As a lovely 2015 documentary made clear, Toshiro Mifune ranks high on the icons of cool. At the same time, referring to him as such is far from the whole story. Although he never quite achieved a level of success in American films that he gained in his native Japan, Mifune remains one of the most recognizable international actors in history. In Japan, he is still regarded as a legend on par with such contemporaries as Humphrey Bogart or Robert Mitchum. The intensity he brought to dozens of roles has led him to be compared to such actors as Robert De Niro.
Comparisons are fine as a means of introduction. However, to truly appreciate everything Toshiro Mifune gave us as an actor, we have to look at the actual work. Many of Mifune’s most celebrated roles came from his lengthy collaboration and friendship with Akira Kurosawa. Indeed, for something like the 5 best Toshiro Mifune movies, we could focus entirely on those works. The only true shame of it all is that Mifune and Kurosawa’s partnership did not survive to the end of their lives. Mifune worked relentlessly beyond his fruitful output with Kurosawa. Many of those movies are not quite on the level of such seminal works as Seven Samurai and The Bad Sleep Well, but a few of them are.
The films of Toshiro Mifune and Akira Kurosawa are some of the most important, entertaining in cinema. However, if you want to appreciate Toshiro Mifune movies, we must go beyond the obvious. His career was a long and varied one. There are dozens of examples of how his brilliance went far beyond the fact that he could scare you to death with a mere scowl.
1. The Life of Oharu (1952)
By 1952, the year in which Kenji Mizoguchi’s The Life of Oharu was released, Toshiro Mifune had already appeared in some 22 films. Several with Akira Kurosawa, including Rashomon and The Idiot. At this point, both men were closing in on their greatest periods of productivity and success. Yet it is vital to remember that Mifune appeared in many great films that were made by other directors. The Life of Oharu has him in a supporting role, but it remains one of his strongest, most distinctive performances.
A legendary director in his own right, Mizoguchi crafts a powerful drama here, in which a young woman named Oharu is nearly swept away by staggering bad luck. Mifune’s Katsunosuke, a page who falls in love with Oharu, isn’t very lucky either. If you only know Mifune from his samurai movies, watching him play a passionate, kind young man is going to be an interesting experience. Toshiro Mifune was a major star at least partially because he could do seemingly anything as an actor. Especially at this point in time.
2. Samurai III: Duel at Ganryu Island (1956)
Honestly, you have to actually watch the entire Samurai Trilogy. I’m sure you can enjoy Samurai III on its own terms, but it probably won’t make as much sense. However, each entry in the series came out in a different year. It would be kind of a waste to have them take up three entries. So, I’m choosing the best in the series, and I’m choosing it with the assumption that you will watch the first two.
Directed by Hiroshi Inagaki, the Samurai trilogy came along at a time when samurai films were finally resuming production in post-War Japan. The films tell the long, rich story of Miyamoto Musashi, whose journey to become of the greatest swordsmen of his time is spread out across three movies and several decades of Musashi’s life. Mifune masterfully builds on the character from humble beginnings. It is genuinely rewarding to watch him evolve this character from start to finish. Duel at Ganryu Island is a perfect conclusion to that journey in every possible way. The duel in question is a classic of the genre. David Carradine mentions it in Kill Bill Vol. 2.
3. Throne of Blood (1957)
Every single collaboration between Toshiro Mifune and Akira Kurosawa is worth watching. Forcing myself to not lean too heavily on their work together means making impossible decisions. Because I could really suggest any of them. All of them have a good reason for their inclusion.
The only way I could honestly make this work was to stick with my personal favorites. Take it in that spirit.
Throne of Blood is my favorite version of William Shakespeare’s Macbeth. Taking the story to feudal Japan, Mifune is transformed into an extraordinary figure of rage and ambition. Alongside the great Isuzu Yamada in the Lady Macbeth role, Mifune excels in one of the finest performances of his career. You will naturally remember the frenzy in Mifune’s eyes, when he is finally taken down by hundreds of arrows, in one of the most amazing sequences you will ever witness. Mifune’s descent into that bloody conclusion is an incredible, nuanced ride.
4. Yojimbo (1961)
Not only is Yojimbo one of the best samurai movies ever, it’s also the blueprint for the Italian spaghetti western. The story and energy of Yojimbo are so timeless, Akira Kurosawa’s most lighthearted film is as entertaining as any modern action movie. The story has been used numerous times in other films. Most famously, it’s the basis for A Fistful of Dollars. As good as that movie is, it still pales slightly in comparison to the Mifune/Kurosawa original.
Mifune often plays Sanjuro with such casual charisma, he makes it all kind of look easy. Yet Sanjuro is a complex character, who sometimes seems to wish his (semi) criminal ambitions were more straightforward. Yojimbo is a great example of a somewhat reluctant hero. Mifune walks that line with ease, and looks to be having a great time playing one of most badass motherfuckers to ever walk the face of a cinematic earth.
5. Princess from the Moon (1987)
Even for Japan, Princess from the Moon is an oddity. Not nearly as wacky as the title might suggest, the movie nonetheless features a touch of the surreal that almost starts to gnaw at you. At the same time, the movie also isn’t as lighthearted as you might think. Yet there are moments of (I’m assuming) intentional silliness that somehow play well within the rhythm of this very strange movie. A moving, gentle performance by Mifune is the movie maintaining a surprising human center throughout all of this.
Princess from the Moon would be among Mifune’s last. That’s relative, as he did 9 more films between this, and his death on Christmas Eve 1997. However, for a man who had worked at a breathless pace for several decades, traveling around the world to build a long and deep resume, Princess from the Moon is one of the last times we would see Mifune in generally good health. Mifune more or less retired in 1992, and things went downhill quickly and aggressively from there, although he made a handful of appearances. Furthermore, by the late 1980s, Mifune was no longer at the stature he had enjoyed for so many years prior. He was regarded as a legend, but not as someone who could be relied on to thrill and connect to audiences. That assumption is proven false in Princess from the Moon.