Wednesday, 19 October 2016

Mifune - The Last Samurai

Mifune Valentine

Mifune - The Last Samurai
2016 Japan Directed by Steven Okazaki
Screening as part of the London
Film Festival - October 15th 2016

My first experience of watching Toshiro Mifune was when I was 12 years old, seeing him play Lord Toranaga in the 1980 TV series Shogun. It was a role which stuck in my mind for a long time but I had no idea who he was. When I discovered my favourite director, Akira Kurosawa, a few years later, I was absolutely entranced by both him and, of course, both his main acting collaborators, Toshiro Mifune and Takashi Shimura. They soon became my new favourite performers and, after all these years, that pretty much stands. So when I saw that there would be a new documentary about the life of Mifune at this years London Film Festival called Mifune - The Last Samurai, I jumped at the chance to grab tickets and I’d have to say that, of the five movies I saw at this year’s LFF, this was probably the one I was most looking forward to.

Unfortunately, although it has a lot of good things about it, I’d have to say that it’s the one film in this years festival which disappointed me somewhat. Perhaps it’s my own expectations which brought me to this state of mind in that I was expecting a proper biography of the actor but, when I saw that the film is only 1 hour and 20 mins long, I should have possibly realised that there’s no way anybody could have done justice to the legend that was Mifune in such a short running time. I’m assuming that the curtailed running time was a contractual obligation and that this film is ultimately destined to be a DVD or Blu Ray extra... at least that’s my guess. Personally, I would have liked to have seen it expanded on by a couple more hours.

Now let me just start off by saying that it’s actually a pretty good movie and, to a certain extent, is a good primer for anyone unfamiliar with the actor and his work. That being said, it’s a bit of a puff piece in some ways and there seems to be some pretty glaring ommissions which could lead to a very slanted view of events in the actor’s life, if you don’t know anything about him. Certainly it rolls along at a fast pace and has some interviews with a lot of people still with us who worked with Kurosawa way back when. Not only still with us, it seems, but looking way younger than their years might suggest and one of the strengths of this documentary is that it’s primarily told by people who were a witness to the lives of the main players in this film and, mostly, not second hand stories.

So you have people like Haruo Nakajima, who acted for Kurosawa and who was sometimes the “man in the suit” in various Godzilla films (both Kuroswa and the Godzilla films came from the same stable, Toho Studios). Or Kurosawa’s long standing script supervisor Teruyo Nogami, who wrote a wonderful book a number of years ago about her experiences called Waiting on the Weather: Making Movies with Akira Kurosawa, which is well worth a read. There are also talking head interview excerpts from the likes of admirers such as Martin Scorcese and Steven Spielberg, not to mention Miffune’s son Shiro and Kurosawa’s son Hisao. Perhaps it’s the inclusion of so many people so close to the subject matter of the documentary that ensures it turns out as uninformative on certain periods of Mifune’s life as it seems to be in places... perhaps Japanese politeness won out over reportage of the facts. There is some pretty important stuff which is excluded here, I think.

I guess the clue is in the title but one of the main weaknesses of the movie is that it seems to focus, with the exclusion of almost all else, on Mifune’s period, samurai movies... which isn’t, by any means, all he did. It also, and I did find this strange, seems to dwell almost exclusively on Mifune’s time working with Kurosawa. Now Kurosawa is my favourite director, for sure, but both he and Mifune had a longish career away from each other too... so this seems to be a very strange way of producing a fair and unbiased documentary. While other films in Mifune’s CV are briefly mentioned, such as his international work on productions like Grand Prix, Hell In The Pacific, 1941 and the aforementioned Shogun, the main interest in this movie is absolutely on the artistic collaboration between the two and, though it’s a very important cinematic collaboration to rival other successful celluloid partnerships such as Scorcese & DeNiro or Hitchcock & Herrmann, one has to wonder if the film might have been better coming clean about what it really wanted to say and making it a movie specifically about that collaboration, rather than throwing the odd mention of other things into it too... after all, the running time is so short, there’s barely enough time to cover either of these subjects adequately.

As I said earlier, the film is also very spare with its facts and glosses over some important stuff. For instance, it mentions Mifune and Kurosawas last film together and says that they had nothing more to give to each other and decided to stop the collaboration... which makes everything sound nice and polite. However, for years I have been hearing the stories of how Kurosawa’s thirst for perfectionism extended to crazy extremes on Red Beard, with him trying to get authentic set dressing from the period of the movie for things like the insides of drawers which would never even be opened while the camera was rolling... presumably to properly immerse his crew in the right atmosphere. Consequently, with stuff like this, Red Beard’s shoot ended up taking two years... years in which Mifune, now with his own ‘struggling to be cash solvent’ production company, was not being able to work in films for that company and help keep the required revenue coming in. Tensions on the set of Red Beard must have been pretty fierce, I suspect.

It’s also said that Kurosawa saw the roles in other films that Mifune had been taking as inferior to the pictures he was making and he didn’t, for instance, have a good word to say about Mifune’s work on Shogun, amongst others. All of these things must have taken a toll on Mifune and Kurosawas relationship and it’s no wonder that, after Red Beard in 1965, they would never work together again, although I believe Mifune was still loyal to Kurosawa and spoke in his defence. After all, it was due to Kurosawa that he started off his career in acting.

Little things like these and the implication rather than straight forward presentation of Mifune’s role in the Second World War training Kamakazi pilots seem to paint a very one sided picture of the main subject of the documentary and I thought this was such a shame because, although the film is wonderful and it’s nice to see all these people turn up for it, it would have been better to have a more accurate portrayal of the man on film, I feel.

However, there are some nice things about it too. There are sections early on in the documentary which show excerpts from rare, silent chanbara movies and it was nice to see these and realise that, in many respects, they are not that different from ones still being made today.

The music in the film, composed by Jeffrey Wood, is quite minimal with a percussive quality which doesn't seem completely out of place when you pitch it against some of the classic Kurosawa movies excerpted, such as Seven Samurai, Throne of Blood and Yojimbo. It doesn’t intrude on the proceedings and lends it some appropriate support when required... so that's all good.

Also, although I somehow failed to realise this until I saw his name on the credits at the end, the voice-over narrative for the film is performed by Keanu Reeves. This seems entirely fitting as I can think of nobody better, at least in Western cinema, who can play a modern day incarnation of the wandering ronin (aka masterless samurai) with such style and confidence. Think, for example, of his stray dog of a character, John Wick (reviewed here), in the recent film of the same title... practically a living embodiment of certain parts of the mythos surrounding the honourable samurai.

And that's my take on this particular movie done. If you've never seen a Kurosawa movie or looked at anything with Toshiro Mifune in it then you should probably take a look at this film and then follow it up with Stuart Gailbraith's excellent book The Emporer and The Wolf: The Lives and Films of Akira Kurosawa and Toshiro Mifune. If you're already a fan of either then this is still a very interesting, if not nearly as informative, look at the two of them. However, as an extremely good friend of mine remarked, when I told her about the movie... "No story tells the whole story."

2016 London Film Festival @ NUTS4R2

Zoology (Zoologiya)
Women Who Kill
Mifune - The Last Samurai

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