Toshiro Mifune

Born to missionary parents working in China, he grew up there and attended Port Arthur (China) High School. After graduation, he studied photography, then entered the army for the duration of the Second World War. In 1947, he took a test for 'new faces' at Toho Studios, but failed. However, he caught the eye of director Kajiro Yamamoto, who recommended him to director Senkichi Taniguchi, thus leading to Mifune's first film role in Shin Baka Jidai (1947). Mifune then met and bonded with director Akira Kurosawa, and the two joined to become the most prominent actor-director pairing in all Japanese cinema.

Toshiro Mifune was born on April 1st, 1920 to Japanese parents in Tsingtao, China. Although he grew up in China, he served with the Japanese army in the Second World War and was repatriated to Japan after the war.

His father had run a photographic studio in China, and perhaps this inspired Mifune to apply for a job as an assistant cameraman at the Toho studios. Although he got the job, a New Faces talent contest at the studio attracted his attention, and, with a few other actors, he was chosen from over 4,000 people.

His ‘angry young man’ presence immediately appealed to film-makers who were beginning to flex their creative wings after strict restrictions imposed by Japanese government censors during the war. His most notable collaboration was with Akira Kurosawa who first cast him as a gangster in Drunken Angel in 1948. The director was so bowled over by Mifune’s presence that it turned his original idea ‘upside down’ and Mifune’s role expanded as Kurosawa decided to ‘turn him loose’.

He became Kurosawa’s favourite leading man, playing everything from modern cops to compassionate doctors, and a whole gallery of powerful samurais. He starred in Kurosawa’s Rashomon, the story of a crime told from multiple points of view, which made him world famous when it won the Grand Prize at the Venice Film Festival in 1951.

Mifune continued to win the highest praise with his work in films such as Seven Samurai, Throne of Blood, Hidden Fortress and The Lower Depths. He also worked with other notable directors, such as Kenji Mizoguchi in The Life of Oharu (1952) and on Hiroshi Inagaki’s samurai trilogy. However, his most successful films were those he made with Kurosawa, making him the only actor to have been awarded the best actor award at the Venice Film Festival twice (for Yojimbo in 1961 and Red Beard in 1965).

Best known for his work in many of the great films of post-war Japanese cinema, Mifune worked in a number of international productions including his extremely popular pivotal role in the TV mini-series Shogun in 1980. He also appeared as a submarine captain in Steven Spielberg’s 1941, which also starred John Belushi who was well-known for his comic impersonations of Mifune ‘s samurai persona. In 1963 he formed his own production company and directed one film, The Legacy of the Five Hundred Thousand.

Most of his roles fell within the area described in kabuki terms as the ‘tateyaku’ style, that of a forceful, disciplined leading man, in contrast to the softer ‘nimaime’ male. His style was fast-paced and explosive, but in even the most violent warrior characters he found a sensitivity and psychological complexity that perfectly complemented Kurosawa’s compassion and humanity.

Mifune died on Christmas Eve, 1997. In November 2001, Empire Magazine readers voted for his inclusion in the Ultimate Movie Poll’s list of best movie actors of all time.

Yoidore Tenshi /Drunken Angel -1948
Shizukanaru Ketto /The Quiet Duel -1949
Nora Inu /Stray Dog -1949
Shubun /Scandal -1950
Rashomon -1950
Hakuchi /The Idiot -1951
Saikaku Ichidai Onna /The Life of Ohauru -1952
Shichinin No Samurai /Seven Samurai -1954
Miyamoto Musashi /Samurai - Legend of the Musashi -1954
Ikimono No Kiroku /I live in Fear/Record of a Living Being -1955
Donzoko /The Lower Depths -1957
Kumonosu-Jo /Throne of Blood/Cobweb Castle -1957
Muhomatsu No Issho /The Rickshaw Man -1958
Kakushi Toride No San-Akunin /The Hidden Fortress -1958
Taiheiyo No Arashi /I Bombed Pearl Harbour -1960
Warui Yatsu Hodo Yoku Nemuru /The Bad Sleep Well -1960
Yojimbo /The Bodyguard -1961
Sanjuro /Tsubaki Sanjuro -1962
Tengoku To Jigoku /High and Low -1964
Akahige /Red Beard -1965
Grand Prix -1966 (US)
Yamamoto Isoroku /Admiral Yamamoto -1968
Hell in the Pacific -1969 (US)
Soleil Rouge/Red Sun -1971 (FR)
Zatoichi To Yojinbo /Zato-Ichi Meets Yojimbo -1971
Paper Tiger -1974 (UK)
Midway -1976 (US)
1941 -1979 (US)
Shogun -1980 (US)
Inchon -1981 (US)
Taketori Monogatari /Princess from the Moon -1987
Sen No Rikyu/Death of a Tea Master -1989
Picture Bride -1994 (US)

The British Film Institute