Conversation with Director Steven Okazaki

previously appeared on Cinema Thread 2016

When Academy-Award winning director Steven Okazaki was growing up, as a young Japanese-American boy in 1960s California, he saw Toshiro Mifune dominating the screen in Akira Kurosawa’s Seven Samurai and became electrified. He now pays homage to the incredible giant of the Golden Age of Japanese Cinema in his new documentary, Mifune: The Last Samurai, (just released November 25th), examining both the sheer force of Mifune’s personality and his magnetic screen presence, while not shying away from examining the actor’s troubled spirit and the demons that pursued him.

Toshiro Mifune’s collaboration with Akira Kurosawa spanned decades and produced 16 films, including Rashomon, a movie which stunned the Board of Governors at the 1953 Academy Awards and was granted an honorary Oscar for “Most Outstanding Foreign Film”. The Mifune/Kurosawa legacy directly inspired The Magnificent Seven and A Fistful of Dollars, and the strong, loner, samurai spirit performances of Paul Newman and Clint Eastwood.

Mifune in Akira Kurosawa’s Rashomon

In fact, when Cinema Thread meets with Okazaki, at the Strand Releasing offices in Culver City, CA, he tells us: “Clint Eastwood just contacted us and asked us to send over a copy of the film.”

Joining us for the interview is Rikiya Mifune, grandson of the famous actor, and a producer on the documentary. For him, getting the movie made was important professionally, but also deeply personal:

“We wanted to break out of the domestic market and go more international, which was why Steven was perfect to direct this: he’s a Nikkei Japanese, who is based and works in the States, and also idolizes Mifune, understanding both the Japanese spirit, as well as the American production process. My grandfather passed away when I was nine years old, by then he wasn’t a working actor, but already retired, so this production process was a good opportunity for me to get to know my grandfather as an actor.”

Mifune: The Last Samurai is a significant study of Japanese cinema, containing many wonderful clips from early silents, through to Mifune’s later movies. It also features interviews with Steven Spielberg and Martin Scorsese, talking about the actor’s influence on American cinema, and by extension, their work. Scorsese observes that “Mifune was like a caged animal” and “studied the movements of lions in the wild when he was preparing for the picture.” “A lot of people try to imitate Mifune,” says Steven Spielberg, “especially when they’re playing strong and silent, but nobody can. He was unique in all the world.”

Koji Tsuruta and Mifune in Samurai Trilogy

And then there’s Keanu Reeves who provides a laconic voiceover throughout, especially effective when, during a shot of Mifune in a love scene, Reeves remarks: “For once, the Asian actor gets the girl.”

Although Okasaki wasn’t sure, initially, that Reeves was right for his film.

“One of our producers, Taro Goto, had worked with Keanu as an interpreter on his film Man of Tai Chi, and talked to Keanu about Mifune while he was doing 47 Ronin. Early on Taro said, ‘What about Keanu?’ and my brain went to ‘the Bill & Ted voice? I don’t know, let me think about it’. But Keanu had a similar Everyman low-key style (to Mifune), the way he just drove up on his motorcycle, doesn’t have handlers, it seemed to fit.”

Keanu aside, the most compelling segments of the documentary are those featuring interviews with Mifune’s contemporaries from Toho Studios in Tokyo, such as Teruyo Nogami, Kyoko Kagawa, Yoshio Tsuchiya, Takeshi Kato and Yoko Tsukasa. It’s in these scenes, with actors, stunt directors and script supervisors, all now in their 80s, that the emotion in the film comes across. They are all so reserved — until Okazaki takes them down memory lane. These are beautiful moments.

“Many of Mifune’s colleagues, and fellow actors, had not met Riki (Mifune’s grandson),” Okasaki points out, “So when we introduced them, many started tearing up immediately.”

“You can see the great love in that community of actors, especially during that time, when they were rebuilding an industry, doing something exciting, and then to have it click, go international — amazing. But then, the collaboration of Kurosawa and Mifune ended, and that community broke up, after working on film after film together. It was over.”

Kurosawa and Mifune on set of Red Beard

Okazaki’s previous documentaries have often tackled difficult subjects, from street addicts, hooked on heroin, to the devastation following Hiroshima. With his film on Mifune, Okazaki draws on a history of both cinema, and the samurai spirit, that the Japanese — who like to look forward into the future — have perhaps left in the past. He has also not shied away from documenting the struggles around alcohol, isolation, and aging that Mifune faced.

For his grandson, this was sometimes hard to watch — but ultimately necessary for the integrity of the documentary:

“Honestly, as a family member of the Mifune, I would like him to be portrayed as beautifully, and as nicely, as possible,” says Riki Mifune, “But on the other hand, as a documentary, as one of the producers, it needs to have some sharpness, some edge. An interesting conflict, for me.”

Finally, the best documentaries are always projects that shine through with evident directorial passion. In Mifune: The Last Samurai, you can feel the spirit of the 11-year-old Steven Okazaki, sitting in the dark, staring at the screen, watching Mifune. Although it wasn’t in plush cinematic surroundings, apparently.

“No,” laughs Okazaki, “It was a 16mm print, projected onto a king size bed sheet, luckily not a flowery one, at the Japanese Community Center in Venice, California. Every time someone opened the door the screen would flutter and we’d yell, ‘Close the door!’ But I remember being mesmerized by the last battle scene in the rain, and by Mifune. I mean, no one was cooler than him.”