Obituary: Toshiro Mifune

Toshiro Mifune, actor and film and television producer: born Qingdao, Manchuria 1 April 1920; married 1950 Sachiko Yoshimine (deceased; two sons; marriage dissolved 1970), secondly Miki Kitagawa (one daughter); died Tokyo 24 December 1997.

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.

Start your day with The Independent, sign up for daily news emails
PROMOTED VIDEO
Have you tried new the Independent Digital Edition apps?
ebooks
ebooksA year of political gossip, levity and intrigue from the sharpest pen in Westminster
Arts and Entertainment
Kara Tointon and Jeremy Piven star in Mr Selfridge
tvActress Kara Tointon on what to expect from Series 3
Voices
Winston Churchill, then prime minister, outside No 10 in June 1943
voicesA C Benson called him 'a horrid little fellow', George Orwell would have shot him, but what a giant he seems now, says DJ Taylor
News
i100
Sport
footballBrighton vs Arsenal match report
Arts and Entertainment
Benedict Cumberbatch has spoken about the lack of opportunities for black British actors in the UK
film
News
Latest stories from i100
Have you tried new the Independent Digital Edition apps?
Independent Dating
and  

By clicking 'Search' you
are agreeing to our
Terms of Use.

iJobs Job Widget
iJobs General

Austen Lloyd: Private Client Solicitor - Oxford

Excellent Salary : Austen Lloyd: OXFORD - REGIONAL FIRM - An excellent opportu...

Austen Lloyd: Clinical Negligence Associate / Partner - Bristol

Super Package: Austen Lloyd: BRISTOL - SENIOR CLINICAL NEGLIGENCE - An outstan...

Recruitment Genius: Sales Consultant - Solar Energy - OTE £50,000

£15000 - £50000 per annum: Recruitment Genius: Fantastic opportunities are ava...

Recruitment Genius: Compute Engineer

Negotiable: Recruitment Genius: A Compute Engineer is required to join a globa...

Day In a Page

Iraq invasion 2003: The bloody warnings six wise men gave to Tony Blair as he prepared to launch poorly planned campaign

What the six wise men told Tony Blair

Months before the invasion of Iraq in 2003, experts sought to warn the PM about his plans. Here, four of them recall that day
25 years of The Independent on Sunday: The stories, the writers and the changes over the last quarter of a century

25 years of The Independent on Sunday

The stories, the writers and the changes over the last quarter of a century
Homeless Veterans appeal: 'Really caring is a dangerous emotion in this kind of work'

Homeless Veterans appeal

As head of The Soldiers' Charity, Martin Rutledge has to temper compassion with realism. He tells Chris Green how his Army career prepared him
Wu-Tang Clan and The Sexual Objects offer fans a chance to own the only copies of their latest albums

Smash hit go under the hammer

It's nice to pick up a new record once in a while, but the purchasers of two latest releases can go a step further - by buying the only copy
Geeks who rocked the world: Documentary looks back at origins of the computer-games industry

The geeks who rocked the world

A new documentary looks back at origins of the computer-games industry
Belle & Sebastian interview: Stuart Murdoch reveals how the band is taking a new direction

Belle & Sebastian is taking a new direction

Twenty years ago, Belle & Sebastian was a fey indie band from Glasgow. It still is – except today, as prime mover Stuart Murdoch admits, it has a global cult following, from Hollywood to South Korea
America: Land of the free, home of the political dynasty

America: Land of the free, home of the political dynasty

These days in the US things are pretty much stuck where they are, both in politics and society at large, says Rupert Cornwell
A graphic history of US civil rights – in comic book form

A graphic history of US civil rights – in comic book form

A veteran of the Fifties campaigns is inspiring a new generation of activists
Winston Churchill: the enigma of a British hero

Winston Churchill: the enigma of a British hero

A C Benson called him 'a horrid little fellow', George Orwell would have shot him, but what a giant he seems now, says DJ Taylor
Growing mussels: Precious freshwater shellfish are thriving in a unique green project

Growing mussels

Precious freshwater shellfish are thriving in a unique green project
Diana Krall: The jazz singer on being friends with Elton John, outer space and skiing in Dubai

Diana Krall interview

The jazz singer on being friends with Elton John, outer space and skiing in Dubai
Pinstriped for action: A glimpse of what the very rich man will be wearing this winter

Pinstriped for action

A glimpse of what the very rich man will be wearing this winter
Russell T Davies & Ben Cook: 'Our friendship flourished online. You can share some very revelatory moments at four in the morning…'

Russell T Davies & Ben Cook: How we met

'Our friendship flourished online. You can share some very revelatory moments at four in the morning…'
Bill Granger recipes: Our chef serves up his favourite Japanese dishes

Bill Granger's Japanese recipes

Stock up on mirin, soy and miso and you have the makings of everyday Japanese cuisine
Michael Calvin: How we need more Eric Cantonas to knock some sense into us

Michael Calvin's Last Word

How we need more Eric Cantonas to knock some sense into us