Japan’s most famous film actor, Toshiro Mifune, died Wednesday of organ failure at a suburban Tokyo hospital. A news report said he had been ill for an extended period of time. Mifune, who was 77, starred in such Japanese classics as “Rashomon,” “The Seven Samurai,” “The Rickshaw Man” and many international productions.
Known as “Japan’s John Wayne,” he was the embodiment of the ancient samurai, the noble warrior wielding sword rather than six-gun. His intensity, concentration and fierce physicality made him a different sort of Japanese screen hero, one who was readily embraced by Western audiences after World War II.
Not surprisingly, he was chosen “the most Japanese man” — the one whose face expressed the best of Japanese pride, power and virility — in a 1984 poll of male readers conducted by a popular Japanese magazine.
Born in Tsingtao, China, to Japanese immigrants on April 1, 1920, Mifune was 25 before he arrived in Japan. During the war, he had served in the Imperial army as an aerial photographer and thought it logical to apply for an assistant cameraman’s job at Toho Studios. According to legend, he was incorrectly sent to a stage where auditions were being held for new faces. More likely, it was an act of desperation upon learning the camera union was dominated by Communists.
“They told me, ‘You have a gangster’s face, you ought to do well in this,’ ” Mifune said later. “But then they told me to cry, and I said, ‘How can I cry when I’m not sad?’ Then they asked me to get angry, and I got too angry and failed the test.”
However, his arrogance impressed director Kajiro Yamamoto, and he was cast in “Snow Trail” in 1947. The following year he would begin one of cinema’s most famous actor-director collaborations with Akira Kurosawa, playing a supporting role of a gangster in “Drunken Angel.” He would appear in 15 of the filmmaker’s next 16 movies.
“Mifune had a kind of talent I had never encountered before,” Kurosawa wrote in his autobiography. “He reacts so swiftly to direction; if I say one thing to him, he understands 10. The ordinary Japanese actor might need 10 feet of film to get across an impression: Mifune needed only 3 feet … I decided to turn him loose.
“His sense of timing was the keenest I had ever seen in a Japanese actor,” Kurosawa continued. “And yet with all his quickness, he also had surprisingly fine sensibilities.”
The two men gained international prominence with “Rashomon” in 1950. Mifune portrayed a bandit — one of three people recalling the details of a brutal rape-murder. It received an Oscar as best foreign-language film and the grand prize at Venice. Mifune would become the only actor to be twice prized at the Venice festival, for 1961’s “Yojimbo” and “Red Beard” in 1964. Mifune and Kurosawa would also team for “The Seven Samurai” and “Throne of Blood,” based on Shakespeare’s “Macbeth.” (“Yojimbo” would be remade as “A Fistful of Dollars” and launch Clint Eastwood’s film career.)
Following “Red Beard,” the two had a falling out. Though each would talk of a reunion in subsequent years, it was not to occur. Mifune set up his own production company and in 1964 directed “Legacy of the 5,000.” It was a financial loser and the actor turned to producing, primarily for television.
Beginning with the Mexican “Animas Trujano: El Hombre Importante” in 1961, he began to accept work in foreign productions. He appeared in such international films as “Grand Prix,” “Hell in the Pacific,” “Red Sun” and “1941.” His role as Lord Toranaga in the miniseries “Shogun” earned him a best actor nomination at the 1981 Emmys.
“I’ve worked in many languages and understand none,” he said via an interpreter during a visit to Los Angeles in 1990. “I learn my dialogue as if it were a song and that has served me well.”
Though almost half his roles were as period warriors, he also excelled in contemporary dramas and thrillers, bringing a psychological complexity to his roles.
Funeral arrangements are pending. Mifune is survived by three children.
— Leonard Klady