On 1 April 1920, Japan’s greatest actor, Toshiro Mifune, was born. Born to Mehodist missionaries in Shadong, China during the Japanese occupation of German colonial possessions seized in the First World War, Mifune spent most his childhood in Manchuko, the Manchurian puppet state of the Empire of Japan. At age 20 he was drafted into the Imperial Japanese Army, where he was a photographer and photographic analyst in an aerial reconnaissance unit.
After the war, Mifune became a photographer. He first got noticed for his on screen presence after stumbling into an acting audition and flying onto a rage. Famed Japanese director Akiro Kurosawa was impressed by Mifune’s fury, and his imposing visage after Mifune sat in front of the judges and stared them down. 1948’s Drunken Angel was the first of 16 collaborations with Akiro Kurosawa that catapulted both into international superstardom.
Akiro Kurosawa was a master of cultural appropriation. Kurosawa took Shakespeare, Film Noir, and Classic American Westerns, gave them a Japanese twist and unleashed them on the world. Toshiro Mifune was Kurosawa’s favorite actor, and Kurosawa, Mifune’s favorite director. Through Kurosawa’s mentorship, Mifune’s tough and imposing exterior and natural ability to impart emotion was adapted into an impressive range. No emotion seemed beyond his ability to convey it to the audience. Kurosawa once said, Mifune could express in “three feet of film what other actors needed ten feet of film”. Mifune said of Kurosawa, “I am proud of nothing I have done other than with him.”
Mifune’s performances created archetypes that last to this day. His portrayal in the Drunken Angel of a young reformed Yakuza enforcer, Matsunaga, ushered in the Yakuza subgenre of film noir; a genre he excelled in on both sides of the law. Mifune specialized in gruff against-archetype samurai and ronin, single handedly creating the noble, wise, tough, stoic, quiet, drifting warrior anti-hero archetype, made famous by Clint Eastwood’s Man With No Name. The Kurosawa and Mifune collaborations of Drunken Angel, Hidden Fortress, Seven Samurai, Ran, Yojimbo, Rashomon, and Sanjuro are cinema classics and there is no mistaking Toshiro Mifune in any of them – he steals every scene he is in.
Though he fell out with Kurosawa, Mifune became the go to actor for Japanese national heroes. Mifune played Miyamoto Musashi in four different films. He played Ieyasu Tokogawa in films and his thinly veiled fictional counterpart in the American adaption of Shogun. And Mifune played Isoroku Yamamoto in several films, including the 1976 American blockbuster Midway.
Mifune was the original method actor, and dove into the preparation for his roles. He played the Japanese submarine captain in Steven Spielberg’s hilarious ground breaking comedy, 1941, where he trained the entire crew to act like Japanese sailors. He mastered foreign roles in foreign films. He famously learned to speak his Spanish lines fluently for his role as a Mexican bandit in Anamus Trujano, and studied the movement of lions for Rashomon and Seven Samurai. He turned down the roles of Tiger Tanaka in Bond film You Only Live Twice, Obi Wan Kenobi in Star Wars, and Mr. Miyagi in The Karate Kid. He was close friends with American actors Scott Glenn, Charlton Heston, and William Holden.
Toshiro Mifune (and Akiro Kurosawa) did more to heal the post war rift between two bitter enemies, Japan and America, than any others in the twentieth century.
So next time you’re watching Speed Racer, know that there’s a reason Speed Racer is named “Go Mifune” and the M on his helmet does not stand for “mach” but “Mifune”.
Happy 100th birthday, Toshiro Mifune.