Toshirô Mifune’s performances are marked by their raw, mesmeric power, a quality sadly lacking in Steven Okazaki’s well-intentioned but sedate documentary about the legendary actor. Narrated by a somnolent Keanu Reeves, Mifune: The Last Samurai often feels more like an educational film for a classroom lecture or museum orientation than an exploration of one of international cinema’s fiercest and most dynamic actors.
Providing a chronological overview of Mifune’s life and career, with a naturally heavy emphasis on his long-running collaboration with Japanese filmmaker Akira Kurosawa, The Last Samurai offers lots of information but little insight. We learn of Mifune’s youth working in his father’s photography studio, his somewhat insubordinate military service during World War II (“You don’t have to say ’banzai’ for the emperor,” he reportedly told his fellow pilots), and his love of drink and cards, but these details, while interesting in their own right, are never integrated into a broader psychological portrait of Mifune.
In many ways, Mifune the man remains just as mysterious after watching Okazaki’s film as he was before. The interviews with those who knew and worked with him shed only a dim light on what Mifune was really like, often tending toward adulation about his work ethic and awed generalities about his character, such as one interviewee’s statement that Mifune “was like the ocean, boundless but sometimes turbulent.” Okazaki covers Mifune’s major life events, such as a 20-year estrangement from his wife following a scandalous affair with a young actress and the couple’s subsequent reconciliation in the last years of their life, but does so almost perfunctorily.
The Last Samurai is more perceptive when it delves into the background of some of the actor’s best-known roles. Martin Scorsese notes that Mifune studied the movement of lions for his feral performance as the bandit in Rashomon. Okazaki also takes an extended look at Mifune’s famous death from Throne of Blood, a genuinely dangerous scene for which Kurosawa hired a bunch of barely trained college students to fire real arrows at the actor, a mark of Mifune’s immutable commitment to the man who made him a star.
Mifune made 16 films with Kurosawa, a remarkable run spanning from the actor’s first major role in 1948’s Drunken Angel to 1965’s Red Beard, after which their collaboration abruptly ended. Okazaki provides no clear answer as to why this working relationship ended (Scorsese, clearly speaking from experience, speculates that “sometimes, especially in a collaboration, people use each other up”), but the documentary does capture the impact this falling out had on Mifune, who became consumed by the demands of his own production company and turned to well-paid but often inferior international productions to finance his expensive lifestyle.
It’s hard not to wish that Okazaki had structured his film more closely around the working relationship between Mifune and Kurosawa. The dynamic between the two artists animates The Last Samurai, imbuing it with a sense of purpose missing in much of the rest of the film, which lacks any sense of narrative drive or thematic cohesion. Okazaki has amassed the requisite interviews, research, film clips, and archival stills, but on a fundamental level, he simply doesn’t seem to know what he wants to say with all of them.