MIFUNE: THE LAST SAMURAI Review

Keanu Reeves narrates the life of a Japanese legend.

From grace & poise to frantic, impish energy, Toshiro Mifune’s screen presence was truly multitudinous, most notably across his sixteen films with Akira Kurosawa. An unparalleled presence in international cinema, not to mention the West’s go-to yardstick for East Asian performers, Mifune’s image is intertwined with that of Japanese cinema on a global scale, as well as that of the cinematic Samurai. It’s fitting, then, that Mifune: The Last Samurai should not only reclaim the title of Hollywood’s most notable Japanese story (one with a white American at its center), but extrapolate the meaning behind that very reclamation.

The film espouses not only the virtues of the Samurai, but its cinematic history, one that both birthed and absorbed the Toshiro Mifune we know today. From Japan’s early chambara films (named for the onomatopoeic clashing of swords) to the country's post-war renaissance, Mifune: The Last Samurai chronicles all the individual elements that made up the late thespian, both in his personal life as well as his iconic imagery, with the occasional peeks behind the curtain that was his unique method. That being said, the downside to being so all-encompassing in a single film is the lack of discernible thesis statement, resulting in an interesting investigation that simply fizzles out.

Keanu Reeves, an actor equally misunderstood, but an actor who would’ve thrived in early Japanese cinema, is the vocalization of the film’s historical lens. Despite its presentation as a “standard” documentary with talking heads in every direction, director Steven Okazaki (Days of Waiting: The Life & Art of Estelle Ishigo) imbues his interviews with minute details that offer insight into its interviewees and how Mifune influenced them. The usually sterile environments for the talkies are meticulously framed here, shortened lenses obfuscating, though not entirely obscuring, background details that denote workmanship, from sets to movie posters to memorabilia, as if Mifune’s artistic influence was present in the background of every frame, and every artist’s subconscious.

While the breadth of its focus may work to its detriment, eventually hardening its thoughtful approach and turning it somewhat clinical (as it attempts to pad out its runtime with the latter years of Mifune’s life), there is admittedly an appeal to that very breadth. Where else can you find such a multitude of perspectives on Mifune, from co-stars and fight choreographers, to the sons of Mifune and Kurosawa, to Steven Spielberg and Martin Scorsese?

The film peaks around the same time as Mifune himself, following his falling-out with Kurosawa and his brief time in Hollywood, his obsession with cars, and his destructive drinking habits. He lived a star’s life and a star’s rise-and-fall, though the film has much more to say about his upward trajectory. It also strays away from conventional subtitles and title cards, introducing brightly coloured text instead; whether or not you’re a seasoned documentary/foreign film enthusiast, it’s a tiny detail that comes as a huge relief!

Mifune: The Last Samurai boasts a contextual understanding of Mifune’s appeal and success, though approaches his twilight as something of a footnote. It most certainly provides emotional insight into those he influenced, but it does all these things without a specific area of interest. Perhaps that can be argued to be “enough,” as ignoring any one aspect of Mifune would feel like a disservice, even though, structurally speaking, it runs out of steam before getting to its destination. On the bright side, the first half of its journey moves in ways as intriguing as the on-screen movements of Mifune himself. And if you’ve ever seen the man’s work, be it a stoic glance or a wild gesticulation, you’ll know how powerful that can be.

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