If you’re anywhere near San Francisco on Saturday evening, director Steven Okazaki is doing a Q&A after a screening of his documentary Mifune: The Last Samurai at Shattuck Cinemas. More information on the Toshiro Mifune doc, along with my interview with Okazaki, is available after the jump.
Narrated by Keanu Reeves and featuring interviews with Steven Spielberg, Martin Scorsese, and collaborators with Toshiro Mifune, the documentary is an insightful look at one of cinema’s most celebrated actors. Mifune’s hard driving work ethic, which also included a long run as a producer and legendary work with director Akira Kurosawa, are spotlighted in the project. Mifune: The Last Samurai will appeal to both cinephiles and initiates to the actor’s work, and my interview with Okazaki is below:
Was Toshiro Mifune a huge influence during your early days as a moviegoer?
I would say absolutely. I had three childhood heroes. Sandy Koufax, the pitcher for the Dodgers. Amedeo Modigliani the impressionist painter – I was obsessed with him. And Toshiro Mifune. The Samurai Trilogy was the favorite film of my childhood. I would say that and The Great Escape.
I saw my first Mifune film when I was about 12 years old. The community center in Venice, Ca. ran a 16 mm print. They had a crummy, noisy projector and a king sized bed sheet as a screen. I remember the final scenes from Seven Samurai vividly. And then my mother was a a big Japanese film fan so we went to the TOHO La Brea to see the Mifune releases.
So was this movie a dream project for you?
I can’t say it was my dream to make the film because I just thought someone else would get to it before me. I walked into a meeting and someone mentioned a producer was looking for someone to do a film on Mifune. I just told them not to look for someone else and I was the person to do it. Usually you don’t get the job, but this time they said, ‘Okay, let’s meet.’
I’ve done a couple of historical documentaries and you’ve got to comb through old documents and see who’s alive. Rashomon was made in 1950 and the last Kurosawa/Mifune film was made in 1965. So the people involved – most of them are already gone. I’d comb the credits and then google them and see. The Mifune and Kurosawa family have kept archives of their own. Sometimes it was like a box with a lot of photos in it.
Both families were very serious about keeping their legacy alive. A lot of the work was done and honestly the hard work was done by someone in an office in Tokyo. A woman named Ichikawa. She had the burden of that and the burden of managing the licensing afterwards. It starts with getting the clips and to me I like the film not to have a set idea and let it evolve. I’m sort of deciding what would be nice to try to find. The research was fun and meeting the actors from the 50s and 60s – they were all excited to be in the film. It was a great time in their lives.
Was it also special to see Toshiro Mifune receive a star on the Hollywood Walk of Fame?
It was great to be connected to that. That was very meaningful and to have that acknowledgement – someone was actually telling me that they proposed it to the Chamber of Commerce twenty years ago and they didn’t know his filmography well enough and they turned it down. They approached again and luckily the new people knew Mifune. But there are only a couple of Asian names on that street. Godzilla and Mifune, and a few others.
Can you talk about getting Keanu Reeves as a narrator?
He showed (the documentary Side By Side) a few years ago at a film festival in Poland. I watched how easygoing he was just walking around in a flannel shirt and jeans. I just liked his style a lot and I liked his voice in the film – he did a great job in Side By Side. I was still a little nervous with how it would work. Taro Goto, who was the interpreter on the film and became one of the producers, had worked with him. Reeves had done a film in Japan and worked with a Japanese designer on his film Man of Tai Chi. We thought he could handle the pronunciation of the Japanese names well.
There is just an everyman quality that Mifune had. Mifune didn’t have handlers or agents around him all the time and Keanu Reeves likewise doesn’t take himself too seriously. He’s not protected by an entourage. He just rolls up to the sound recording place on his motorcycle and says, ‘Let’s get to work.’ I thought that would somehow. Luckily, we have been getting great responses to the narration.
Do you see a motif or thread that connects your diverse body of work?
I’m glad you said that. As soon as you do something, people want you to do the same thing. You get pushed into these brackets of doing historical documentaries with Asian subjects and stuff. I try to approach subjects differently and with different styles. But I do see some common things.
I had a working title for the Mifune film which was “One Against Many.” For me, my films are about individualism in a certain way and against the tide of something happening historically. The focus is on the personality and the individual. The fun part was doing something entertainment related with the documentary and applying my documentary skills to not a life and death subject.
Growing up, is there a film that you watched that inspired you to become a filmmaker?
I guess I would have to say Francois Truffaut’s 400 Blows. That film just knocked me out. Turning a low budget and you’re just scrambling everywhere to make the film into something deeply personal and innovative and modern. When you’re starting out, that film was the most exciting and most influential.
From doing this film, I really grew to really grew to love and understand the whole Kurosawa filmography. I have to say, with some trepidation to Mifune and Kurosawa fans, I would have to say my favorite Mifune film was always The Samurai Trilogy. In that film, it’s more straightforward and he’s just super cool in that one. To me, that is the definitive samurai character he played. So that’s my favorite.
Thank you Steven for your time!
Toshiro: The Last Mifune was also discussed on CinemAddicts. Click on the media bar below to hear Anderson Cowan and I discuss the doc: