A poll was conducted in 1984 to uncover the most famous person in Japanese cinema. To the
surprise of film critics, Akira Kurosawa, the Oscar-winning director, didn' top the list.
He was beaten into second place by his on-screen alter ego, Toshiro Mifune (1920-1997).
For what Kurosawa was to John Ford, Toshiro Mifune was to John Wayne: an actor with enough
talent and charisma to redefine the big-screen hero.
Although he was to become an archetypal Japanese movie star, Mifune spent the first twenty
years of his life in Manchuria with his missionary parents. It was World War II, and a
call-up to the Imperial Air Force, that brought him to Japan. Mifune would later describe
this time in the armed forces as "desperate" and "a nightmare;" it
left him with a feeling of rage that he was to channel into his performances on-screen.
Not that Mifune yet envisaged himself as an actor. When the war ended, he applied to the
Toho movie studio to be a cameraman; somehow, his application form got misdirected. He was
called to an actors' audition, where he impressed the young Kurosawa-and a great cinematic
partnership was born.
Mifune and Kurosawa's first movie together was Drunken Angel (Yoidore Tenshi, 1948).
Mifune had been given a minor role as a young hoodlum, but proved so convincing that his
part was fleshed out into a lead. Kurosawa realized that he'd found an actor capable of
embodying his cinematic vision. "He reacts so swiftly to direction," Kurosawa
explained. "You know, if I say one thing, he understands ten." Mifune would star
in a further fifteen of Kurosawa's films, bringing Brando-esque intensity and aggressive
spontaneity to his work. Nowhere was this more evident than in the Oscar-winning Rashomon
(1950), in which Mifune played a dialogue-spitting, fly-swatting bandit. Later movies saw
him refine this character into a dark, brooding hero. Such was the cop in Stray Dog (Nora
Inu, 1949); the lone samurai taking on rival gangs in Yojimbo (1961); and his personal
favorite, the brash peasant accompanying six nobles in Seven Samurai (Shichinin no
Samurai, 1954). In effect, Mifune had taken the classical Japanese hero-brave,
self-sacrificing, strong-willed-and reinvented it, adding layers of world-weariness and
sardonic humor. It won him two Best Actor awards at the Venice Film Festival, for Yojimbo
and Red Beard (Akahige, 1964); and heavily influenced Hollywood actors like Clint
Eastwood, Steve McQueen and Paul Newman, who followed his
Mifune and Kurosawa were at their artistic peak when, in 1965, they suddenly stopped
working together. The cause of their feud was never disclosed. Mifune chose to broaden his
repertoire, founding a production company and acting school, and playing more
conventionally heroic figures on-screen, like Admiral Yamamoto (Yamamoto Isoroku, 1968;
Midway, 1976). He also appeared in English language films, with mixed success: he matched
Lee Marvin glare-for-glare in John Boorman's Hell in the Pacific, but his cameo in
Spielberg's 1941 was as disappointing as the movie itself. However, Mifune enjoyed an
Indian summer in 1980, when he starred in the hugely popular TV adaptation of
Toshiro Mifune died of organ failure on Christmas Eve, 1997; Akira Kurosawa would pass
away a few months later. Asked to pinpoint the significance of his former star, Kurosawa
stated, "Mifune had a talent I had never before encountered in the Japanese film
world." Rarely has his talent been equaled since.