Toshirō Mifune - detail from movie poster of movie Scandal (1950)
|Date of birth:||1 1920|
|Birth location:||Qingdao, China|
|Date of death:||December 24 1997 (aged 77)|
|Death location:||Mitaka, Japan|
|Spouse:||Sachiko Yoshimine (1950-1995)|
Toshirō Mifune (三船 敏郎 Mifune Toshirō [miɸɯne toɕiɺoː], April 1, 1920 – December 24, 1997) was a Japanese actor who appeared in almost 170 post-World War II feature films. Born in Manchuria, he was drafted into the Japanese military, where he taught aerial photography during World War II. After the war he found a job as a cameraman at Toho Studios, where his friends secretly entered him in a “new faces" contest intended to discover new, young talent for the studio. He was hired as an actor and was soon collaborating with director Akira Kurosawa. Their film Rashomon won the Grand Prize at the Venice Film Festival in 1951, assuring international fame for both Kurosawa and Mifune.
Most of the sixteen Kurosawa–Mifune films are considered cinema classics, including Rashomon, Stray Dog, Seven Samurai, The Hidden Fortress, High and Low, Throne of Blood (an adaptation of Shakespeare's MacBeth), Yojimbo, and Sanjuro. Mifune often portrayed a gruff-voiced, coarse and unpredictable samurai or ronin. Mifune has been credited with originating the "roving warrior" archetype. He also appeared in dozens of films by other directors, including several international movies and an American television production, Shogun (1980).
Toshirō Mifune was born April 1, 1920, in Qingdao, China, to Japanese parents, and grew up in the Chinese city of Dalian  with his parents and two siblings. In his youth, Mifune worked in the photography shop of his father Tokuzo Mifune, a commercial photographer and importer who had emigrated from northern Japan. Tokuzo was a Methodist, and there is evidence that he may have also been a missionary, ministering to the ethnic Japanese Christians in Dalian.
Mifune’s father trained him as a photographer. Although Mifune spent the first 19 years of his life in China, as a Japanese citizen he was drafted into the Imperial Japanese Air Force, where he served in the Aerial Photography (Ko-type) unit during World War II, teaching aerial photography and analyzing aerial photographs. He repatriated to Japan in 1946.
During the war, Mifune had met a movie cameraman who worked for Toho Studios. In 1947, this friend helped him get a position as an assistant cameraman in the Photography Department of Toho Productions. The studio employees belonged to a union affiliated with the Communist party, which made Mifune, a religiously conservative man, very uncomfortable. After a prolonged strike, many of the Toho actors had left to form their own company. The studio organized a "new faces" contest to find new talent. Mifune's friends submitted his application and photo, without his knowledge. He was accepted, along with 48 others (out of roughly 4,000 applicants), and allowed to take a screen test for Kajiro Yamamoto. Later, Mifune said about his audition:
"One judge asked me to laugh. I said, 'Why should I laugh? Nothing is funny.' Another judge said, "Get angry.' I answered, 'Why should I get angry?' I got so disgusted that, instead of being proper, I acted bored. They said, 'Get out.'"
Fortunately, an actress who had observed the audition sought out the famous director, Akira Kurosawa, during lunch break, and told him about the interesting young man she had seen there. Kurosawa attended the afternoon audition. Instructed to mime anger, Mifune drew from his wartime experiences. The judges were doubtful, but Kurosawa recalled, in his autobiography, "A young man was reeling around the room in a violent frenzy…. I found this young man strangely attractive." With Kurosawa’s support, Mifune was hired as an actor. Yamamoto took a liking to him, and recommended him to director Senkichi Taniguchi. This led to Mifune's first feature role, in Shin Baka Jidai (1947; “These Foolish Times”). In 1948 he received critical acclaim for his role as the gangster in Kurosawa's box-office success, Yoidore tenshi (Drunken Angel).
Among the 32 women chosen during the New Faces Contest, was the actress Sachiko Yoshimine. Eight years younger than Mifune, she came from a respected Tokyo family. They fell in love and Mifune soon proposed marriage. Yoshimine's parents were strongly opposed to the union. Mifune was an outsider, a non-Buddhist as well as a native Manchurian. His profession also made him suspect, as actors were generally assumed to be irresponsible and financially incapable of supporting a family.
Director Senkichi Taniguchi, with the help of Akira Kurosawa, convinced the Yoshimine family to allow the marriage. It took place in February of 1950. In November of the same year, their first son Shiro was born. In 1955, they had a second son, Takeshi. Mifune's daughter Mika was born to his mistress, actress Mika Kitagawa, in 1982.
Mifune first attracted international attention for his role as a boastful bandit in the classic film Rashomon (1950), the story of a crime told from several points of view. The film won the Golden Lion (Grand Prize) at the Venice Film Festival in 1951, and also an Academy Award for Best Foreign Film. Rashomon was a box-office failure in Japan, and neither Kurosawa or Mifune knew that it had been submitted to the Venice Film Festival. In Japan, their success received almost no publicity. Rashomon was the first Japanese film to make an impact in the West, and achieved global recognition for both Kurosawa and Mifune.
Mifune’s “angry young man” persona appealed to Japanese film-makers, who were liberating themselves from the strict censorship imposed on them by the Japanese government during World War II.
In his 1982 memoir, Something Like an Autobiography, Kurosawa wrote of him:
"Mifune had a kind of talent I had never encountered before in the Japanese film world. 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. The speed of his movements was such that he said in a single action what took ordinary actors three separate movements to express. He put forth everything directly and boldly, and his sense of timing was the keenest I had ever seen in a Japanese actor. And yet with all his quickness, he also had surprisingly fine sensibilities." 
Mifune often portrayed a samurai or ronin, who was usually coarse and gruff, inverting the popular stereotype of the genteel, clean-cut samurai. (Kurosawa once explained that the only weakness he could find with Mifune and his acting ability was his "rough" voice.) In films such as Seven Samurai and Yojimbo, he played characters who were comically lacking in manners, but replete with practical wisdom and experience, understated nobility, and, in the case of Yojimbo, unmatched fighting prowess. Sanjuro, in particular, contrasts this earthy warrior spirit with the useless, sheltered propriety of the court samurai. Kurosawa valued Mifune highly for his effortless portrayal of unvarnished emotion. On the other hand, his portrayal of Musashi Miyamoto in Hiroshi Inagaki's Samurai Trilogy is deliberately the epitome of samurai honor and etiquette.
Mifune was famous for his self-deprecating sense of humor, which often found its way into his film roles. He was renowned for the effort he put into his performances. To prepare for Seven Samurai and Rashomon, Mifune reportedly studied footage of lions in the wild; for Ánimas Trujano, he studied tapes of Mexican actors speaking, so he could recite all his lines in Spanish.
Most of the sixteen Kurosawa–Mifune films are considered cinema classics. These include Rashomon, Stray Dog, Seven Samurai, The Hidden Fortress, High and Low, Throne of Blood (an adaptation of Shakespeare's MacBeth), Yojimbo, and Sanjuro. (See filmography, below) Mifune once said of Akira Kurosawa, "I am proud of nothing I have done other than with him."
Mifune's vivid character portrayals became synonymous with Kurosawa’s prototype of a complex and unpredictable samurai. Mifune starred in Kurosawa's adaptations of three Western literary classics: Fyodor Dostoevsky's The Idiot, titled Hakuchi (1951); Shakespeare's Macbeth. titled Kumonosu-jo (1957; Throne of Blood); and Maxim Gorky's play The Lower Depths, titled Donzoko (1957). Mifune also appeared in Tengoku to jigoku (1963; High and Low), a detective thriller; and Akahige (1965; Red Beard).
Mifune and Kurosawa parted ways after the filming of Red Beard. Several factors contributed to the rift that ended their collaboration. Most of Mifune's contemporaries acted in several different movies throughout the year. Since Red Beard required Mifune to grow a natural beard—one he had to keep for the entirety of the film's two years of shooting—he was unable to act in any other films during the production. This put Mifune and his financially strapped production company deeply into debt, creating friction between him and Kurosawa. Although Red Beard played to packed houses in Japan and Europe, which helped Mifune recoup some of his losses, after the film's release, the two men's' careers took different directions. Mifune continued to enjoy success with a range of samurai and war-themed films, including Rebellion, Samurai Assassin, and The Emperor and a General. Kurosawa's output of films dwindled and drew mixed responses. In 1980, when Mifune achieved popularity with mainstream American audiences through his role as Lord Toranaga in the television miniseries Shogun, Kurosawa publicly made derisive remarks about Shogun.
The relationship between the two men remained ambivalent. While Kurosawa made some very uncharitable comments about Mifune's acting, he also admitted in an interview in Interview magazine that, “all the films that I made with Mifune, without him, they would not exist.” He also presented Mifune with the Kawashita award which he himself had won two years prior. They finally reconciled in 1993 at the funeral of their friend Ishiro Honda, tearfully embracing one another. They never collaborated again, however, nor did they have a chance to fully restore their friendship. Kurosawa and Mifune died within a year of each other.
Mifune also worked with other notable directors, such as Kenji Mizoguchi, considered my many modern film critics to be the greatest Japanese director of all, in The Life of Oharu (1952), and Hiroshi Inagaki in his samurai trilogy.
Mifune's imposing bearing, acting range, facility with foreign languages and lengthy partnership with acclaimed director Akira Kurosawa made him the most famous Japanese actor of his time, and easily the best known to Western audiences.
In his earliest film roles in English like Grand Prix, made in 1966, Mifune learned his lines phonetically. This was only partially successful, and his voice was often dubbed by Paul Frees. By the time he made Red Sun in 1971, he had become somewhat more proficient in the language and his voice is heard throughout this multinational western. He was always disappointed that he did not have a greater career in the West. His most prominent English-language role was probably that of Admiral Isoroku Yamamoto in Midway.
Early in the development of Star Wars Episode IV: A New Hope, director George Lucas reportedly considered Mifune for the role of Obi-Wan Kenobi. Mifune had played an analogous role, (General Rokurota), in The Hidden Fortress, a film greatly admired by Lucas. Its plot and characters have some parallels that Lucas incorporated in his first Star Wars film.
Mifune has been credited as originating the "roving warrior" archetype, which he perfected during his collaboration with Kurosawa. Clint Eastwood was among the first of many American actors to adopt this persona, which he used to great effect in his Western roles, especially the spaghetti westerns made with Sergio Leone.
Early in the 1980s, Mifune founded an acting school, Mifune Geijutsu Gakuin (三船芸術学院). The school failed after only three years.
Mifune received his greatest acclaim in the West after playing Toranaga in the 1980 miniseries Shogun. However, the series' historically accurate yet blunt portrayal of the Japanese shogunate, and the greatly abridged version shown in Japan, meant that it was not as well received in his homeland.
In an 1986 interview with Gerald Peary (The Globe and Mail, June 6, 1986), Mifune described himself: "I still ride horses and do a lot of laughing. But I was born this way. I can't help it. When I was young, I played old men's roles. But now I'm a little boy!" He enjoyed shooting and swordplay. He owned a cabin cruiser and several cars, including a Rolls-Royce Silver Cloud 1962-Type, bought when he acted in "Grand Prix," and an MG-TD 1952-Type which he owned for 45 years.
In 1992, Mifune began suffering from a serious unknown health problem. It has been variously suggested that he destroyed his health with overwork, suffered a heart attack, or experienced a stroke. For whatever reason, he abruptly retreated from public life and remained largely confined to his home, cared for by his estranged wife Sachiko. When she succumbed to pancreatic cancer in 1995, Mifune's physical and mental state began to decline rapidly. He died in Mitaka, Japan, on December 24, 1997, of multiple organ failure.
Mifune was awarded the Order of the Sacred Treasure by the Japanese government in 1993.
Due to variations in translation from the Japanese and other factors, there are multiple titles to many of Mifune's films (see IMDB link). The titles shown here are the most common titles used in the United States.
All shows aired in Japan except for Shogun which aired in the U.S.
All links retrieved March 14, 2020.
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