Steven Okazaki’s Mifune: The Last Samurai is a perfectly serviceable documentary on the great Japanese actor Toshirô Mifune if you aren’t looking for any information you couldn’t find on the man’s Wikipedia page. Those wanting a more penetrative look into one of the most fascinating actors of the twentieth century will be frustrated. The documentary’s problems stem from Okazaki pigeon-holing Mifune first and foremost as a samurai actor. On paper, this makes a certain amount of sense. Many of the man’s most iconic roles were in chanbara, period films set in Japan’s feudal era that feature lots of sword-fighting: the leonine bandit/rapist Tajômaru in Akira Kurosawa’s Rashomon (1951); the brash yet good-hearted samurai-imposter Kikuchiyo in Kurosawa’s Seven Samurai (1954); the legendary swordsman Musashi Miyamoto in Hiroshi Inagaki’s The Samurai Trilogy (1954-56); the doomed, megalomaniacal Macbeth surrogate in Kurosawa’s Noh-inspired adaptation of the Bard’s classic tragedy in Throne of Blood (1957); the eponymous rōnin anti-hero in Kurosawa’s Yojimbo (1961). Those are just a handful of Mifune’s greatest chanbara hits; the full list goes on and on.
But in defining Mifune primarily as a chanbara actor, he denies the audience a deeper exploration of the man’s talents. Above, I mentioned four of his sixteen collaborations with Kurosawa—a partnership that would rival the likes of John Ford and John Wayne, Martin Scorsese and Robert De Niro, and Werner Herzog and Klaus Kinski as the greatest director-actor team in film history. But Okazaki skips over some of their greatest accomplishments in his Bushidō hagiography. Three of their best films—Stray Dog (1949), I Live in Fear (1955), and High and Low (1963)—get, at best, an individual frame in extended montages that gloss over huge swaths of their careers (come to think of it, I’m not sure I Live in Fear even got that). In my mind, the only crime these films could have committed to earn Okazaki’s ire would be their audacity to be set in contemporary Japan when Mifune couldn’t wield a katana. Ignoring these and so many of Mifune’s other non-chanbara roles does a disservice to the man’s legacy akin to a documentary on Jimmy Stewart emphasizing his aw-shucks, all-American demeanor while skipping his later, darker work with Alfred Hitchcock and Anthony Mann.
I have a handful of other quibbles with Mifune: The Last Samurai. First, while Okazaki details Mifune’s birth, childhood, and youth living in Manchuria—he wouldn’t first step foot into Japan until he was twenty years old—he makes no mention of the fact that he was born to Christian missionaries. Considering how even today Christians make up less than one percent of Japan’s population, this omission seems especially puzzling. My guess is that his atypical faith frustrated Okazaki’s attempts to portray Mifune as a modern day samurai. Second, why feature Keanu Reeves as the narrator? Because of his Buddhism and deep fascination with Asian culture? Whatever Okazaki’s reasoning, Reeves comes across as needlessly monotone and disaffected. Third, Okazaki tries to smooth over the reality of how strained and venomous Kurosawa and Mifune’s relationship became in their twilight years. Going by this film, one would think that the two merely drifted apart as some people naturally do instead of consciously avoiding each other out of scorn for decades. And fourth, Okazaki takes samurai myths a little too seriously, refusing to acknowledge that in reality samurai were largely cruel, ruthless mercenaries who became as grotesquely romanticized in Japanese culture as their cowboy and knight counterparts in America and Europe. But again, actually exploring this romanticization would spoil Okazaki’s goal of similarly romanticizing Mifune.
I realize that I may have been a bit needlessly harsh towards Mr. Okazaki. In the spirit of fairness, let me say I was greatly impressed with his attempts to personalize his documentary with unique inter-titles and orange subtitles. They’re little touches, but considering how the vast majority of documentaries willingly sacrifice such creative flourishes in the pursuit of some kind of blasé, clinical objectivity, they are most welcome.