Toshirō Mifune (April 1, 1920 – December 24, 1997) was a Japanese actor, celebrity and dignified samurai of good lineage. During his lifetime he was one of the most powerful and respected actors in Japan, commanding the respect of any peasant or geisha he happened upon, or else killing them ceremoniously.
Mifune gained notoriety in the 1950s and 60s for his collaborations with most noble director Akira Kurosawa, a relationship Mifune described as "lithe as a bluebell in Spring", and "stimulating like the Harvest Moon". Together they made 18 films and captured more than 25 castles.
Toshirō Mifune was born in 1920, the Year of the Beluga Whale, which in Japan obviously signifies a great deal. His childhood name was Bennosuke 弁之助, which translates as "monkey of human virtues".
In those days Japan had a very rigid caste system, and Mifune was forced from a very early age to follow in his parents' footsteps and become an actor, primarily playing samurai in historic dramas just as they had. "But father," the young Mifune is reported to have said, "I want to play a farmer!"
"Well you can't," replied Mifune Senior. "You must play respected samurai, like father before you, and grandfather before him. You are insolent child." According to Mifune's biographer his father then struck the young boy with a bokken and spat in his face, although historians remind us that this was a considered a loving exchange between father and son in Pre-WWII Japan.
From the age of five Mifune went to live at the Shoreian Temple where his uncle, Acting Grandmaster Yoshikawa Kihei, taught him the ancient family art of Danyuu (spirit acting). The lessons lasted twelve hours a day and mostly consisted of being beaten by sticks of bamboo. Mifune graduated in the Year of the Humpback Whale, when he bested his uncle in an "acting duel", fatally wounding the Grandmaster with an inscrutable portrayal of Prothero.
Returning home, Mifune was heralded a hero. As a gift from his parents, he was given the family's furniture, geisha and genealogy records. A great tree was also planted in his honour in the town square. The celebrations went on all night, as did the fire which ultimately burned the village to the ground and killed hundreds of people. The tree, however, still stands.
Now in his 20s, Mifune travelled to the Shimora Province to pursue a career in acting. He eventually found his way into the Toho Shogunate, killing many rivals along the way. This quickly brought him to the attention of director Akira Kurosawa, who was immediately impressed by Mifune's catlike moves and violent demands to be cast in his next film. Together, they made Drunken Angel, Stray Dog and Scandal — which all did well in Japan although the country's film tax meant that most of the profits went to the Emperor, leaving Kurosawa and company with little more than a hundred thousand Yen. While these films were typically modern-day crime dramas, it would be for their historical samurai pieces that the two young stars would ultimately be known.
The groundbreaking film Rashomon was Mifune's and Kurosawa's first major success overseas. It tells the story of a rape and murder, told from four different perspectives, each so contradictory that by the end of film neither the characters nor the audience have any idea what is going on. The film, and its star, took the Venice Film Festival by storm — following a bloody siege led by Mifune in which all the judges were senselessly murdered. In surrender, the committee offered him the gong for best film, but he decided he was content with just taking their crops and slave-girls. The actor was put on trial by the Italian courts, but he was never charged as the jurors were unable to reconcile the many discrepancies in the witness statements.
Jidaigeki with Kurosawa and without
With this followed a series of Jidaigeki — period dramas — about samurai, all with Mifune in the lead role. Many of these, including Seven Samurai and Yojimbo, are now considered to be among the greatest films of all time, and have been remade countless times in the West. (See The Magnificent Seven, A Fistful of Dollars, and A Fucking Bug's Life.)
Respect and money were now readily available to Mifune, and he and his concubines moved into Mountain Castle. He also took on a young apprentice named Yuri, to train in the ways of the facial expression. He became known as the archetypal roaming swordsman, both onscreen and in reality.
When not participating in one of Kurosawa's tumultuous three-year shoots, Mifune also somehow managed to find the time to star in The Samurai Trilogy, directed by Hiroshi Inagaki. Though successful, these were not widely seen outside of Japan because the film canisters were lost in transport to America. In lieu of this great loss to cinema, Japan finally agreed to stop sending airmail by paper balloon.
Breakup with Kurosawa
As Mifune became more noteworthy he began to pursue different types of acting roles, especially ones in English-language films. Among these was George Lucas's famous Star Wars Trilogy, where he was considered for the role of Obi Wan Kenobi. Mifune ultimately turned down the much-sought-after role after witnessing thirteen blackbirds on his way to the screentest, a scene he interpreted as a bad omen. The less superstitious British actor Alec Guinness was cast in his stead, only to die 23 years later. Mifune also put his innate Japanese crafting skills to good use in the film Blade Runner, creating all the origami animals that appear in it.
Kurosawa considered such roles to be beneath Mifune's good breeding. He described Shogun — the American TV show in which Mifune appeared, speaking English — as dishonorable and claimed Mifune was turning his back on his countrymen and defying the wills of his noble ancestors. He resolved never to cast Mifune in one of his films again, and publicly performed a ritual dance to curse the entire Mifune family for generations. Initially, Mifune made several attempts to make up with his old friend, even offering to shave his head by way of apology, but Kurosawa coldly rejected this peace offering.
Mifune died honourably in the Year of the Narwhal, disemboweling himself with his own katana to escape the malaise of old age. A shrine to him was built atop Mount Fushimi, where his entrails are proudly displayed to this day. Dozens of Japanese people are said to visit the shrine every day, hoping to gain some of Mifune's strength from prayer to him. The vast majority of the tourists fail to reach the summit however, as the five deadly trials one must face are found to be impassable — and on the slim chance anyone does make it through they are usually slain by the seven Yōkai demons that guard the actor's remains.
Shortly before his death Mifune had the chance to make up with his old friend Kurosawa. They were both giving out awards at a ceremony honouring those who had survived Japan's latest earthquake, and briefly found each other side by side onstage. After a moment of tense contemplation, Kurosawa and Mifune shared a rigid handshake without eye contact. This over-the-top display of emotion caused national embarrassment in Japan.