“He was like the ocean. The ocean is boundless but sometimes very turbulent.”
This month presents a golden opportunity in sharing my admiration for whom I consider the best actor ever, Toshiro Mifune. It's no secret that my favorite film genre is Chanbara, or samurai cinema.
Luckily, I’m in good company with Spielberg, Lucas, and Scorsese. These legendary directors are quick to admit how Toshiro Mifune influenced their work. Without Yojimbo, there would be no Fistful of Dollars. Without Seven Samurai, no Magnificent Seven. Without The Hidden Fortress, no Star Wars. Appearing in more than 150 feature films, including 16 collaborations with Akira Kurosawa, Mifune solidified himself to be the image of the gruff and boastful antihero. My kind of guy.
Born in China to Japanese Christian missionaries, Toshiro never saw Japan until he was drafted into World War II, specializing in aerial photography for the aviation division. During his time in the military, Mifune was subjected to routine beatings, which instilled a rebellious streak in him.
After serving, Mifune became a cameraman for Toho in 1947. Serendipitously, soon after, there was mass exodus at the company. Needing new faces, Toho held open auditions and Mifune’s friend applied on his behalf, unknowingly. He was accepted, and after screen testing, the rest was history. He soon met his wife on set, Sachiko Yoshimine. She came from a Buddhist family, so Kurosawa took it upon himself to convince her family to allow the marriage. The two were married in a church, to honor Mifune’s Christian beliefs. The pair remained wed until Sachiko’s death 55 years later. Mifune followed two years later.
I’d like to focus on my second favorite film. It would be my No. 1, but The Life Aquatic exists. Yojimbo (1961) is perhaps Kurosawa and Mifune’s finest outing together. A wandering ronin happens upon a town that is seething with corruption. The masterful Kurosawa sets the tone immediately with the samurai passing by a father and son arguing on the outskirts of the town. The son wants to quit the family business to work as a hired sword for the local gangsters. He claims that he would much rather live a short and exciting life than “a long one eating gruel.”
Arriving in town, the nameless samurai is greeted by a dog carrying a human hand in its mouth. This, along with the film’s score, sets a dark humorous tone that stays through the duration of the film. With morality absent, and the coffin-maker the only prosperous business in town, the samurai sets out to exorcise the town with his wits and skill. And his sword.
The samurai soon has the two rival gangs outbidding each other for his service, which leads to a showdown, with Mifune himself perched on a tower watching the impending massacre unfold. Through some breathtaking composition, what he finds instead are cowardly men who are afraid of combat. Through all of his coarseness, the samurai throughout the film stands up for what is right. The personification of the bushido code. He scowls how the weak make him sick, but immediately conducts a rescue mission to help. His audible agitation with their gratitude is black humor at its finest.
Dozens of deaths later, and a showdown against a gunslinger to boot, the samurai has cleansed the town. Wouldn’t you know it, the son from the beginning of the film is the last gang member left alive. The samurai yells at him to “go home, a long life eating gruel is best.”
A perfect ending to the perfect film.
Tim Bynum is a Jones County native who lives in Laurel with his wife, Lauren. An avid film fan since 1985, Bynum can be found at thefilmsnob.reviews and on Instagram and Facebook: @the_filmsnob.