Toshiro Mifune: 10 essential films

With the clock ticking until Seven Samurai’s return to cinemas, we salute the best movies featuring legendary Japanese actor and Kurosawa collaborator Toshiro Mifune.

30 September 2021

By David Parkinson

Throne of Blood (1957)

Although he amassed more than 180 screen credits, Toshiro Mifune (1920-97) will always be remembered for his 16 collaborations with director Akira Kurosawa. Yet he worked with some of Japan’s finest filmmakers, including Mikio Naruse and Kenji Mizoguchi, while also forging enduring partnerships with such lesser lights as Hiroshi Inagaki (21 collaborations), Senkichi Taniguchi (13) and Kihachi Okamoto (8).

Bringing a new edge, complexity and panache to Japanese film acting, Mifune specialised in ‘tateyaku’ characters, who dwelt in the margins of society and pursued causes and righted wrongs with Bushido integrity.

Rarely one for love scenes, Mifune’s ‘good bad men’ struck a chord with international audiences, resulting in him playing a drunken Mexican peasant in The Important Man (1961), an incompetent submarine captain in 1941 (1979) and the eponymous Toranaga in the James Clavell miniseries, Shogun (1980).

Drunken Angel (1948)

Director: Akira Kurosawa

Drunken Angel (1948)

Working together for the first time, Kurosawa was so impressed by Mifune that he built up his role in this study of yakuza machismo so that Mifune’s tubercular thug confronts crime boss Reiseburo Yamamoto, who is intimidating the alcoholic doctor (Takashi Shimura) who treated him with kindness.

Stray Dog (1949)

Director: Akira Kurosawa

Stray Dog (1949)

Mifune reteams with Kurosawa and actor Takashi Shimura to play a rookie Tokyo cop whose stolen gun is used in a series of crimes. Influenced by Georges Simenon’s Maigret novels, this neorealist procedural sees Mifune discover the harshness of postwar life while undercover as a hard-up war veteran.

Rashomon (1950)

Director: Akira Kurosawa

Rashomon (1950)

As the bandit arrested for murdering a samurai in the forest, Mifune gave four performances for the price of one in Kurosawa’s epochal study of screen truth and human nature. The winner of the Golden Lion at Venice and the Oscar for best foreign film, this impeccable jidaigeki twist on Dashiell Hammett’s Red Harvest introduced Japanese cinema to a world audience and exerted an incalculable influence.

Seven Samurai (1954)

Director: Akira Kurosawa

Seven Samurai (1954)
Toho Co., Ltd

Mifune and Shimura joined forces again in Kurosawa’s epic account of the showdown between a band of 16th-century brigands and the ronin hired by the residents of a mountain village. As the peasant’s son masquerading as a samurai, Mifune brings wit, energy and unpredictability to a tripartite narrative structure whose blend of folksy drama and combustible violence owes much to the westerns of John Ford.

The Samurai trilogy (1954-56)

Director: Hiroshi Inagaki

Samurai I: Musashi Miyamoto (1954)

Opening with the Oscar-winning Musashi Miyamoto (1954) and continuing into Duel at Ichijoji Temple (1955) and Duel at Ganryu Island (1956), Hiroshi Inagaki’s 300-minute Eastmancolor adaptation of Eiji Yoshikawa’s novel (his 1942 version has been lost) sees Mifune bestride the screen as the iconic 17th-century civil war fugitive who finally finds peace and enlightenment after taming his ruthless foe, Kojiro (Koji Tsuruta). Combining intrigue, reflection and spectacular action, this is a neglected masterpiece.

Throne of Blood (1957)

Director: Akira Kurosawa

Throne of Blood (1957)

Completing a trilogy of literary adaptations with Dostoevsky’s The Idiot (1951) and Gorky’s The Lower Depths (1957), Kurosawa’s interpretation of Shakespeare’s Macbeth borrows conventions from the Noh stage. But there was nothing so stylised about the scene in which warlord Taketori Washizu’s archers turn on him and Mifune had to endure volleys of real arrows to get the effect. 

The Hidden Fortress (1958)

Director: Akira Kurosawa

The Hidden Fortress (1958)

Mifune may have turned down the roles of Obi-Wan Kenobi and Darth Vader, but, as General Rokurota Makabe, he played a key part in the CinemaScope chambara classic from which Star Wars (1977) drew so much inspiration. Expertly blending slapstick and peril, this rollicking adventure depends heavily on the byplay between peasants Kamatari Fujiwara and Minoru Chiaki. But its highlight involves Mifune and a charging horse.

Yojimbo (1961)

Director: Akira Kurosawa

Yojimbo (1961)

It’s well known that Mifune’s Kuwabatake Sanjuro was the model for Clint Eastwood’s Man with No Name in Sergio Leone’s A Fistful of Dollars (1964). But Mifune’s swaggering, shrugging mercenary (who would return in Kurosawa’s 1962 film Sanjuro) is much more amusing and menacing, as he betrays and slays with toothpick-munching insouciance.

High and Low (1963)

Director: Akira Kurosawa

High and Low (1963)

After turning Hamlet into a corporate noir in The Bad Sleep Well (1960), Kurosawa returned to the world of salarymen for this take on Ed McBain’s pulp thriller, King’s Ransom. Echoes of Dante’s Divine Comedy ring through the story, as Mifune’s Yokohama shoe tycoon prowls his hillside mansion while debating whether to save the chauffeur’s son kidnapped by an embittered medical student.

Hell in the Pacific (1968)

Director: John Boorman

Hell in the Pacific (1968)

Despite winning best actor at Venice, Mifune and Kurosawa fell out over Red Beard (1965). However, he remained prolific. Among his many war-related roles, naval captain Tsuruhiko Kuroda stands out for the fraught nature of the production and the near-wordless intensity of the relationship forged with unnamed American pilot Lee Marvin (like Mifune a veteran of the Pacific conflict), as Kuroda is forced to co-operate to escape a deserted island.

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