Toshiro Mifune was an actor who made the very concept of 3-D seem absurd. Over the span of nearly 200 films—most notably his 16 legendary collaborations with Akira Kurosawa—Mifune presented a figure whose magnetism was off the charts, with a physicality that always seemed to be a few milliseconds ahead of conscious thought. Even in still photos, he’s somehow on the move.
Mifune: The Last Samurai is a pretty good documentary about a truly great subject. Although director Steven Okazaki’s attempt to cover both the actor’s life and the history of samurai movies in a changing Japan is certainly intriguing, it ultimately feels like too broad of a swath for a film that’s less than 90 minutes. Still, the opportunity to watch Martin Scorsese geek out over the ending of Kurosawa’s Throne of Blood or Steven Spielberg haltingly describe Mifune as something created by seismic forces shouldn’t be missed.
Narrated by Keanu Reeves, the film follows a standard talking-heads format, albeit one that includes the guy who used to play Godzilla. While what we see is always entertaining (special shout-out to a stuntman’s cheerful recounting of the variety of ways that Mifune destroyed him on-screen over the years), the sense of missing details only grows as it accelerates through the decades. The delirious brief glimpses of silent-era samurai films deserve a feature of their own, at the very least.
Whenever the clips of Mifune’s performances start to roll, however, all complaints about pacing tend to fade out. Watching his progression from the feral bundle-of-nerves of Seven Samurai to the stoic elder badass of Red Beard serves as a fascinating primer on one of the movies’ undisputable Icons, as well as taking care of a viewer’s to-watch list for months. “He’s not an actor who blends into the background,” says one deadpan admirer. Amen to that.