Actors & Actresses

Mifune Toshiro

(China, 1920-97)

Nicknamed "The Wolf", Mifune was one of Japan's most charismatic actors, who helped create the golden age of Japanese cinema in the 1950s and 60s. He appeared in over 180 films, and is best known for his roles in Kurosawa Akira's masterpieces. A dynamic and ferocious actor, he excelled in action roles, but also had the depth to convince in subtle drama. He often portrayed a samurai or ronin (masterless samurai), sometimes rough and gruff, and usually a reluctant hero. The Hollywood equivalent would probably be Clint Eastwood in his spaghetti western days. Indeed that whole genre was heavily influenced by films like Yojimbo (poster below), which inspired the movie "For a Few Dollars More." The fact that George Lucas considered Mifune for the role of Obi Wan Kenobi in Star Wars is testimony to his international stature.

Mifune Toshiro Mifune was born in the Chinese city of Tsingtao (now Qingdao) to Japanese parents and grew up in Dalian speaking both Japanese and Mandarin. His father was a photographer and the young Mifune worked in his studio for a time after graduating from middle school. He came of age while thw world was at war in 1940, and was immediately drafted. His experience with photography meant that he was attached to the Aerial Photography Unit of the Air Force for the duration of the war. He set foot in Japan for the first time at the age of 21.

After the war, he decided to try for a career behind the camera as a cinematographer. But after taking a test for director Kajiro Yamamoto, he was recommended to Senkichi Taniguchi, which lead to his first film role in Shin Baka Jidai (These Foolish Times, 1947). The following year saw the beginning of a relationship that would make him Japan's most famous actor. The first of his 16 films with legendary director Kurosawa Akira was Yoidore Tenshi (Drunken Angel, 1948). But the big breakthrough for both director and actor came with Rashomon in 1950, in which he played a medieval outlaw. The film, based on a short story, was revolutionary in its telling of a murder story from four different perspectives, dealing with the very nature of truth and reality. That same year he married Yoshimine Sachiko (who died in 1995). They went on to have three children.

Mifune Toshiro Other highlights of the Mifune-Kurosawa collaboration include Hakuchi (The Idiot, 1951), Shichinin no Samurai (The Seven Samurai, 1954), and Yojimbo (Bodyguard, 1961). He reportedly watched films of lions in the wild for inspiration for his character in Shichinin no Samurai, a film that would inspire the classic western The Magnificent Seven and always ranks among the best films ever made. He also played legendary swordsman Miyamoto Musashi (photo, left) on several occasions, but had the dramtic range to play "salarymen" and even romantic leads. While his image was that of the warrior and all-round tough guy, and his presence was very dominating, he was only 5'9" tall (175cm) - still a couple of inches taller than most of his male co-stars.

He made one attempt at directing, 1963's Goju Man-nin no Isan, but it was a flop. During the making of Akahige in 1965 (a role that won him the Best Actor at the Venice Film Festival for a second time), Mifune and Kurosawa had a falling out that led to the end of their working relationship. After that, Mifune made several appearances in Hollywood movies. Although he took the trouble to learn English for his role in Grand Prix (1966), his parts were always dubbed, a fact that bothered him to the end of his career. Other roles in foreign films included Hell in the Pacific (1968), Paper Tiger (1975), Midway (1976), and Steven Spielberg's 1941 (1979). He revitalized his career in 1980 in the hugely popular U.S. mini-series Shogun, as Lord Toranaga. One of his final films was 1994's Picture Bride alongside Kudo Yuki.