I don’t think any actor has or ever will match how Toshiro Mifune transplants himself into your subconscious the very first second you see him on screen. For me, that first glimpse was Mifune as a ragged, wild dog-like ronin confidently promenading himself in the middle of nowhere, throwing a stick into the air and going to whichever direction it landed. The film in question was, of course, Yojimbo, a film that both introduced me to Toshiro Mifune and Akira Kurosawa and solidified their status as a formidable director-actor duo.
As a first impression, Yojimbo conveyed Mifune’s ability to exude a layer of physicality I have never seen from other actors. This almost animalistic manner in which he utilizes the entire proportion of each of his limbs is unmatched to this day—many actors since have tried but none are in the end Mifune himself. His collaborations with Kurosawa lend itself to this animalistic method. Mifune’s role in Yojimbo and Seven Samurai saw him mimicking how a dog would carry itself. This can be seen from his comical gait in Seven Samurai and his compulsion to scratch his head in Yojimbo. In Rashomon, Mifune studied the movement of felines and channeled his inner lion to portray the untamed bandit. Mifune would often take inspiration from traditional Japanese arts as well such as in Throne of Blood, where his animative facial expressions were borrowed from traditional Kabuki performance. Mifune had essentially mastered every minutia of every inch of his physique to create memorable performances that forcefully steal the entire screen every time you see him.
The ordinary Japanese actor might need ten feet of film to get across an impression. Toshiro Mifune needed only three feet.
We could stop there and we would already have highlighted some of the essential reasons Mifune is widely revered; his expressive, physically-demanding roles were impressive but what makes Mifune marvelous was his equal ability to play calm, subtle, and subdued roles. His role in The Bad Sleep Well exemplifies this point perfectly as his role as the bespectacled Nishi brought a level of composure and suave composure that I did not expect from Mifune. Or he could switch back and forth between both of those styles within the span of a few seconds; standing as still as water and then a furious dancer the next.
But Toshiro Mifune’s rebellious characters weren’t only that: fictional. It was the life he experienced and the compassion he could bring to other people that translated so well into his acting. Drafted by the Imperial Japanese Army at a young age, Mifune would be beaten by his superiors due to his brash, cocky attitude and forceful voice that were seen as an act of incompliance to commanding officers. By virtue of existing Mifune was not someone that could bow easily to a higher power. To his fans, we would recognize these sorts of attitudes in the rough delinquent characters he often portray. But his fans would also recognize a softer, more humane hidden interior to those rough badasses like when his ronin character Sanjuro would give money to the people he saves (promptly before ushering them to go away in a vulgar manner). After he founded his production company, Mifune would also often sweeps the floor of his studio by himself, making people calling him the affectionate nickname ‘Mr. Clean’. Many have described him as a funny, witty, and just a generally pleasant person to be around. His days being poor after the war ended etched a necessity for hard work to the fiber of his being and the friends he had in the army who had their lives taken prematurely made him extraordinarily empathetic.
Towards the end of the war, boys who hadn’t even reached puberty were drafted into the military. And with minimal training they were sent into combat. It was my father’s job to train them. The night before the boys were sent off on their suicide missions my father would treat them to sukiyaki for the last time. The next day, they’d say “Sergeant Mifune, off I go!” My father told them “All right, off you go! But you don’t have to say ‘Banzai!’ for the Emperor. Instead, just say goodbye to your mother. That’s all you need to do”. It was his compassion that made him rebellious.
– Shirô Mifune, son of Toshiro Mifune. From the documentary Mifune: The Last Samurai.
His status as an internationally-renowned movie star and his incredible contribution to the modern movie hero trope could not be understated but it’s important to know that he was as much an auteur of his acting craft as he was a celebrity. Cast and crew of his films have always noted his sheer dedication and hard work with Mifune himself saying he hardly excercise because his work was already physically-demanding. Akira Kurosawa, despite his notorious perfectionist, draconian instructions to even the extras of his film never gave Toshiro MIfune acting instructions, only guiding him with an invisible string.
As a person who grew up without a father figure, Toshiro Mifune entered my life during a much-needed time in my adolescence. His films and the characters he played taught me how to be a stand-up human being when there was a lack of paternal guidance in my household. Mifune’s characters didn’t demonstrate the toxic masculinity present in many other ‘badass’ male film heroes. His characters embodied a sense of reliability and assurance while also displaying a layer of vulnerability to himself and real compassion towards the people he care for. They were rebellious for things that were opressive but benevolent in sight of justice. It’s for these reasons that his performance in Red Beard might be my favorite yet as the role epitomizes what I have been talking about before and it’s quite poignant that it was his last collaboration with Kurosawa. As much as it was a separation between the two of them, it was also the culmination of their collaboration and reveal how much they have matured over the years together. In their final work together in Red Beard, Toshiro Mifune did not use his hands to kill or even carry a sword at all but use them to heal and help the poor—he passed the baton to his student who’s perfectly eager to carry his legacy for the future generation, just like what Mifune did to me as a peron.
We were part of of the golden age of Japanese cinema together. When I look back at each and every film, I couldn’t have made them without you. You gave so much of yourself. Thank you, my friend. For one last time, over a bottle of sake, I wish I could’ve told you all this. Goodbye, my friend. I’ll see you soon.
An excerpt from Akira Kurosawa’s final letter to Toshiro Mifune read in Mifune’s funeral. From the documentary Mifune: The Last Samurai.