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'Mifune' beautifully details films of great Japanese actor

One of the cinephile must-see documentaries of 2016 is "Mifune: The Last Samurai," an in-depth look at legendary Japanese actor Toshiro Mifune. He is best known for his work with the great Akira Kurosawa in such films as "Rashomon," "The Seven Samurai" and "Yojimbo."

If those classics do not ring a bell, you’re in for a treat. They are among the finest films ever made, and will invariably send the viewer running to their Blu-ray players.

Steven Okazaki’s documentary "Mifune" is a fitting appreciation of the soldier turned actor who helped make them so memorable. As narrator Keanu Reeves puts it, "His journey was completely unexpected."

This beautifully shot, tightly edited film is full of wonderful details. (One actor is identified as having been "killed by Mifune more than a hundred times.") Many of the greatest stories come from the Japanese actors who worked with Mifune and Kurosawa, but also here are fans like Martin Scorsese and Steven Spielberg.

The presence of the latter is certainly appropriate. Spielberg directed Mifune in a rare comedic role, in the flop “1941.” The filmmaker makes an interesting observation about the actor’s range, noting that Mifune was a minimalist actor who could, at times "explode onto the screen."

Okazaki opens “Mifune” with details about samurai culture, drawing direct connections between these warriors and the actor known for portraying one. Mifune was originally interested in working behind the camera, but meeting Kurosawa changed his life.

Kurosawa recognized his intensity, and that characteristic was never better utilized than it was in the immortal, still influential “Rashomon.” Mifune was unhinged and brilliant in this tale of a rape told from four different perspectives. As Scorsese explains, "You feel him energizing everything around him."

Much of the documentary is spent on the actor’s work with Kurosawa, which, in the 1950s alone, also included “Seven Samurai,” the “Macbeth” adaptation “Throne of Blood,” and “The Hidden Fortress.”

In each of these films, and in the other Kurosawa films that followed (“The Bad Sleep Well,” “High and Low,” “Yojimbo”), Mifune is a force of nature. He is often tightly restrained in these roles, making his sudden explosions even more seismic.

Offscreen, as Reeves says, Mifune “pursued two of his favorite hobbies, cars and alcohol, often at the same time.” He was a heavy drinker, and a private man. This made his later appearance in the Japanese tabloids following an extramarital affair even more startling.

“Red Beard” (1965) was the final film Mifune and Kurosawa made together, and friends are still unsure what exactly led to the split. Scorsese, a man who knows a thing or two about long-term collaboration, says collaborators sometimes just use each other up. Perhaps that happened with this duo, who made 16 films together over 18 years.

Japan’s greatest movie star (“along with Godzilla”) never quite recaptured the world-dominating spirit of the Kurosawa years. He ended up busily running a production company while acting as much as possible, on film and later TV.

Mifune passed away in 1997, at age 77. Kurosawa died less than a year later, and the film draws to a close with a letter he wrote for the funeral of his longtime collaborator. One wonders, however, what was unsaid between these giants.

There are some flaws here, notably the absence of any archival interviews. Mifune was clearly a very private person, but his “voice” is unheard -- it only comes through from his performances. And while Scorsese and Spielberg are unsurprisingly insightful, it would have been nice to hear from noted Kurosawa fans George Lucas and Francis Ford Coppola.

And even though his sons are interviewed, the focus is the film work, not the life of Mifune. That makes sense, yet it creates some emotional distance for the viewer.

What resonates most from “Mifune” are the film clips, of course. Watching him on screen remains an exhilarating experience. As many state in the film, there was no one quite like him. Watch "Rashomon," "Seven Samurai," "Throne of Blood," "Yojimbo" or "Red Beard" and that becomes abundantly clear.

MOVIE REVIEW

"Mifune: The Last Samurai"

3 stars (out of 4)

Directed by: Steven Okazaki

Running time: 80 minutes

Rating: Unrated, but PG-13 equivalent for violence and adult situations.

The lowdown: A feature-length documentary about legendary Japanese actor Toshiro Mifune, weaving together movie clips, archival stills and interviews.

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