Mifune Toshirō - an exploration of the actor’s legacy through his most iconic films
Mifune Toshirō (1920–1997) is considered to be one of Japan’s most iconic actors of all time.
He collaborated with some of Japan’s greatest film directors such as Naruse Mikio and Mizoguchi Kenji. But it was his long-standing artistic partnership with multi-award-winning filmmaker Kurosawa Akira which propelled him to worldwide fame. The duo worked together on a total of 16 films, some of which are considered the greatest masterpieces of cinema.
A versatile and cutting-edge actor, Mifune managed to bring a new twist to jidaigeki (period film) characters: he embraced classical hero roles that were seen as cinematic variations on tachiyaku, leading male roles, and he revolutionised them with his display of raw emotion and striking facial expressions.
Some of his most acclaimed films, produced in collaboration with Kurosawa, include Rashōmon (1950), Seven Samurai (1954), Throne of Blood (1957), Hidden Fortress (1958), and Yōjimbō (1961).
A story of violence and mystery, the plot revolves around the murder of a samurai and the violation of his wife in a forest, and the attempts to find the culprit through the wildly differing versions of those present at the incident: a woodcutter who was passing through the area; the samurai’s wife; the victim himself, summoned by a medium to participate in the trial; and the main suspect, a notorious bandit played by Mifune, whose performance and range of emotion was internationally regarded as magnetic and feral.
Adapted from two short stories written by Akutagawa Ryūnosuke, this ground-breaking movie is widely considered one of the greatest films of all time. It introduced Japanese cinema to a worldwide audience and brought attention to Mifune as an icon of masculinity. The film won the Oscar for Best Foreign Film in 1952.
Seven Samurai (1954)
With its straightforward plot, superb camera work and an influence which extends to action movies made to this day, Seven Samurai boasts one of Mifune’s most remarkable and sophisticated performances.
When 16th-century farmers, whose village is repeatedly attacked by merciless bandits, ask an elderly, masterless samurai for help, offering nothing but food in return, he hesitantly agrees and assembles a band of warriors to defend and train the villagers.
Considered to be one of the greatest films ever made, Kurosawa's Seven Samurai has influenced the work of other internationally acclaimed directors such as George Lucas and Steven Spielberg.
Throne of Blood (1957)
Fusing classical tragedy with formal elements taken from Japanese Noh theatre, the film transposes Shakespeare’s immortal tale of ambition and deceit from 11th-century Scotland to the eerie, foggy landscapes of feudal Japan.
Mifune, in his role as samurai general Washizu, the Macbeth figure who becomes progressively greedy with power driven by his wife, impresses with a ruthless physicality: his frantic, wide-eyed expressions, his sharp but stylised movements that convey strength, intensity, and lust for power, his internal struggles that filter through every gesture. It is this raw, animalistic acting that makes this one of the most unforgettable performances of his career.
Hidden Fortress (1958)
This film blends elements of a fairy tale with samurai action in a legacy that has exerted a major influence in cinema worldwide, with George Lucas having taken inspiration from the story for the first film in his Star Wars series.
A bracing adventure exploring the value of morality in a corrupt world, the story follows greedy peasants Matashichi and Tahei who leave their homes to make their fortunes as soldiers of the Yamana clan. They eventually cross paths with two strangers hiding in a camp who, unbeknown to the peasants, are really the famous enemy Akizuki clan general Makabe Rokurota and Princess Yuki in disguise.
Mifune, in the role of the stoic general Makabe, balances his signature overly masculine demeanour with a humorous personality which, combined, makes his intimidating character even more believable.
Yōjinbō (1961) - written often as simply Yōjimbō - is considered one of the greatest and most influential collaborations between Mifune and Kurosawa.
The film narrates the story of Kuwabatake Sanjūrō, a rōnin (masterless samurai) in 19th-century Japan who drifts into a rural town divided between two competing crime gangs.
The iconography of Mifune’s character, clad in a baggy black kimono and exuding manly arrogance, came to exemplify the epitome of samurai action. Mifune is also delightfully funny in Yōjinbō, more so than in any of his previous roles, providing a mesmeric performance of vigorous dominance and calm bemusement.