Toshiro Mifune: The Man Who Brought the Samurai to Life in Martial Arts Movies
Hear the phrase "samurai movie," and chances are you'll think of Toshiro Mifune. The accomplished actor portrayed a katana-wielding warrior in so many martial arts movies that he virtually created our image of the cinematic swordsman.
A legendary actor by anyone’s estimation, Toshiro Mifune embodied the image of a samurai warrior for millions of film fans worldwide. Toshiro Mifune passed away in 1997, but his accomplishments over several decades in various martial arts movies brought him international recognition and fame that will never perish.
China to Japan
Born in China in 1920 to missionary parents, Toshiro Mifune entered the Japanese military shortly after graduating from high school. He fought for the Japanese in World War II. After the war ended, he went to Japan to find work. It was quite an undertaking for the young man, whose parents were deceased and who’d never lived in Japan.
When Toshiro Mifune arrived in Tokyo, he found the city to be a charred ruin, devastated by the war. In the spring of 1946, he applied for an assistant-cameraman position at a movie studio. But instead of interviewing for that job, he found himself auditioning in the studio’s new talent hunt. A brazen Toshiro Mifune was hired, and it wasn’t long until he landed the leading role in his first film.
That movie, Snow Trail, was Toshiro Mifune’s first big break in the motion-picture industry. After that, he did many films with legendary director Akira Kurosawa, including the epic movies Seven Samurai and Rashomon.
A biography of Toshiro Mifune, done by David Owens for the Japan Society's 1984 film tribute, yielded some interesting comments. “Mifune had a kind of talent I had never encountered before in the Japanese film world,” Akira Kurosawa was quoted as saying in the tribute, which came from his autobiography. “It was, above all, the speed with which he expressed himself that was astounding.
"The ordinary Japanese actor might need 10 feet of film to get across an impression; Mifune needed only three. The speed of his movements was such that he said in a single action what took ordinary actors three separate movements to express. He put forth everything directly and boldly, and his sense of timing was the keenest I’ve ever seen in a Japanese actor.”
From 1948 to 1965, Toshiro Mifune worked with Kurosawa in 16 of the 17 films he did.
Taking Samurai to the World
In addition to being perhaps the most recognizable Japanese actor of his time, Toshiro Mifune also developed a significant international reputation. This reputation was garnered through the various non-Japanese films in which he acted. In one film for Mexican producer/director Ismael Rodriguez, Toshiro Mifune learned his lines in Spanish from a tape recorder after a Mexican actor recorded them.
Toshiro Mifune portrayed a martial artist in many films, including Rashomon (1950), Seven Samurai (1954), Throne of Blood (1957), The Lower Depths (1957), Samurai Saga (1959), Yojimbo (1961), Sanjuro (1962), Samurai Pirate (1964), Samurai Assassin (1965), Red Beard (1965), Judo Saga (1965), Samurai Banners (1969), Red Sun (1971), Zato Ichi Meets Yojimbo (1971), Paper Tiger (1975) and The Bushido Blade (1978).
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It’s difficult to imagine a samurai warrior and not picture Toshiro Mifune. Although he starred in more than 130 Japanese- and English-language films, perhaps his most common and popular role was that of a sword-wielding samurai. In 1980 one of the largest television audiences in history watched as Toshiro Mifune portrayed the title role of Lord Toranaga in the epic 1980 American miniseries Shogun. That miniseries lives on in the American public’s consciousness as a telling story of that turbulent period of Japanese history.
Ohio-based ninjutsu pioneer Stephen K. Hayes worked with Toshiro Mifune on Shogun. “Mifune is an icon of that Asian — especially Japanese — warrior spirit,” he said. “So when people doing karate or judo or even classical Japanese martial arts with swords see him move and hear him speak, [they are moved]. Just his presence in a samurai film really evoked that image of the absolute, resolute warrior. So I’d say he was really an icon and role model of that kind of energy.”
Although Toshiro Mifune didn’t have an extensive martial arts background, he was able to make his characters look believable and realistic. “He said to me that he really didn’t have that much formal training in the martial arts,” Stephen K. Hayes said. “He was very adept at understanding the feeling of the character, and then they would have martial artists show him the moves, but he would interpret them his way. But it looked so good on the screen and so convincing that people watch it and think that’s what sword fighting is.”
Stephen K. Hayes likened Toshiro Mifune and his movies to Bruce Lee and his films. “Bruce had a movie persona,” Stephen K. Hayes said. “He had some movie techniques that he did because they were just so captivating in the movie. But how Bruce trained, in terms of his real jeet kune do, was often very different. So I think we can compare Bruce Lee and Toshiro Mifune. They created movement that was so captivating on film."
Story by Rodney Ley