Far East Film Festival 20

Udine Italy April 20th/ April 28th 2018
The Film Festival For Popular Asian Cinema
Teatro Nuovo Giovanni da Udine
Wednesday, Apirl 26, time 1.25 PM

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Mifune: The Last Samurai


Mifune Toshiro was the biggest international star of post-war Japanese cinema (at least human star, since Godzilla arguably outshone him). After rising to fame as an untamed samurai in the films of Kurosawa Akira, including
Seven Samurai (1954) and Yojimbo (1961), Mifune appeared on screen with the likes Alain Delon, Lee Marvin and John Belushi in films that may have not equaled Kurosa­wa’s masterpieces, but further cemented his image in the public mind worldwide. His flashing eyes, confident gait and impetuous bravery became instantly recognizable to millions, including those with next-to-zero knowledge of anything Japanese. For them Mifune was Japan.
How long ago it seems! Mifune died in 1997, but his last film with Kurosawa, Red Beard, was released in 1965, more than half a century ago. Generations have grown up, in Japan and elsewhere, with an awareness of the man and his work that ranges from dim to non-existent.
Mifune: The Last Samurai, Japanese-American director Steven Okazaki’s documentary centering on Mifune’s sixteen films with Kurosawa, accordingly begins at the beginning, with an explanation of the samurai genre that once dominated the Japanese film market. But the focus of the film – and its true value – lies in the dozens of interviews Okazaki and his producers were able to arrange with those who knew Mifune, accompanied by rare photographs and footage, as wells as clips and still from his most famous films.
The story of how Okazaki and his partners were able to put off this miracle deserves a film of its own, though it’s doubtful that one notoriously difficult company they had to deal with would cooperate.
Though the film might have had more impact when its subject was at the height of his fame, not to mention alive to interview, its by-now elderly witnesses still have vivid memories of Mifune and tell some compelling stories about him.
Introduced as the man “Mifune killed 100 times” on screen, veteran action choreogra­pher Uni Kanzo demonstrates Mifune’s explosive style of sword fighting, so unlike the more dance-like moves favored in the era’s chanbara (swordplay) movies. Mifune’s son Shiro reminisces that after an alcohol-soaked dinner with the family (a frequent occur­rence given Mifune’s heavy drinking), his father would grab a sword and start swinging it. “It scared me,” he says. As these and other witnesses corroborate, Mifune was much the same volatile man on screen and off, though in his private life he was more inclined to race and wreck fast cars than waste dozens of opponents with one swift sword.
The film probes into the darker chapters of Mifune’s life, from his wartime service as a trainer of young kamikaze pilots to his acrimonious break with Kurosawa after Red Beard’s arduous two-year shoot. One factor was the strain on Mifune’s finances, since he couldn’t take other work until filming ended and his production company went into the red as a result. Another was Kurosawa’s desire to explore new themes and leave behind the world of the samurai, to which Mifune was so central. But ultimately, says former Kurosawa script supervisor Nogami Teruyo, “It’s hard to know why” the most famous collaboration in Japanese films ended.
So while Mifune doesn’t solve all the mysteries about it subject (and it’s doubtful now that anyone will), it provides fascinating glimpses into his personality, his times, his art – and the many talented people around him.
Mark Schilling
Film director: 
Okazaki Steven
Year: 
2016
Running time: 
80

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