It is quite possible that Toshiro Mifune was the greatest screen actor of the 20th century. Sure, there have been plenty of great actors, but when you look at the nearly 200 movies in Mifune's filmography, including classics like Stray Dog, Rashomon, and Seven Samurai, you begin to see a body of work that reaches epic proportions. The recently released five-DVD box set Toshiro Mifune: The Ultimate Collection serves as a testimony to the talent and versatility of the actor.
All of the films in this collection feature Mifune in the role of a samurai, the character type he's most associated with in the United States. For those with only a cursory knowledge of Mifune's work, the biggest surprise of this collection will be Kihachi Okamoto's 1969 Red Lion. Best known for his steely intensity, which was only occasionally offset with sly humor in films like Sanjuro, Mifune takes on a brilliantly comedic role in Red Lion as the aptly named Gonzo, a stuttering dimwit who stumbles around wearing a bright red wig. Returning home to the village he fled years earlier, Gonzo pretends to be a powerful soldier, inspiring his former neighbors to fight back against their oppressors.
Okamoto also directed 1965's Samurai Assassin, a historical film that can only be described as epic. Mifune co-stars with some of Japan's biggest stars in this complex, multi-layered tale (based on real events that took place in 1860) of samurais battling for control as the ruling shogunate crumbles.
One of Mifune's most memorable performances was in Akira Kurosawa's 1961 film Yojimbo. He would reprise what amounts to the same role in 1970's Zatoichi Meets Yojimbo, which paired him up with the popular blind swordsman portrayed by Shintaro Katsu. Mifune would also return as the masterless samurai Yojimbo, hired for a mission so secret he doesn't even know what it is, in 1970's Incident at Blood Pass (also co-starring Katsu).
Samurai Banners (1969) stars Mifune as the legendary and ruthless Kansuke Yamamoto. Director Hiroshi Inagaki stages battle sequences that must be seen to be believed. Meanwhile, Mifune gives a complex performance that brings a sense of humanity to a character of little remorse.
If Toshiro Mifune: The Ultimate Collection isn't enough to get you by, next week marks the DVD release of Okamoto's brilliant 1967 masterpiece, Japan's Longest Day. Based on true events, and absolutely stunning, the film takes place on Aug. 15, 1945, after atomic bombs flattened Hiroshima and Nagasaki. Japan was virtually in ruins, and the government was arguing as to what to do—keep fighting a lost cause, or surrender. Japan's Longest Day shows a side of war never depicted in American film. Mifune stars as Anami, the Minister of the Army, who is determined to see Japan fight on, even if it means the death of every living soul in his beloved country. But when the emperor declares that Japan will peacefully and unconditionally surrender, Anami is caught in an emotional struggle that tears at his soul. Will he remain loyal to the emperor, or will he side with a proposed military coup that will ensure the war continues?