Heard that IFC Center was screening Mifune: The Last Samurai, a new documentary about one of my favorite Japanese actors, so of course I went and saw it.
I’ll be honest: the film offers no great new insights or revelations. If you’re already a Mifune devotee, you won’t learn anything you haven’t already read in a dozen Criterion Collection booklets. It is, however, a lovely tribute to a brilliant artist, focusing, inevitably, on the man’s fruitful but ultimately turbulent collaboration with Akira Kurosawa. Indeed, despite its overall lack of flair (it never strays from the “talking heads intercut with archive footage” format typical of these kinds of productions), Mifune: The Last Samurai finds genuinely emotional moments in exploring the relationship between actor and director, from fellow performers marveling at how much creative freedom the normally perfectionist Kurosawa granted Mifune, to speculation on the causes behind their abrupt and still not-entirely-understood breakup (it’s no accident that Martin Scorsese, of all people, takes center stage during this segment), and reaching its climax with an excerpt from a letter, originally read at Mifune’s funeral, in which Kurosawa laments never making amends and promises he’ll see Mifune again soon (he died a year after penning the heart-rending words).
Even if you, like me, are able to immediately identify every obscure, out-of-print movie referenced in the “fading star” montage just from seeing a single still image (and when that list includes Three Treasures and Yagyu Secret Scrolls, you begin to realize how serious your foreign film addiction is), this touching central narrative is well worth the price of admission, especially considering it’s constructed primarily from first-hand accounts. And if you know nothing about Japanese cinema… well, there’s no better introduction than a celebration of one of the industry’s greatest icons.
[Originally written December 3, 2016.]