifune
Friday 02 January 1998
It was the very great director Akiro Kurosawa who discovered Toshiro Mifune, the greatest of all Japanese movie actors, and starred him in a dozen or so absolute masterpieces. In all, Mifune made about 130 films, but it is mainly Kurosawa's that he is remembered by. Because of their international success, their star became known in Japan as Sakai no Mifune or "World-wide Mifune".
He was born in 1920 in Manchuria, where his parents were stationed and where his father had a photographic studio. He was educated at Dairen High School, where he excelled at national sports like karate, archery and swordsmanship, skills that were to serve him well in his screen career. For a while, he took over his father's photography business, and because of his experience of photographic techniques he was assigned to a photography unit when war broke out and he joined the air force. He hated it.
At the end of the war he went to Tokyo and stayed with a friend who was working as a cameraman at the Toho Movie Company and who encouraged him to apply for a job there. He sent in his CV, but, as luck would have it, the document was sent by mistake to the casting department, which was just then mounting a search for "new faces" on the cinema screen. Four thousand people applied, of whom 16 men were chosen, including Mifune. They were trained in acting before the cameras by an old director, Eizo Tanaka, for three months.
Mifune's first, unremarkable screen appearance was in 1946, in Shin baka jidai ("New Age Follies"). But he was noticed by Kurosawa, who had written the scenario for Mifune's second movie, the 1947 Gintei no hate ("Over the Silver Peak"), directed by Sankichi Taniguchi and also starring another Kurosawa discovery, Takashi Shimura, who was later to play the woodcutter in Rashomon. Kurosawa chose Mifune to appear in the lead of the 1948 Yoidore tenshi ("The Drunken Angel") and so created a new rebel movie star.
In his autobiography, Gama no abura ("Oil of Toad", 1982), Kurosawa describes the impact the "hooligan" Mifune made on him:
Mifune had the 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 10 feet of film to get across an impression; Mifune needed only three feet. The speed of his movements was such that he said in a single action what took ordinary actors three separate movements to express . . . And yet with all his quickness he also had surprisingly fine sensibilities.
In 1949, Kurosawa starred him again in a controversial subject, Shizuka naru ketto ("Quiet Duel"), about a doctor who has contracted syphilis while operating on an infected patient, and so refuses to marry. It is a truly absorbing film, and at the present time its relevance to the Aids epidemic lends it a disturbing topicality. In the same year, Kurosawa produced Nora Inu ("Stray Dog"), a detective thriller that won the Geijutsusai Grand Prize, followed in 1950 by Skyandaru ("Scandal") about the pernicious effects of scandal magazines and what were to become known as the Japarazzi.
Nineteen fifty was the year of what is perhaps Kurosawa's greatest masterpiece, Rashomon, and one of Mifune's greatest performances. It was in several ways a revolutionary film, with a script presenting the story from four different points of view. The camerawork by Kazuo Miyagawa is breathtaking in its speed in following Mifune's athletic exploits, often shooting directly into the sun with dazzling flashes among bamboo thickets.
Kurosawa's direction of Mifune encouraged him to act "like a panther": he showed his star documentaries of panthers and leopards in action, and the spectator can only marvel at the grace and beauty and animal intensity of everything Mifune does, whether fighting or languorously reclining in total sensual abandon as the hilt of his sword slides up his thigh. The film was awarded the Golden Lion at the Venice Film Festival in 1951, and won an Oscar for the Best Foreign Film in the same year.
The next Kurosawa/Mifune work was Hakuchi (1951), based on Dostoevsky's The Idiot, and is remarkable because it is set, not in St Petersburg, but in the snows of Hokkaido, Japan's northernmost island. Mifune plays Rogojin with expressive insight into the complex character, while Setsuko Hara is a luminous Nastassia Philippovna - another great "new face" in the making.
It was one of those films that broke Kurosawa's heart when the production company Shochiku unfeelingly cut it down to a commercial length. It was only the news of Rashomon's European success that kept him going on his next project with Mifune, the first of the great samurai westerns, Seven Samurai, which did not see the light until 1954. Meanwhile, Mifune triumphed in 1952 in Kenji Mizoguchi's masterpiece Saikaku ichidai onna ("The Life of the Courtesan Ohara"), playing the tragic lowly samurai Katsunosuke, a victim of love. It won the Venice International Prize for Mizoguchi, while Seven Samurai won the San Marco Silver Lion. In 1969, John Sturges re-made it as The Magnificent Seven.
It was the golden age of the Japanese cinema, with Mifune appearing in a series of Kurosawa samurai classics and more literary, thought-provoking themes as in the 1955 Ikimono no kiroku ("Record of a Living Being"), a deeply moving meditation on the threat of atomic warfare, in which Mifune convincingly played an old man beset by fears of nuclear annihiliation who is unable to convince his family of the threat they live under. Mifune plays a medieval Japanese lord in the 1957 version of Macbeth called Kumonosujo, whose English title, Throne of Blood, is a poor substitute for a direct translation of the Japanese, "Castle of Spiders".
In the same year, we had Mifune as the thief in Gorky's Donzoko ("Lower Depths"), again set in feudal Japan, using a single set with brilliant inventiveness. Nineteen sixty-one brought Mifune fans Yojimbo for which he won the Best Actor Award at the Venice Film Festival. It was made into a spaghetti western by Serge Leone in 1964 under the title A Fistful of Dollars. In 1962, Mifune started his own production company, after disagreements with Kurosawa, with whom he made his final film, Akahige (Red Beard) in 1965, and was awarded the Grand Prix. But it was too long and static, and was not a success.
Mifune's only film made for his own production company was not a success, so he built an open set on waste land in Setagaya Seijyo and concentrated on television films, in many of which he acted. The samurai movies made with Kurosawa during the 1960s were now most often associated with him, but he was also in great demand from foreign directors, playing dignified but stereotyped Japanese in John Frankenheimer's Grand Prix (1966), John Boorman's Hell in the Pacific (1968) and Steven Spielberg's 1941 (1980) among other less worthy movies, like Terence Young's Red Sun (with Alain Delon and Charles Bronson) in 1971.
He finally had the open set at Setagaya torn down and built a luxurious block of apartments in its place. He was ailing, and his first wife, whose divorce had been a particularly painful affair, returned to look after him until she died of cancer a few years ago. He still worked occasionally, though he was developing Alzheimer's disease.
Toshiro Mifune is still "World-wide Mifune", for he is the one Japanese that everyone readily recognises and remembers. He died on the eve of the 20th anniversary of the death of another great legend, Charlie Chaplin.
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