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Toshiro Mifune

Biography from David Owens' piece in the program for Japan Society's 1984 film tribute.

Here is the scenario for a movie someone should make. If they can get Toshiro Mifune for it, he'd be terrific as the lead:

September, 1945. The war has just ended and Japan is in ruins. A young man, twenty five years old, discharged from the defeated Imperial Air Force leaves the rural air base in Kyushu where he had been stationed. What next? Where should he go? Born and raised in Manchuria, he had never lived in Japan. Although Japanese, he was a stranger in an alien land. His parents were dead, he had no relatives he knew about, no home to return to, no one to take him in. Back in middle school he had helped out around his father's studio in china, and as a flier he'd done some aerial photography during the war. Maybe he could find work as a photographer in Tokyo.

Making his way to the big city, he finds it a charred ruin, a vast plain of ashes and crumbling buildings. He finds lodging with an old army buddy, and begins looking for work. Photography is not a trade in demand in this devastated wasteland.

Spring, 1946. From another friend in his military outfit, he hears of an opening for an assistant cameraman at a movie studio. The young man submits an application without much hope; there are hundreds of other applicants.

A month later, he's called to the studio. Ushered into a room for an interview with a panel of judges, he is asked to laugh. "Laugh? What is this? I came for a job."

If he wants to audition, he has to laugh, he is told. Somehow his application has been misdirected, and he has found himself auditioning in the studio's "new faces" talent hunt, one of four thousand applicants.

"I can't just laugh," he replies curtly, beginning to get angry. They're wasting his time and worse, they're treating him like a fool. The interviewers, impatient with his arrogant stubbornness, dismiss him. But one of them, an elderly white-haired gentleman with a mustache, persuades the other judges to call him back - that sort of seething hostility is just what they should be looking for. Next they ask him to play drunk. Another fellow, tall and younger than the others, wearing a floppy hat, has entered the room to watch the audition.

The young man thinks this is getting a little silly. He doesn't want to be an actor; he's here for a real job. But "drunk" is something he knows. There hasn't been much else to do recently but drink.

He knows what it feels like to be drunk and down-and-out, so why not give it a go? He begins to reel and lurch around the room. He's still mad at these guys for making a fool of him, so as long as he's supposed to be drunk, he might as well let them all have it. He shouts and stumbles and launches into an angry tirade. After awhile, feeling a bit sheepish, he eases up, slumps into a chair and glares menacingly at the judges. The judges spend a few moments in whispered discussion. Then they turn to him smiling. "That was just fine - you're hired." He is just one of sixteen male actors hired in the talent hunt. He is shortly afterward given a leading role in his first film, and two pictures later, he's a star.

A romantic daydream? It could only happen in the movies. But it's true. it would make a great movie, but only if they got Toshiro Mifune to star in it. After all, who - other than Mifune himself - could do justice to The Toshiro Mifune Story?

To fill in a few other key details, the studio is Toho, the white-haired gentleman is Kajiro Yamamoto, one of Toho's leading directors, and the man in the floppy hat is Akira Kurosawa. He had been working on an adjoining set, and had been called over by several actors to watch the brash young man audition. He was mightily impressed by what he saw, and thus began one of the most fruitful collaborations between an actor and director in cinema.

Remembering their earliest work together, Kurosawa later wrote of Mifune in his autobiography:

Mifune had a 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 ten feet of film to get across an impression; Mifune needed only three. The speed of his movements was such that he said in a single action what took ordinary actors three separate movements to express. He put forth everything directly and boldly, and his sense of timing was the keenest I had ever seen in a Japanese actor. And yet with all his quickness, he also had surprisingly fine sensibilities.

His imposing bearing, acting range, facility with foreign languages and lengthy partnership with acclaimed director Akira Kurosawa made him the most famous Japanese actor of his time, and easily the best known to Western audiences. He often portrayed a samurai or ronin, who was usually coarse and gruff (Kurosawa once complained about Mifune's "rough" voice), inverting the popular stereotype of the genteel, clean-cut samurai. In such films as The Seven Samurai and Yojimbo, he played characters who were often comically lacking in manners, but replete with practical wisdom and experience, understated nobility, and, in the case of Yojimbo, unmatched fighting prowess. Sanjuro in particular contrasts this earthy warrior spirit with the useless, sheltered propriety of the court samurai. Kurosawa highly valued Mifune for his effortless portrayal of unvarnished emotion, once commenting that he could convey in only three feet of film an emotion that would require the average Japanese actor ten feet.

On the other hand, his portrayal of Musashi Miyamoto in Hiroshi Inagaki's Samurai Trilogy is deliberately made to become the epitome of samurai honor and manners.

Mifune was famous for his self-deprecating sense of humor, which often found its way into his film roles. He was renowned for the effort he put into his performances. To prepare for The Seven Samurai and Rashomon, Mifune reportedly studied tapes of lions in the wild; for ?nimas Trujano, he studied tapes of Mexican actors speaking, so he could recite all his lines in Spanish. In his earliest film roles in English like Grand Prix, made in 1966, he learned his lines phonetically. This met with limited success and his voice was often dubbed by Paul Frees. By the time he made Red Sun in 1971 he had become somewhat more proficent in the language and his voice is heard throughout this multinational western. He was always disappointed that he did not have a larger career in the West. His most prominent English-language role was probably playing Admiral Isoroku Yamamoto in Midway.

Early in the development of Star Wars Episode IV: A New Hope, director George Lucas reportedly considered Mifune for the role of Obi Wan Kenobi. He had played an analogous role (General Rokurota) in The Hidden Fortress, a film greatly admired by Lucas. Its plot and characters have some parallels that Lucas carried into his first Star Wars film.

Mifune has been credited as originating the "roving warrior" archetype, which he perfected during his collaboration with Kurosawa. Clint Eastwood was among the first of many American actors to adopt this persona, which he used to great effect in his Western roles, especially the spaghetti westerns made with Sergio Leone. Incidentally, A Fistful of Dollars is an uncredited scene-for-scene remake of the Kurosawa – Mifune movie Yojimbo. Kurosawa successfully sued Leone for appropriating the story without permission.

Most of the sixteen Kurosawa–Mifune films are considered cinema classics. These include Rashomon, Stray Dog, The Seven Samurai, The Hidden Fortress, Throne of Blood (an adaptation of Shakespeare's MacBeth), Yojimbo, and Sanjuro.

Mifune and Kurosawa finally parted ways after the movie Red Beard. Most Japanese actors of the time played roles in several different movies throughout the year; for Red Beard, since he had to keep the natural beard that he grew, for the entire two years of shooting, Mifune was unable to act in any other films during this time. This put Mifune and his financially strapped production company deeply into debt. Red Beard played to packed houses in Japan and was popular in Europe, but failed to find commercial success in America.

In 1980, Mifune experienced newfound popularity with mainstream American television audiences through his appearance as Lord Toranaga in the miniseries Shogun.

One of Mifune's fellow performers, one of the 32 women chosen during the new faces contest, was Sachiko Yoshimine. Eight years Mifune's junior, she came from a respected Tokyo family. They fell in love and Mifune soon proposed marriage.

Yoshimine's parents were strongly opposed to the union. Mifune was doubly an outsider, being a non-Buddhist as well as a native Manchurian (Manchuria being associated with misfits and eccentrics by mainland Japanese). His choice of profession also made him suspect, as actors were generally assumed to be irresponsible and financially incapable of supporting a family.

Director Senkichi Taniguchi, with the help of Akira Kurosawa, convinced the Yoshimine family to allow the marriage. It took place in February of 1950. In November of the same year, their first son Shiro was born. In 1955, they had a second son, Takeshi. Mifune's daughter Mika was born in 1982.

Early in the 1980s, Mifune founded an acting school, Mifune Geijutsu Gakuin. The school failed after only three years, due to mismanaged finances.

Mifune received wider audience acclaim in the West than he had ever had before after playing Toranaga in the 1980 miniseries Shogun. However, the series' historical inaccuracy and somewhat simplified view of Japan meant that it was not as well received in his homeland. It deepened the rift with Kurosawa, virtually ensuring that they would not work together again.

Kurosawa seems to have made various uncharitable comments about Mifune, and Mifune about Kurosawa, and on many occasions they openly expressed feelings of resentment toward one another. They finally made something of a reconciliation in 1993 at the funeral of their friend Ishiro Honda. After making tenuous eye contact, they tearfully embraced one another, ending nearly three decades of mutual avoidance. They never collaborated again, however, nor did they have a chance to restore their friendship fully. Both passed away within the next five years.

In 1992, Mifune began suffering from a serious health problem, the exact nature of which is not fully known. It has been variously suggested that he destroyed his health with overwork, suffered a heart attack, or experienced a stroke. For whatever reason, he abruptly retreated from public life and remained largely confined to his home, cared for by his wife Sachiko. When she succumbed to pancreatic cancer in 1995, Mifune's physical and mental state began to decline rapidly.

He died in Mitaka, Japan, of multiple organ failure at the age of 77.

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