Samurai Cinema and AnimEigo's Toshiro Mifune: The Ultimate Collection is a boxed set of five films that's inconsistent both in terms of the movies and their transfers. Previously available separately, the five features in this set - Samurai Assassin, Red Lion, Samurai Banners, Incident at Blood Pass, and Zatoichi meets Yojimbo - are still pricey even as a set: with an SRP of $99.98 that's still about $20 per movie. If you're simply looking for violent swordplay action and historical spectacle you probably won't be disappointed, but those looking for great Japanese cinema are advised to look elsewhere. Two of the films are quite good, though one is all but ruined by a jaw-droppingly awful transfer, while the other three are disappointing. They are, however, quite representative of Mifune's career in the years immediately following the actor's final collaborations with the great director Akira Kurosawa.
It was with Kurosawa that Mifune made many of his best films, movies widely regarded among the very best ever: Rashomon (1950), Seven Samurai (1954), Throne of Blood (1957), and Yojimbo (1961) to name but four. In the western world Mifune was and is thought by many to have been Japan's greatest screen actor, but within Japan it's a very different story. Ask the ordinary Japanese about Mifune and they'll likely tell you, sure, he was great in all those Kurosawa movies, but something of a ham in pretty much everything else.
In this sense, Mifune was a lot like John Wayne, whose performances for John Ford and Howard Hawks in movies like The Searchers and Red River are considered exemplary, but left to his own devices, in movies like The Alamo (1960) and The Green Berets, both of which Wayne also directed, he could be quite awful.
Just as that's not really a fair summation of Wayne's talent, nor is it entirely true of Mifune. For starters Kurosawa stretched Mifune's range far beyond what many would have considered possible given the actor's rugged, working class features and full-force but largely instinctive style. Nevertheless he proved himself in movies like Record of a Living Being (playing a man twice his age, 1955), The Lower Depths (1957), and High and Low (1957). However Japanese audiences, like the rest of the world, liked him best playing warrior rogues, the antihero ronin in films like Yojimbo (1961), men capable of sudden bursts of extraordinary violence, characters from which the careers of several generations of leading men, from Clint Eastwood to Harrison Ford to Bruce Willis, owe a big debt of gratitude.
To his dying day Mifune was himself grateful for what Kurosawa had given him, but by the early-1960s he was also eager to prove himself in films outside of those made by his great sensei. He formed his own production company in the early-1960s and his first production was The Legacy of the 500,000 (1963), with Mifune an ordinary businessman kidnapped by a gang trying to smuggle a war chest of gold out of the Philippines. Though a commercial success, the film was something of a critical disaster.
AnimEigo's Mifune set more or less picks up the story just as Kurosawa and Mifune made their last films together, 1965's Red Beard and Sanshiro Sugata (aka Judo Saga), a remake of Kurosawa's 1943 debut which this time he produced and scripted but did not direct. Samurai Assassin (Samurai, 1965), was quickly assembled immediately after Red Beard's production but released first. Directed by Kihachi Okamoto, it's the best film in the set and Okamoto's finest jidai-geki/chanbara. Unfortunately, the DVD looks so awful (see below) viewers are advised to skip this release entirely and hope a remastered edition eventually turns up.
In Samurai Assassin, Mifune plays a masterless samurai, or ronin just as the samurai class is on the verge of being abolished. Anxious to restore his name and status, he falls in with a group of assassins plotting to kill a shoganate's counselor, with Mifune's ronin (but not the assassins) unaware that the man is also his very own father.
The film has much to offer: a terrific score and great cinematography (by Hiroshi Murai), especially during a climatic battle (staged by Okamoto and famed swordplay choreographer Ryu Kuze) that unfolds in a blinding snowstorm. For Mifune Samurai Assassin offered a role that basically turns his character from Yojimbo and Sanjuro inside-out, a psychologically scarred man cruelly manipulated by grand schemer Yunosuke Ito (in a wonderfully oily performance) much as Mifune's yojimbo had done in Kurosawa's films.
After Samurai Assassin, Mifune alternated his time between western world productions like Grand Prix (1966) and Hell in the Pacific (1968); Toho Studios' in-house productions, films like Admiral Yamamoto (1968) and Battle of the Japan Sea (1969); and movies for his own production company, which by 1967 had built its own modest studio in Tokyo's Setagaya ward, not far from Toho.
He worked harder than ever, partly to bolster his company's finances, but also because Mifune was a notoriously bad businessman and constantly in debt. Almost alone among professional Japanese actors, Mifune never had an agent or business manager, and insisted on negotiating all of his and his company's deals himself. He constantly undersold his services, especially in a film industry that, quite different from America and Europe, had the biggest stars and their independent production companies at a disadvantage. They took virtually all the risk while the studios were first in line to reap any profits.
For Legacy of the 500,000, Mifune's crew consisted almost entirely of people culled from his films with Kurosawa, but after that film's critical crucifixion (hardly just, though the picture's final reel is pretty terrible) and also because of the general decline in the Japanese film industry in general, the people he hired to work on his subsequent productions were instead drawn from the crews of his many films for director Hiroshi Inagaki, people who by and large stayed with Mifune Productions even when its focus shifted to TV swordplay shows in the 1970s.
Red Lion (Akage, 1969), its name an obvious reference to the hugely successful Red Beard/Akahige, is a valiant but ultimately dreary effort by director Okamoto to expand upon his interests in midnight-black farce with Mifune once again playing a misguided would-be warrior, an illiterate peasant with dreams of glory. Set during the last days of Shogunate rule and the dawn of the Meiji Restoration, Mifune's peasant is again manipulated, this time by Sekihe samurai, who find in Mifune's Gonzo a patsy unwittingly ready and eager to do their dirty work. Most of the film is a painful farce with Mifune's Gonzo, adorned in an expansive red wig borrowed from the elite samurai "liberating" his hometown from oppression. Particularly in its final reels Red Lion is a real mess, but Mifune's performance, a variation on his Seven Samurai role, is entertaining, and a contrast to the poker-faced yojimbo and Admiral Yamamoto types that dominated this stage of his career.
By the end of the 1960s, the Japanese film industry was spiraling into the abyss. The growing popularity of television and foreign films was killing the average Japanese program picture, while A-list films were becoming increasingly desperate. Like Universal's monster movies of the 1940s, where Dracula met the Wolfman who met Frankenstein's monster, etc., Mifune and other independent stars began teaming up as a way to ensure their pictures' success. This was very profitable at first; these all-star efforts from 1968-69 were initially very popular, but as the novelty wore off audiences began staying away.
Samurai Banners (Furin kazan, 1969) was an early example of this, but it also symbolized the end of the classical jidai-geki, the penultimate work of one of the genre's masters, Hiroshi Inagaki. (The DVD's text calls it "the landmark film that ushered in Japan's 'Golden Age' of filmmaking." In fact, Samurai Banners could accurately be described as the film that ushered out Japan's Golden Age. It was virtually the last film of its kind.)
A terrific epic, Samurai Banners offered Mifune one of his last great roles, this time as the ruthlessly ambitious Kansuke Yamamoto, a real-life strategist who plots his way up the ladder, eventually becoming the overly-trusted, Iago-like vassal of warlord Shingen Takeda (Kinnosuke Nakamura). Mifune gives a wonderfully complex performance quite unlike anything before or since. Besides Kabuki headliner Nakamura (and numerous other Nakamuras likewise culled from the Kabuki ranks) Samurai Banners co-starred Yujiro Ishihara, the former Nikkatsu star whose popularity rivaled Mifune's from the mid-1950s through all of the sixties.
For the next several years Mifune, Nakamura, and Ishihara, along with Daiei star-turned-independent Shintaro Katsu began appearing in each others productions in myriad combinations and billings. Zatoichi meets Yojimbo offered up Katsu, Mifune, and another longtime Daiei player, Ayako Wakao, while Incident at Blood Pass (aka The Ambush) treated audiences to an even bigger powerhouse of talent: Mifune, Ishihara, Katsu, and Nakamura, plus former Nikkatsu star Ruriko Asaoka.
Zatoichi meets Yojimbo (Zatoichi to yojinbo, 1970) was conceived as a monumental clash of the titans, with Mifune reprising his yojimbo character in all but name, while Katsu celebrated his 20th outing as the blind masseuse/expert swordsman Zatoichi. Once again Kihachi Okamoto, on loan from Toho, directed and co-wrote the film but while his sardonic tastes would seem a good match for both iconic characters, the results are stretched to an interminable length and are generally predictable.
The problem lays mainly in the script, which all but makes Zatoichi and Sassa, Mifune's character, nearly supporting players in their own movie, subservient to a glum father-son melodrama that only serves to rob the title characters of valuable screentime. The script also errs in pitting one against the other throughout the film, even though by mid-point it's clear that their goals are much the same.
The picture also has a threadbare production look to it (though this excellent transfer goes some way to rectify this), while Akira Ifukube's moody score, quite fitting for the many Zatoichis he'd scored earlier in the series, is all wrong for this film; Masaru Sato, who wrote the music for many of Okamoto's films and was the composer of Yojimbo's seminal score, would have been the obvious, better choice.
The DVD box for Incident at Blood Pass describes the film thusly: "Mifune is hired to perform a mission so mysterious he isn't even told what it is! All he knows is that he is supposed to go to a remote mountain pass and wait for something to happen." Unfortunately, nothing does.
The film is touted as Mifune's "final portrayal of his Yojimbo character" (not true, as he'd play the role again in several television series), and though again he's not officially reprising his character from Yojimbo and Sanjuro, billed here as simply "the yojimbo," such roles only invited unfavorable comparisons to earlier triumphs. The picture was virtually Mifune's last starring role in a Japanese film, and soon after this he took his character to the small screen, cheapening his screen persona even further. Many film appearances were to follow, though almost always, whether in domestic or foreign films, these usually amounted to "guest star" appearances rarely worth his talent.
Video & Audio
Toshiro Mifune: The Ultimate Collection, being a simple repackaging of five earlier releases, offers transfers of widely varying quality, though all are 16:9 enhanced. Samurai Assassin is an unmitigated disaster, one so bad that it really should either have been corrected or dropped from this set altogether. Though technically 16:9 enhanced, the image is so soft as to appear substantially out-of-focus throughout, and the highly noticeable ghosting suggests that an older VHS or laserdisc master was sourced. On very small monitors Samurai Assassin might look okay, but it's basically unwatchable on sets 35-inches or bigger. Incident at Blood Pass is only marginally better; it doesn't look out of focus but is still extremely soft, lacks detail and suffers noticeably during nighttime and dark interior scenes. Samurai Banners and Red Lion both look pretty good and appear to be clones of Toho Video's masters, which are a bit soft as well (though nowhere near as bad as the first titles mentioned) and the color is rather muted, but all told look fairly good. Zatoichi meets Yojimbo, on the other hand, is a knock-out transfer: the image is razor-sharp and the colors vivid and bright. (This title has other, albeit minor problems, such as its confusing Daiei's logo with Toho, or giving the film's copyright year as 1965!) Each film is offered in its original Japanese mono with both full and limited English subtitles.
With slight variation the supplements are the same from film-to-film. Each title's Program Notes are extensive and strongly emphasize historical/cultural minutiae and read like textbook annotations. This material is very interesting but offers little to no background on the movies or the filmmakers.
There are trailers for the five films as well as other AnimEigo releases. Most are presented in 4:3 letterboxed format.
Most of the discs also include character biographies and a couple offer fairly decent photo galleries. Samurai Assassin, for instance, includes 10 filmographies (most of the titles are in Japanese only with no other details, and thus of limited use for most viewers) and character biographies, also of limited value.
Toshiro Mifune: The Ultimate Collection really sits precariously on the edge. If the discs were less expensive, if Samurai Assassin didn't look so awful, this would be an easy recommendation. As it is consumers unfamiliar with the films may want to Rent It, and then purchase the one or two titles they find worth keeping, rather than committing to this very mixed boxed set.
Film historian Stuart Galbraith IV is the author of The Emperor and the Wolf - The Lives and Films of Akira Kurosawa and Toshiro Mifune and Taschen's forthcoming Cinema Nippon. His most recent essays appear in Criterion's new three-disc Seven Samurai DVD and BCI Eclipse's The Quiet Duel.