As perhaps the most globally recognized Japanese film star of all time, the legendary Toshiro Mifune (1920-1997) was featured in nearly 200 films during a career that spanned almost 50 years. Largely remembered for his collaborations with director Akira Kurosawa between 1948 and 1965---which include such classics as Rashomon, Seven Samurai, and Yojimbo---his formidable screen presence and charisma made the gruff-voiced, extremely intense actor nearly impossible to forget. The eldest son of Japanese parents working in China, Mifune pursued a career in photography, eventually drafted into the Imperial Japanese Army during WWII before securing a job as an assistant cameraman in 1947. Yet his chance entry in a talent search landed the striking Mifune his first acting job later that same year, and he spent the majority of his remaining life in front of the camera rather than behind it.
Director Steven Okazaki's new film Mifune: The Last Samurai (co-written by DVD Talk's own Stuart Galbraith IV) pays tribute to the late actor, combining the words of friends, relatives, and contemporaries with a generous assortment of popular and little-seen film and TV clips that feature the actor doing what he does best: drawing our attention. From Drunken Angel to Red Beard, from The Samurai Trilogy to Shogun, from box-office success to scandalous backlash, Mifune's career and personal life discussed in modest detail and many who knew him personally seem more than willing to share their candid and heartfelt tributes. Considering his deep acting resume, a retrospective documentary like Mifune: The Last Samurai could probably go on for several hours. Sadly, it doesn't.
Nonetheless, the lineup of participants is strong. The packaging highlights names like Martin Scorsese and Steven Spielberg; not surprising, given that Mifune: The Last Samurai is partly designed to draw in casual fans. Other contemporaries, friends, and relatives include Shiro Mifune and Hisao Kurosawa (sons of the legendary actor and director), actress Kyoko Kagawa (High and Low), delightful actor Haruo Nakajima (who portrayed Godzilla and had a small part in Seven Samurai the same year), Teruyo Nogami (Kurosawa's longtime script supervisor), late actor Takeshi Kato (Yojimbo), film critic Tadao Sato, actress Yoko Tsukasa (Yojimbo), and many others. Their comments are typically warm and appreciative, but also candid: they aren't afraid to shy away from Mifune's personal demons, making The Last Samurai feel more like a somewhat layered examination than a surface-level tribute.
As a whole, we're given a concise and fairly satisfying portrait of the compelling actor in just over an hour; the first 15 minutes or so are also devoted to samurai in Japanese culture and early silent films, giving the documentary a somewhat broader scope. As with most documentaries produced so long after the life of their subject, the smaller number of first-hand participants somewhat dampens the film's impact...but under the circumstances, Mifune: The Last Samurai serves up an informative and entertaining slice of film history that new and old fans alike will enjoy. The DVD package---no Blu-ray this time, I'm afraid---comes from Strand Releasing, who previously released pop culture documentaries like Comic Book Confidential and Cameraman: The Life & Work of Jack Cardiff.
Quality Control Department
Video & Audio Quality
Presented in its original 1.78:1 aspect ratio, Mifune: The Last Samurai looks great for a standard definition disc. The usual laundry list of forgivable flaws is here: dirt, debris, and even some mild interlacing can be spotted on many older film clips (some reaching as far back as 1915), which are all but expected under the circumstances. Many of the more widely available Mifune films---mostly those directed by Kurosawa---are in much better condition and sourced from newer DVD and Blu-ray releases, albeit limited to 480p. Even better, nearly all the vintage photographs and film clips are presented in their original aspect ratio and not cropped to fill the 16x9 frame. Newer interview footage also looks great with decent color saturation, image detail, and black levels. Overall, this is a very strong effort in the visual department, which makes the lack of a Blu-ray option all the more surprising.
DISCLAIMER: The screen captures and stills on this page are decorative and do not all represent the disc under review.
The Dolby Digital 5.1 Surround track, unfortunately, is less consistent. First, the good: music cues sound terrific with strong channel separation and a large presence that doesn't drown out everything else. Japanese participants speak in their native language with subtitles, which is always a better option than overdubs. The film clips sound very good as well, depending on the quality of the source material. But my main gripe about this 5.1 track---which, according to an exchange with Strand Releasing, is sourced from director approved audio stems---is that the narration and interview clips play in mono and suffer from an faint echo-like and almost watery distortion at times. This doesn't render any comments unintelligible, but it's a big strike against an otherwise enjoyable presentation. Optional English subtitles are included, but only for Japanese translation (English interviews and the narration are not subbed).
Menu Design, Presentation & Packaging
The plain-wrap interface doesn't take advantage of Mifune: The Last Samurai
's deep well of visuals, but at least it's easy to navigate and loads quickly. Options include chapter selection, subtitle setup, and the film's Theatrical Trailer
(no other extras, sadly). This one-disc release arrives in a standard keepcase with no inserts of any kind.
Toshiro Mifune's long and legendary life yields great potential for a well-rounded and entertaining retrospective---and while Mifune: The Last Samurai is neither the first nor best of its kind, this small slice of Japanese film history serves up an enjoyable combination of first-hand interviews, rarely-seen photos, and a solid cross-section of the star's most memorable film appearances. Aimed at casual and seasoned fans alike, it's an accessible and thoughtful tribute to a true icon of the industry who left a massive footprint in life and death. Unfortunately, Strand Releasing's DVD falls a bit short in many respects: it looks quite good (even without a Blu-ray option, which is odd), but the audio has a few problems and the lack of bonus material is a big disappointment. Mifune: The Last Samurai may be worth picking up for die-hard fans, but my reservations about the disc itself prevent it from being a keeper. Rent It.
Randy Miller III is an affable office monkey by day and film reviewer by night. He also does freelance design work, teaches art classes and runs a website or two. In his limited free time, Randy also enjoys slacking off, juggling HD DVDs and writing in third person.