If you’re as big of a film buff as I am, you’ll know who Toshiro Mifune (三船敏郎) is. Also, if you’re as obsessed with Japanese cinema as I am, then you probably know all the lines of “Yojimbo” by heart! For the western world, there’s no more iconic image of the samurai than the swaggering Mifune, who was probably the most memorable actor to portray a samurai, in the entire canon of early Japanese cinema.
If you’re one of the uninitiated, then I can quickly list off a few films that you should watch, in order to educate yourself on this phenomenal actor. The famous Japanese director, Akira Kurosawa, is largely responsible for bringing Mifune to the west, as he often used him as a leading man, in many of his samurai epics. Furthermore Kurosawa’s films were, by far, the most often consumed, in the west, out of all the other famous directors of the early days.
Most notably, he used Mifune in the 1954 film, “Seven Samurai”, where Mifune played the wild, wannabe samurai, Kikuchiyo. Then again in 1957, when Mifune played the samurai warlord, Washizu, in “Thrones of Blood” — a feudal Japanese version of the well-known Scottish play, “Macbeth”. Then Kurosawa continued to use him, as the crafty and roguish ronin of his 1961 film “Yojimbo” and the 1962 sequel, “Sanjuro.” In addition to these classics of early samurai cinema, Mifune was also famous for many more samurai films of the day, including Hiroshi Inagaki’s “Samurai Trilogy”, of the mid-1950s, the 1965 Kihachi Okamoto film, “Samurai Assassin,” and more than 25 additional samurai-themed films.
Playing the samurai in so many of these early films, which were just beginning to get western attention, in those days, it is only natural that Mifune came to symbolize the very embodiment of the samurai warrior, in the eyes of westerners, who, often, had never heard of samurai, let alone seen a portrayal of them, until they had watched a Toshiro Mifune film. For this reason, I think I can safely say that no other man did more than Toshiro Mifune, to bring the samurai to the western world.
In addition to samurai films, however, Mifune is known for the wide range and breadth of his work — a career which spans over 47 years and included more than 135 films– in practically every imaginable genre. As a result of this amazing body of work, Mifune enjoyed greater worldwide fame than any other Japanese actor of his century and was the first male Japanese actor to become a sex symbol in the west. In the minds of many lovers of Japanese cinema, including myself, he remains the ultimate representation of the heroic warrior and the most potent and dominant symbol of Japanese masculinity.
So, what are you waiting for? If you haven’t yet experienced the magic that is Mifune, get yourself to a video streaming service, near you, type in a few of the films I’ve recommended here, and educate yourself –with a Mifune marathon!