Steven Okazaki, director of Mifune: The Last Samurai
Steven Okazaki Wants You To Remember The Past (And Maybe Not Use Netflix So Much)
Dec 07, 2016 Web Exclusive
Steven Okazaki is an Oscar-winning director whose latest project, Mifune: The Last Samurai, chronicles the life of Japanese actor Toshiro Mifune. Mifune rose from the destruction of post-war Japan to leave an indelible mark on cinema from Tokyo to Hollywood. I spoke with Okazaki over the phone about Mifune, nervously watching the minutes on my recording app be picked off like bandits against Kyuzo in Seven Samurai.
J.A. Kordosh [Under the Radar]: Where did the idea for Mifune: The Last Samurai come from?
Steven Okazaki: It came from a Japanese producer, Toshiaki Nakuzawa, who came up in the movie business via Mifune. I’m often throwing notions around and I was speaking to a producer about the history of samurai cinema from the first silent films to present day. He said that was impossible as Japanese studios don’t work together and too much cooperation would be needed to make any documentary. Then he mentioned a producer in Tokyo that was determined to do a film on Toshiro Mifune. I told them to stop looking. Usually things end there but I met with them and it was go. When I got back to my hotel room I googled Mifune documentaries and there was nothing. The same for Kurosawa. Japanese just don’t make in-depth documentaries.
When you were growing up what kind of influence did Mifune have on your life and your decision to become a director?
Mifune was one of my childhood heroes, the others being Sandy Koufax and the artist Amedeo Modigliani. When I was about twelve I saw my first Mifune film, Seven Samurai, and vividly remembering the battle scene in the rain. My mother took my to nearly every release. In my neighborhood, you had Japanese American kids and Mexican American kids and everyone threw away their toy pistols for toy samurai swords. You could not help but be conscious of how non-existent or demeaning roles for Asian-Americans were in American television and film. There was Hop-Sing on Bonanza and that was about it. Of course, you had the Fu Manchu kind of villain or the cowering servant. Mifune, a unique, masculine actor, stood out in that crowd. There was no one cooler in his time.
It’s noted in the film that Mifune wanted to be a cameraman. Once his talent for acting was discovered do you think he felt beholden to fulfill it?
No, I think he actually came to love it. His father was a photographer so that’s what he knew. Mifune was in the photography corps in the army so that was one of the few things on his resume. That was his best chance of getting job in post-war Japan. One of the remarkable things in the film you see is his tailored jacket made out of blanket. People were starving. In the scene where all the young actors are training, you can see most of their rib cages. To get any kind of employment he wrote down what he thought he would get. He really took to acting and began to take it seriously. First, he was used because he was really good looking then he wanted to prove he could really do it. His family talked about his scripts having notes all over them written in red. He was really proud that he never brought a script to set. He had it all memorized, everybody’s parts and he thought through what he wanted to do. There was something in him that really connected to acting.
Together Mifune and director Akira Kurosawa were a creative force. Do you think there is an actor-director relationship that approaches theirs in the current era?
At the same time as Mifune, there was John Wayne and John Ford who were really powerful. More recently, Martin Scorcese and Robert DeNiro. DeNiro’s acting allowed Scorsese to open up and exploring stories in a different way. DeNiro was able to evolve those films. But in more recent. I don’t think there’s anything comparable with Mifune’s screen presence.
Mifune was someone who valued his privacy. Did you feel any conflict bringing his personal life to the screen?
He really did not open up in his life. He would be more likely to open to foreign actors. He was good friends with Alain Delon and knew Charlton Heston. These were guy’s type guys. There was a lot of drinking involved and you would think stuff would be revealed but nothing was recorded or recalled. When Mifune was caught up in the scandal over the mistress it was partially because he wanted to be open that it became a scandal. Lots of people would have outside relationships and the press might just go along with it. In Japanese culture, he could’ve gotten away without the press but he filed for divorce. It was his choice.
What do you hope audiences will take away from the film?
I hope older audiences, the people who grew up on Mifune, will be reminded how great the films are and go back to them. To think about that time in movie history when these wonderful films came out. I hope younger audiences are inspired to see the films for the first time. How can you say you love film and not see Seven Samurai? So many people just watch what’s available on Netflix. I think if we can inspire people to look back at some of these old films that would be great.
One last question for you. What is the definitive Mifune role?
For most people it would be Yojimbo. I heard from several people that Mifune’s favorite role and the one he most connected with was not in a Kurosawa film but in Hiroshi Inagaki’s Rickshaw Man. Fort me it’s Samurai Trilogy (also by Inagaki). That is the Mifune everyone thinks of, ultra cool and deadly. That’s the film for me. Sometimes, I’m embarrassed that it’s not a Kurosawa film.
FilmStruck, the Criterion-powered streaming service, has tons of Kurosawa films as well as Samurai Trilogy and Rickshaw Man. Check ‘em out!
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