Opening nationwide this weekend (hopefully in an art house near you, after a limited release last weekend) is one of my favorite documentaries of the year about one of my personal heroes from way back. The film is director Steven Okazaki’s MIFUNE: THE LAST SAMURAI about the legendary Japanese actor Toshiro Mifune, whose many collaborations (16 in total) with director Akira Kurosawa influenced several generations of filmmakers and actors around the world. With works like RASHOMON, THE SEVEN SAMURAI, THE HIDDEN FORTRESS, THRONE OF BLOOD, YOJIMBO, SANJURO, HIGH AND LOW and RED BEARD (to name a few), Mifune and Kurosawa redefined cool and changed film history forever.
Narrated by Keanu Reeves, Okazaki’s documentary covers all of this and a great deal more, delving into Mifune personal life as well as his rise and struggle to stay on top of the acting world in Japan. THE LAST SAMURAI features great interviews with many who knew him and worked with him, as well as a few famous fans, including Martin Scorsese and Steven Spielberg (who cast Mifune in 1941). The film has remarkable clips from films and television series Mifune worked in across his long career, and its a treasure trove for me of hidden gems to seek out in the years to come for Mifune’s fine work.
A documentary veteran, Okazaki has primary made hard-hitting films about tough subjects, with such features and shorts dealing with teens living with HIV, drug addiction, rehab, and the bombings of Hiroshima and Nagasaki. In 1991, he actually won an Oscar for his doc short DAYS OF WAITING about Japanese internment camps in America during World War II. I had the chance to speak to him by phone recent about MIFUNE, one of my first film heroes. Seek out the film while it’s in theaters; travel hundreds of miles if you have to. It’s fantastic. With that, please enjoy my talk with Steven Okazaki, whom I spoke to the day after Toshiro Mifune received his long-overdue star on the Hollywood Walk of Fame…
Steven Okazaki: Hi Steve.
Capone: Hey, Steven. How are you?
SO: I’m good. How are you?
Capone: Great. So I was thrilled to see, as I was finalizing the questions to talk to you, that Toshiro Mifune got a star on the Walk of Fame yesterday.
SO: Yeah. At first when they said it, I was shocked that there wasn’t a star already.
Capone: That was my reaction too, actually.
SO: Yeah. And it was fun in a Hollywood way. They had the emcee come out and they had these guys dressed as samurai on the side. It was a nice Hollywoody event. Mifune’s son and grandson were there, and they were very happy about it.
Capone: Just a little background: The reason I was desperate to see this film and to talk to you is because Tishiro Mifune was my first movie hero. I don’t have any artwork hanging on the walls of my bedroom except for a poster of him promoting an event that he came to in Chicago in the ’80s. So that’s the only thing I have in there. What was the beginning of your Mifune obsession, and how did that translate in this film?
SO: Well, before I say that, I used to have an assistant whose father ran, just like at the community center, Japanese films regularly every Friday or Saturday. She said that among all the older Japanese people, John Belushi was at all those screenings early on, honing his Yojimbo character. I grew up in L.A., so when I was a kid, the community center showed SEVEN SAMURAI in 16mm, and I was completely taken by the final battle scene. I still don’t think there’s anything comparable that generates that kind of drama and entertainment. There’s no computers driving it, no special effects. It’s them sloshing around in that constant rain. It’s amazing.
My mother was a big Japanese movie fan, so we went to the Toho La Brea Theatre and saw all the Toho releases, and it was a great theater. It was huge and you could buy rice crackers to put in your popcorn, and you could get green tea. I always thought “Wow, green tea in a movie theater!” So I think the SAMURAI trilogy is the film that I loved, and I would try to see again when I was a teenager, when I was in college, and I would try to watch it at least every five or 10 years. I think for me, that was the perfect samurai story in the classic way, not in the more challenging Kurosawa style. I loved the SAMURAI trilogy.
I never would have proposed or even thought of doing this documentary because you always think of your heroes, “Someone’s already done that,” and I was shocked when this came up and when I Googled the words “Mifune Documentary” and the words “Kurosawa Documentary,” nothing came up, and that was unbelievable. I soon found out that the licensing process in Japan is so difficult. You feel like you’re asking to meet the emperor or something like that. It’s so daunting. No one had done it. In terms of that work, that was all done by producers and assistants in Tokyo. I got the fallout from it, because we had to stop production at times, because we didn’t know what we could use. But everyone in Japan that’s in the movie industry is astounded that the Japanese producers actually got it done.
Capone: How long did you work on this?
SO: I just was looking at my calendar and saw that we had our first meeting about it in August of 2014, and I was ready to go. I was actually looking for a project, then we had to make sure that we could get access to the clips, so just the negotiation with the movie company took months and months, maybe six to eight months, and I wasn’t sure that I’d actually be able to do the film. So I took a project with HBO, who I work with regularly, on heroin addicts in Cape Cod, and I wasn’t getting paid well on this project, and HBO pays well, so I started that project. About a month after I started that, the Japanese said “Looks like we can do it. Let’s start.” So over the next two years, I worked on both films at the same time, back and forth, and they were so different, it wasn’t confusing.
On the Mifune film, we had to have these really complicated transcripts where it’s written out in Japanese, then it’s written out in Romanized Japanese, then the English translation, so I could edit without a translator or interpreter around. It’s a pretty easy way to work if you have really good transcripts. So there would be long periods of downtime where the transcribers would be working and doing the translation, so I switched to the other film. I essentially finished both films, then I had a very nice but less demonstrative version of the film that was all Japanese, then we decided to open it up and see if we could get Spielberg and Scorsese, so we did that.
Initially, I thought it’s good for marketing, but I really think they added something important. Japanese don’t like to brag or overstate things to make a point. I think that Scorsese and Spielberg really clarify how influential Kurosawa and Mifune were, and how much impact they had on cinema outside of Japan. So I think it was a good idea, but we did have to wait for them, so that added quite a bit of time, waiting for their schedules to open up. It took awhile for their schedules to accommodate it, but they said yes immediately, so we didn’t have to convince them. They’re obviously big fans.
Capone: You don’t have a lot of fan interviews. Most of the interviews you have are people that worked with him. Spielberg worked with him; Scorsese, in addition to being a fan, is a walking film history class, so he provides a great perspective. You have a long career of making issue-oriented, hard-hitting documentaries. This is your first feature-length biography. Was there any difference in your approach to the material?
SO: You always want to not stick to a formula and approach things differently, but in some ways, I found it similar to other stuff. I’m really interested in the individual caught up in big events. Usually they’re social-historical situations, but in some ways, Mifune was caught up in Japan’s history, and part of that history was cinema and rebuilding the industry. But it was a relief not to be doing a life-and-death film, or a film about something like Hiroshima that you couldn’t be more playful with.
So you try to come at it fresh and let the material as you encounter it and the interviewees as you encounter them shape the film. I just knew I wanted to take advantage of whoever was still alive that could fill in the story for us and try to have fun with it and work in some of the samurai history that I wanted. I didn’t want to just talk about Mifune. I wanted to show how unique those Kurosawa-Mifune films were, and also where the development of that genre began and how they fit in.
Capone: It doesn’t seem like there are a lot of interviews with Mifune. Did he not do many?
SO: I think he did some. Of course, in the ’60s, interviews were so much more celebrity, superficial, and so there were some of those Japanese TV shows, sitting on the couch, and they captured a Mifune that I just thought was more mundane, and the interviewer was annoying. There was only a camp value really. I just thought it would take away from the mystique and how we remembered him and not to break it down. There was nothing of a longer interview style that wasn’t promotion oriented. There were some interesting writings that Mifune did. I don’t know how they came about, where he wrote about his career and he mentions his childhood and the war usually in those. There was some interesting stuff, but I just thought for international audiences, they’re reading a lot of subtitles and to put up more text, I didn’t think would bring that much more to it. I liked the idea of getting the sense of the character through the people who really cared about him and through the films. I thought with someone that dynamic that it would work.
Capone: Do you think he had a sense of what his popularity was outside of Japan?
SO: I think he did. I think there was a relief being outside of Japan and showing the films and talking to fans. He wanted to make movies and he wanted to go out with them. I don’t think he minded PR at all, from what I could tell, and he got a great reception in Los Angeles. A lot of the actors, similar tough guy actors, reached out to him, and he developed long friendships with Charlton Heston, Lee Marvin, and people like that, and really close relationship with Alain Delon in France.
In one of the TV show interviews, they say, “How do you stay in such great shape?” He said,“I don’t do anything.” He was like a chain smoker and serious drinker. But when he was getting older, you start to see it. He had a hard latter career where he had to just work to support—Japanese have that thing about trying to keep people employed, so he clearly was working to keep his staff employed. I didn’t want to spend too much time on his demise. I wanted people to just really remember that vibrant screen character they saw.
Capone: As much as you paint those TV things that he did as a step down, I am now of course desperate to see them, because I have never seen them. Physicality was such a big part of his persona, not just in the way he moved and fought, but I always think of him stroking his beard or touching his face or scratching his chest. Do you have any thoughts on that aspect of his acting?
SO: Yeah, I forget what I was watching recently. It was an American film, and I thought “That’s really Mifune that they’re doing.” You see it in Clint Eastwood. He really picked up on that, the beard scratching. In his researching the subject, Mifune realized samurai almost never took baths, and sometimes the samurai had to wear hair pieces in the old days, and he said those would be uncomfortable and itchy. So I guess it was just one of the actor’s touches. It certainly is a trademark.
Capone: I know the big question was always—and you attempt to answer it here—why did Mifune and Kurosawa never work together again after a certain point? Were there any lingering questions like that about him that you never got answers to your satisfaction?
SO: Not really. I think that he really was pretty much who he seemed to be—calm and caring, and also volatile at the same time, very accessible. I was surprised to know that it seemed to me from the research that the latter relationship, at least from Mifune’s point of view, he struggled during the filmmaking but always wanted to make another Kurosawa film. Contrary to how their split was portrayed in the press, Mifune would visit him on set of the other films. Clearly, I think he wanted to be one of the latter films, especially when his career slowed down. It seemed like Kurosawa had enough of being known as Kurosawa-Mifune. He wanted just to make his own mark on his own.
Capone: This film is narrated by Keanu Reeves. How did you connect with him?
SO: One of the producers, Taro Goto, also worked with me as an interpreter and translator on other films and on this film had worked with Keanu on MAN OF TAI CHI, and they had Japanese crew people and a set designer. So Taro was connected to Keanu and had suggested it. I initially just thought “Would that work?” But as I started to make a list of other big-time actors who might add some marquee appeal, I thought of people that had some connection to Mifune, but I didn’t really want a New York accent or something too distinctive.
Then Keanu seemed more appealing, particularly his style. I had seen Keanu at a festival and liked the way he carried himself—a regular guy without an entourage, without agents. Mifune was always famous for being the guy who cleaned up the guy who cleaned up the coffee table after the party, and obviously had neat-freak problems, but Mifune, likewise, was very accessible, so it seemed fitting to try Keanu. You don’t know it will work until you do it, so it was a little nerve wracking.
Also, we thought he could handle the Japanese names better than anyone we could think of. A lot of people would have bad mispronunciations of the titles of the films that are Japanese, which is fine, I don’t judge, but you don’t want it on the record in the film. And so Taro had worked with him on Japanese stuff and thought he could handle it. If we had someone else in there, most likely they’d say we only have two hours to do this, then that’s it. I was really fearful that we would have somebody in and struggle with pronunciation, and Keanu managed that fine.
Capone: Is there any actor working today who you see some essence of Toshiro Mifune within?
SO: I think Bruce Willis has a lot of Mifune traits. He can play tough guy, but has a little sense of humor, and there’s a little of that Yojimbo smirk in him. I can’t think of someone really contemporary or young. I was watching an old Paul Newman movie recently called HOMBRE, and I was taken how Mifune-esque he is in that.
Capone: So why didn’t you include things like John Belushi’s Samurai character, or that wonderful Danish film called MIFUNE, which was not about him, but he was certainly in it in spirit? You didn’t include the way in which he influenced things well into the future.
SO: I guess I felt if we did that, we’d have to use the narrator a lot more, and it would just become one of those show-and-tell feeling things. I guess I didn’t want to do that.
Capone: Steven, thank you so much for taking the time to talk. Best of luck with this. I want everyone to see it.