The Flamboyant Masculinity of Mifune Toshiro

Mifune Toshiro (1920-1997) is a name to conjure with. Renowned as the world’s best samurai actor […] Read more

Mifune Toshiro (1920-1997) is a name to conjure with.

Renowned as the world’s best samurai actor with his masculine portrayals of powerful warlords, Mifune certainly had more to impress audiences as a galvanic performer. He was an ambitious general, a shoe tycoon and a roguish rickshaw man, displaying both a screen-idol magnetism and an astonishing range stretching from classical tragedy to light comedy.

Mifune rose to stardom through Kurosawa Akira’s classics. He was cast in leading roles in all but one of the seventeen films Kurosawa made during the period of 1948 and 1965. Yojimbo (1961) and Red Beard (1965) won him the Best Actor Award at the Venice Film Festival, and the distinction of being the only actor to have received that prestigious award twice. The director wrote of him in his autobiography: “It was, above all, the speed with which he expressed himself that was astounding. The ordinary Japanese actor might need ten feet of film to get across an impression; Mifune needed only three.”

Yet with all his quickness and precision, Mifune also had surprisingly fine sensibilities, with deep roots in classical Japanese drama. Besides glittering in Kurosawa’s films, his many compelling roles in collaboration with acclaimed filmmakers including Mizoguchi Kenji, Okamoto Kihachi and Inagaki Hiroshi had also won him a passionate following all across the world.

His majestic screen persona was a muse for Hollywood filmmakers – his emblematic samurai role in Yojimbo was transformed into Clint Eastwood’s wandering gunfighter in Sergio Leone’s A Fistful of Dollars (1964). The legendary man was, not quite surprisingly, George Lucas’ ideal actor for the role of Darth Vader. The villain’s helmet was apparently designed with Mifune in mind. If he had taken the role, the character would have a different story.

A Japanese magazine conducted a survey in 1984 to determine who its readers thought best epitomized Japanese manhood and its ideals of pride, power and virility. Their choice: Mifune Toshiro. And he always is.

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