Conversation With Steve Okazaki Director of “Mifune: The Last Samurai”
In “Mifune: The Last Samurai” a new documentary by director/producer Steven Okazaki [at the IFC Center through December 1] he cites Steven Spielberg: “Without Akira Kurosawa and Toshiro Mifune, there would be no “Magnificent Seven”, Clint Eastwood wouldn’t have “A Fistful of Dollars” and Darth Vader wouldn’t be a Samurai…. Toshiro played a wild character…from the earth itself, as if he’d been created by forces of seismic activities underground. We don’t make the heroes—It’s up to the audience to turn a character into a hero and the power is in the performance of the actor even more than the director.”
Having seen most of Mifune’s iconic films later meeting him [in New York in 1984], my chat Mr. Okazaki at The Japan Society was a special treat.
M.L.: Did you make this documentary as an homage to director Kurosawa and Mifune?
SO: I’m Sensei [second generation] born in L.A. I met [Mifune] thirty years ago…. My parents sent me to Japanese language school —-I hated it. They let me quit and just take Judo…We saw “Seven Samurai” on a [fluttering sheet] screen at a Japanese theater in a tough Japanese African-American neighborhood…. We were constantly re-enacting the Jets and Sharks scenes from “West Side Story”, Japanese and Mexican American kids really took to Mifune. I wanted to introduce him to a younger audience…who don’t realize how influential Kurosawa and Mifune were…. Eastwood told me ‘[without Mifune] I don’t think I would have had a career.’ Loner Paul Newman in “Cool Hand Luke” and Bruce Willis came out of that mold.
ML: Are young people in Japan aware of his amazing films?
OS: Not very much…When we started the film, we went to the biggest teen street in Japan and asked them what happened on August 6, 1945 [Hiroshima], they had no idea. To them he was “that guy in ‘Shogun’… Teenagers today…. they don’t know. When [Kurosawa’s] “Rashomon” came out in Japan it was not a hit. But when it became a hit outside…in Europe—then all the Japanese wanted to see it.
ML: “Rashomon”—a story of four people witnessing—a rape-murder each offering a different account of the event. It’s come into the language as a metaphor of ‘he saw-she saw’.
OS: Taking note of his uniqueness …in “Throne of Blood” [1957 adaptation of “Macbeth”] Kurosawa asked Mifune to ride a horse at full speed, no reins and fire an arrow. Mifune said ‘Whaaat!!’ You see him do it in the film. No insurance!…He is a man against the system…breaking the rules— who ended up a hero in Japan.
ML: Did Mifune’s growing up in China have an effect in his ‘listening to his own drummer?
O.S. I think it was not as extreme as my grandparents moving to America…. I am fascinated by Japan but I always say a prayer thanking my grandparents for getting out. Toshiro could easily have had a mistress and have no one knowing about it—as did other Japanese. But he saw that as hypocrisy and so he had a divorce-opened himself up to the tabloid press and the press went wild. He never got a divorce but when he got Alzheimer’s his mistress left him and his wife came back to care for him.
Were it not for [Folksbiene’s] Zalmen Mloteks father Yosl Mlotek (the Yiddish Forward’s late culture editor), my daughter Karen and I might never have met Toshiro Mifune. In 1941, then 23-year old Yosl, my mother and I lived in a house in Yamamoto Dori in Kobe, Japan. Mlotek’s mantra was: “Lomir geyn! -Let’s go—Let’s see Japan—when will we ever be here again”. And so—accompanied by the Japanese maid of local Jewish family, we went to dinky movie houses in downtown Kobe to see early silent Samurai sword fighting “Chanbara” flicks. It was a prelude to my becoming a Japanese film fan.
After Karen had entered The Center for Public Cinema film poster contest with a woodcut of Mifune in “Seven Samurai” for which she won second prize, in 1984, New York City’s Japan Society hosted a weeklong Toshiro Mifune film retrospective with the star present. We were granted a private audience with Mifune at which Karen presented him with a copy of the poster and asked if he would autograph it. “He never signs autographs!” his translator whispered. Mifune demanded a marker and signed the poster in Japanese and English!
The film will also open in LA /Boston Dec. 2 and San Francisco on Dec 9.