Photo of Director Steven Okazaki
Director Steven Okazaki: “. . . [H]is (Mifune’s) appeal was never limited by ethnic boundaries: I have Latino friends who were just as excited as I was when they heard I was making this movie.” (Photo courtesy Steven Okazaki)

Filmmaker Steven Okazaki’s New Film Highlights the Life and Work of the Masterful
Toshiro Mifune

Alan Suemori
Special to The Hawai‘i Herald

In 1950, Toshiro Mifune exploded upon the world stage, delivering an epic performance in Japanese film director Akira Kurosawa’s seminal work, “Rashomon,” which was complex, nuanced and unforgettable. Cinema fans had never seen a hero quite like Mifune: savage, comical and completely original — it was as if he had emerged from the very earth itself to embed himself into the cultural consciousness. Mifune and Kurosawa would make 16 films together in 18 years and influence moviemakers and film lovers around the world forever.

“Growing up, I was very conscious of the negative Asian stereotypes that abounded in American culture,” says Academy award-winning film director Steven Okazaki, whose latest work, “Mifune: The Last Samurai,” will screen at the Hawaii International Film Festival. “Mifune was the first nonwhite action star. This was way before Jackie Chan, Bruce Lee and Shaft. He was cool, and he didn’t take any crap,” said Okazaki in a phone interview from his Bay Area home base. “One day we were playing cowboys and Indians and the next day all we wanted to be were samurai.”

Photo of Toshiro Mifune in "Seven Samurai"
Mifune in “Seven Samurai.”

Okazaki, whose 40-year film career has included groundbreaking movies about the internment of Japanese Americans in World War II, the atomic bombing of Hiroshima and Nagasaki, and the HIV and heroin epidemics of the 1980s and ’90s, has crafted a loving but unblinking tribute to Mifune that is also an homage to the Japanese cinematic world that gave birth to him. Narrated by actor Keanu Reeves and featuring insights from Hollywood directors Steven Spielberg and Martin Scorsese, “Mifune: The Last Samurai” incorporates personal interviews with the actor’s family, friends and co-workers, along with long-lost chanbara (sword fighting genre) film clips to tell the improbable story of the greatest Japanese film star of the 20th century.

Photo Toshiro Mifune
Toshiro Mifune influenced the work of such Hollywood actors as Clint Eastwood, Paul Newman and Bruce Willis.

“As a child, I loved samurai movies, and Mifune was always an important figure to the Japanese American community,” says Okazaki. “But his appeal was never limited by ethnic boundaries: I have Latino friends who were just as excited as I was when they heard I was making this movie.”

Born in 1920 in Tsingtao, China, and raised in Dalian, Mifune did not enter Japan until he was drafted into the Japanese imperial army in World War II. The 21-year-old Mifune would serve as a low-ranking military instructor until the end of the war, when he was given a half-yen, a single blanket and discharged into the twilight of postwar Japan.

Hungry for work, Mifune applied for a job as an assistant cameraman at Toho Studios. At the time, Toho was churning out dozens of movies per year and was desperate for actors. Mifune was quickly cast in bit parts until he was spotted by Akira Kurosawa, who immediately recognized his talent.

Photo of Toshiro Mifune
In postwar Japan, Mifune applied for a cameraman position at Toho Studios, but was instead hired as an actor playing bit roles.

“Kurosawa was heavily influenced by the westerns of John Ford and he was looking for an actor who could understand his vision and capture what he wanted to say on film,” Okazaki explained. Mifune would turn out to be the perfect partner who could mirror Kurosawa’s drive, energy and attention to detail. At a time when Japanese films were done cheaply and quickly, Kurosawa and Mifune were perfectionists.



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Photo of Toshiro Mifune (right) and director Akira Kurosawa
Toshiro Mifune (right) and director Akira Kurosawa shared a common vision when it came to filmmaking. They made 16 films together within a span of 18 years. (Photos courtesy HIFF)



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