Interviews · Movies

Capturing the Last Samurai: An Interview With Steve Okazaki

The director of the documentary ‘Mifune: The Last Samurai’ on the legendary actor and his legacy.
By  · Published on November 22nd, 2016

Whether you’re already a fan of Toshiro Mifune or a newcomer in need of an introduction, the documentary Mifune: The Last Samurai is well worth seeing. Director Steven Okazaki has a long history of making exceptional docs on Japanese and Japanese-American subjects, having received his first two Oscar nominations for films about US internment camps during World War II. The second of them, Days of Waiting, also won the Academy Award. His third Oscar nomination and his sole Primetime Emmy win came with a short and feature, respectively, about atomic bomb survivors in Hiroshima and Nagasaki.

He has made departures along the way. His fourth Oscar nomination, for instance, was for a film on the Cambodian genocide. And this year, he also released the very different feature documentary Heroin: Cape Cod, USA, which is up for a Cinema Eye Honor. His other films are about drug addiction, rehab, and life with HIV. Mifune: The Last Samurai is really quite a change-up, though, despite involving an historical Japanese subject. It’s a lot lighter in tone, obviously. Still, it wasn’t an easy film to make, and it’s hardly an insignificant one. It’s a doc that needed to happen, and we’re glad it’s inspiring so much Mifune awareness.

On the eve of the doc’s release, we talked to Okazaki about how it came about, what he learned along the way, and what it means for the legacy of Toshiro Mifune.

FSR: This is the kind of documentary where you’re surprised no one had already done it. Why was this finally the time for a Mifune film?

Steven Okazaki: This certainly felt, to me, like the last chance. Normally, when I think of a biographical subject ‐ or a subject in general ‐ I Google it and there’s always something on the subject, or it’s just going into production. When I Googled “Mifune and Kurosawa documentary,” nothing came up. There was some sort of bootleg film that just had stills in it, and there was a French production that had one clip in it. I soon realized it was because the licensing in Japan in general is really difficult. So nothing had been made anywhere. And sadly nothing was made while he was still alive.

This really was the last opportunity where there were still possibly people around who worked with him. We didn’t find anyone who was involved in the first big Kurosawa film, Rashomon, but we found the guy who also played Godzilla in the same year he had a bit part in Seven Samurai [Haruo Nakajima]. I just went through the credits and said, oh, wouldn’t it be great to have this person, and then we would do the research and see that they had died a year ago or were hospitalized and weren’t doing interviews.

There was this sparkle in their eyes when we talked about Mifune.

It was really the last of his colleagues we could get ahold of. One of them [Takeshi Katô] just recently died. I had worries that their memories weren’t sharp. But there was something really special about that era for all of them. They sort of came up together and built this industry, and it really felt like the Golden Age to them. And there was this sparkle in their eyes when we talked about Mifune. I could see it from the first pre-interviews we did. I was worried about a film carried by elderly people, but there was something really touching just interviewing them and seeing their love of Mifune.

Mifune and Kurosawa filming Seven Samurai
And why were you the right person to make this film? Are you a longtime super-fan of Mifune and of those films?

I love cinema. I love European films. I love Japanese films ‐ Ozu, Kurosawa, Mizoguchi. I was just sort of fascinated in the genre of samurai film, and my first idea was to do a film on the history of samurai films, looking at the early silents all the way to the present. I was informed by producers that there’s no way to do that. The Japanese studios would have to work together, you’d have to get clips from various studios, and they almost never work together on the same film, so that turned out to be impossible.

There was no one cooler than Mifune.

At the same time, a producer I was talking to [about that project] mentioned there was this producer in Tokyo, one of the best [Toshiaki Nakazawa] ‐ he produced Departures, which won an Oscar, and one of the great contemporary samurai films, 13 Assassins. He said he’s determined to make a film about Mifune, because he worked in Mifune Productions as a young man and felt he learned the industry from Mifune. And I just jumped on it. I said, “Tell him he should hire me to do it and not consider anybody else.” So we talked a few days later and he said yes.

Mifune is one of my childhood heroes, and to look into his life, to see all those old films seemed like an opportunity that I couldn’t turn down. For me as an Asian-American kid growing up in LA, Mifune stood out as this Asian character with dignity and total cool. There was no one cooler than Mifune. [I wanted] to try to connect with old fans who may be able to talk to young people about how Star Wars wouldn’t exist without Mifune and Kurosawa and how a lot of the stuff you’re seeing now was influenced by them.

Given that you had initially wanted to make a film about samurai films, was it always the idea to focus on just Mifune’s samurai roles?

Well, he made nearly 170 movies, and throughout the production we didn’t just get free use of the clips from the films. We had to license them, and there were a lot of restrictions on how much we could use because of cost and just on the use of the footage and how it was used. It became clear that we had to limit the number of films we drew from. So that, by default, and because everyone thinks of Mifune in terms of the samurai films, we just went with all that.

Everyone thinks of Mifune in terms of the samurai films.

They’re not strictly samurai films, but they’re period films of the samurai era. It was something I could work with, as well. Opening it up to his other films, it would be great to use one of the detective films or thriller films that Kurosawa and Mifune did together. That would have shown a different side to him, and some depth. But we actually couldn’t do that, so we stuck with samurai.

Mifune and Kurosawa filming Yojimbo (Courtesy of Strand Releasing)
Was it at least easy getting interviews with Steven Spielberg and Martin Scorsese, and getting Keanu Reeves to narrate? How could they not want to be involved and talk about Mifune?

It took a while to get to Spielberg and Scorsese, but once we did, they said yes immediately. Those films are a treasured part of their film education. Spielberg and Scorsese really articulated, in a way the Japanese couldn’t, just the huge impact he had and those films had on world cinema. Of course, we did have to wait around for them to become available. We had really short windows of opportunity there where we just had to mobilize quickly and get to New York and Los Angeles. But they were really open to doing it.

Keanu reminded me of Mifune in a way, more humble and not Mr. Big Hollywood Movie Star.

Keanu, in retrospect, I think was sort of a bold choice in a way, because people think of a narrator as a much more commanding voice. But I liked the idea. He reminded me of Mifune in a way, more humble and not Mr. Big Hollywood Movie Star. One of the producers had worked as an interpreter for Keanu and could call him up. And he also knew and felt Keanu could handle the Japanese pronunciations well. Any great actor could do that, but we might not have the time to get the pronunciations right with [another] big name actor, and we hoped Keanu could do it, and he did a great job.

Did you try to get an interview with George Lucas?

We did, of course. When we started the film, I said oh I’m in the Bay Area, so we’ll reach out to Lucas, and we did not get an answer for months and months, and then finally they said no. He would seem really obvious, and he knows the films very well. A friend of mine works at the Lucas ranch and said he has a big poster collection and they had a special exhibit of the Kurosawa posters up there. Obviously the influence on Star Wars and [attempt at] casting Mifune, you would think… But I don’t know the reasons, but they said no.

What was the most surprising thing you learned about Mifune while working on the film?

That Mifune never worked out, and there was very little planning of the stunts. Someone told a story ‐ his friend that’s in the film, [Yoshio] Tsuchiya ‐ that Kurosawa would just tell Mifune, “Ok, get on the horse and then ride the horse as fast as you can through this forest and fire the arrow at this point,” and Mifune just said, “Really? Do you know how hard that is?” But they just did it, and somehow…

Mifune had a concept of the character that Kurosawa liked and trusted.

I did not know how much Kurosawa left the performance to Mifune. That surprised me, because you always think of him as a control freak, someone who is moving the tea cup an inch here or an inch there, and you see pictures of all that. And certainly the other actors and the crew would say how demanding he was to work for. One, he knew Mifune could do it, and just clearly that Mifune had a concept of the character that Kurosawa liked and trusted. That extent of that I did not know.

Mifune in Rashomon
Were you hoping to get someone to elaborate more on why Mifune and Kurosawa parted ways?

I felt like people would want definitive answers, so I tried to get a definitive answer, but clearly there wasn’t one. There was not a moment. There was stress during their last film together. I’m sure there was a kind of competitiveness where people told Mifune, “Your films are great because of Kurosawa,” and vice versa. But 16 films is an incredible collaboration. In the film, Kurosawa’s son [Hisao Kurosawa] and [Teruyo] Nogami, who was there from the beginning, both say they don’t really know. It just worked through, and it clearly was just the time.

It seemed it was not an absolute answer, so we should not provide one.

Kurosawa had a tremendous amount of power in making his films, and they did well at the box office, but he was able to exert himself as a kind of dictatorial director in a way that was really being challenged by the times they were in, where television was coming in and the budgets were getting smaller, and they had to turn out more films. Kurosawa worked on his own schedule. And both were saddled with production companies that had to churn out product. Mifune, sort of in a very Japanese way, took on the responsibility of employing all these people who used to work for Toho, and I think did many films they weren’t keen on after the collaboration was over, just to keep everyone employed.

I think there were lots of economic reasons and just the tension of working together that long and the need to express themselves separately. One of the first things Mifune did after the collaboration was over was direct his own film. It seemed it was not an absolute answer, so we should not provide one.

Is it a coincidence that Mifune just received a star on the Hollywood Walk of Fame right before your film is coming out?

No. The film helped and will hopefully sort of reignite interest in Mifune. Someone was telling me they approached the Walk of Fame and actually tried to do it 20 years ago and were unsuccessful. Maybe people in the office didn’t really know Japanese film and how important Mifune was. But the Mifune family was very involved in this production. Mifune’s son [Shirô Mifune] and his grandson [Rikiya Mifune] were a big part of it. They were talking to the Walk of Fame people, so they saw this as an ideal time to do that connected to the release of the film.

Mifune is certainly the most important Japanese film star in need of a documentary, but now are you interested in doing more films about other important yet lesser-known figures of Japanese cinema?

It’s easier than just embarking on some documentary where you don’t know what’s going to happen and also having the pressure of life and death situations and serious documentary content. Looking at movies is fascinating, fun, and a really rich subject. I would love to try to see what’s possible. It is very difficult in Japan when you look in the past. But I’m interested in trying to do some more.

I think also American audiences have forgotten their icons and the great directors. People know Citizen Kane, but people have forgotten John Ford and Howard Hawks. Even the actors are people that 20- to 30-year-olds don’t know ‐ James Stewart and Cary Grant. That era is particularly fun. Making movies about movies, I’m into it now.

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Christopher Campbell began writing film criticism and covering film festivals for a zine called Read, back when a zine could actually get you Sundance press credentials. He's now a Senior Editor at FSR and the founding editor of our sister site Nonfics. He also regularly contributes to Fandango and Rotten Tomatoes and is the President of the Critics Choice Association's Documentary Branch.