One of my favorite documentaries of 2016 was also about one of my personal heroes from way back. The film is director Steven Okazaki’s Mifune: The Last Samurai about the legendary Japanese actor Toshiro Mifune, whose many collaborations (16 in total) with director Akira Kurosawa influenced several generations of filmmakers and actors around the world. With works like Rashomon, Seven Samurai, The Hidden Fortress, Throne of Blood, Yojimbo, Sanjuro, High and Low, and Red Beard (to name a few), Mifune and Kurosawa redefined cool and changed film history forever. While the film focuses a great deal on their works, it places the partnership in context of both post-World War II filmmaking and the history of Japanese sword-fighting films of the era.
Narrated by Keanu Reeves and co-written by Mifune biographer and Japanese film historian Stuart Galbraith IV, Okazaki’s documentary covers all of this and a great deal more, delving into Mifune personal life as well as his rise and struggle to stay on top of the acting world in Japan, especially with his especially rebellious spirit that might hinder other actors. The Last Samurai features great interviews with many who knew him and worked with him (I especially love the stuntman who claims to have been “killed” more than 100 times by Mifune on film), as well as a few famous fans, including Martin Scorsese and Steven Spielberg (who cast Mifune in 1941), both of whom place the actor in his proper place on the international landscape. The film has remarkable clips from films and television series Mifune worked in across his long career, and it’s a treasure trove of hidden gems I’ll be seeking out in years to come for Mifune’s fine work.
A documentary veteran (including the Oscar-winning 1991 doc short Days of Waiting), Okazaki has primary directed hard-hitting films about tough subjects, with features and shorts dealing with teens living with HIV, drug addiction, rehab, and the bombings of Hiroshima and Nagasaki. But here, he applies his gifts to condense his stories into its essential elements, and the result manages to be revealing without feeling like some sort of exposé on a beloved figure. The Last Samurai manages to appeal to both die-hard fans and newcomers looking for an entry point into Mifune’s vast filmography.
The movie is screening at the Gene Siskel Film Center for two shows only: Saturday, Jan. 7 at 3pm; and Monday, Jan. 9 at 6pm. It is playing as part of the venues “The Magnificent Mifune” series, running January 7 through February 2. In addition to the documentary, this seven-film tribute to the legendary Japanese actor includes such works as Throne of Blood, Seven Samurai, Yojimbo, Samurai Rebellion, The Life of Oharu, and Rashomon.
For information on the series and showtimes, go the Siskel Film Center’s event page And travel hundreds of miles to see this films if you have to. They’re fantastic.
To read my exclusive interview with Mifune: The Last Samurai director Steven Okazaki, go to Ain’t It Cool News.