'Mifune: The Last Samurai': Telluride Review

Mifune the Last Samurai Still - H 2015
Courtesy of Venice Film Festival
Doc merely skims the surface of a cinematic legend.

Directors Steven Spielberg and Martin Scorsese are among those who pay tribute to celebrated Japanese actor Toshiro Mifune in this Telluride doc.

Telluride serves a noble purpose in celebrating the legacy of cinema while also showcasing some of the hottest fall movies in the Oscar race. One of the docs at this year’s festival, Mifune: The Last Samuai, pays tribute to legendary Japanese actor Toshiro Mifune, whose work with Akira Kurosawa helped to revitalize Japanese cinema in the years after World War II. The subject is a rich one, but the film simply isn’t incisive enough to make much of a dent in a crowded marketplace.

Keanu Reeves provides the rather bland narration, which offers such nuggets as that Mifune “embodied steadfastness and integrity.” The script, by director Steven Okazaki and Stuart Galbraith IV, rarely goes beyond platitudes. There are some impressive interviewees on display here, including American directors Steven Spielberg and Martin Scorsese, several of Mifune’s surviving collaborators, and family members of both Mifune and Kurosawa. But the people asking the questions didn’t encourage anyone to probe very deeply into their subject.

The film opens arrestingly, with a thumbnail history of Japanese cinema and excerpts from silent films that have largely vanished. A whole new wave emerged with Kurosawa’s masterpieces, Rashomon and The Seven Samurai, in the early 1950s. Yet the doc fails to provide any trenchant analysis of these seminal films. Rashomon in particular had a lasting cultural impact that is never even hinted at here.

The dissection of Throne of Blood, Kurosawa’s electrifying adaptation of Shakespeare’s Macbeth, is more substantial. Okazaki informs us that the startling climax of the film, in which the hero dies after an attack by enemy archers, was executed without many safety precautions.  But even here we would like to know more about why Kurosawa put his star in jeopardy and how Mifune felt about filming the sequence.

The movie frequently frustrates when it should illuminate. We get some hints about the impact of the war on both Mifune and Kurosawa. We learn about Mifune’s drinking and about the breakup of his marriage.  But these are simply tabloid headlines without any exploration of the suffering soul of the man. Similarly, there are mentions of tensions between actor and director that finally brought an end to their collaboration after 16 films together, but we would like to learn much more. Perhaps Mifune craved recognition beyond Japanese shores. He went on to co-star in Hollywood movies like John Frankenheimer’s Grand Prix, John Boorman’s Hell in the Pacific, as well as Spielberg’s comic dud, 1941, but these ventures rarely brought him the same acclaim that he had enjoyed in his partnership with Kurosawa.

The film excerpts are welcome and do convince us of the startling impact of some of these pictures. But you will have to search elsewhere to find a deeper understanding of the greatest Japanese actor.

Director-editor: Steven Okazaki
Screenwriters: Steven Okazaki, Stuart Galbraith IV
Producers: Toshiaki Nakazawa, Toichiro Shiraishi, Kensuke Zushi, Yukie Kito, Steven Okazaki, Taro Goto
Consulting producer: Rikiya Mifune
Directors of photography: Tohru Hina, Yasuyuki Isikawa
Music: Jeffrey Wood
No rating, 80 minutes