Last week, fans around the world celebrated what would have been the 100th birthday of one of the greatest of movie stars, the Japanese actor Toshiro Mifune.
He had hundreds of credits, though he’s best known for his work with legendary director Akira Kurosawa. Mifune had nearly unparalleled range—he could be suave and sophisticated, cold and calculating, wild-eyed and chaotic. To watch him play any part, you’d think he was born for that role alone, and yet he helped to define the samurai genre, anchored hard-boiled noirs, and starred in adaptations of Dostoevsky and Gorky.
His mastery even extended to comedy, which we see in Kurosawa’s dark-but-delightful 1961 movie Yojimbo, in which Mifune plays a lone samurai with a made-up name who arrives in a town caught between two rival gangs, and he plays each side against the other, to his own benefit. That should sound familiar—it has many remakes, most obviously with Clint Eastwood in A Fistful of Dollars. But the cycle of influence hardly begins there.
Seven years earlier, Kurosawa and Mifune made Seven Samurai, changing the face of epic filmmaking. That movie, was, itself, influenced by American westerns, like those made by John Ford. In turn, American movies then adopted many of the tropes created by Seven Samurai, including the straight remake, The Magnificent Seven. And this all folded back on itself when Kurosawa embraced this new style of American western, which resulted in Yojimbo.
Multiple streaming services such as the Criterion Channel and Turner Classic Movies are celebrating Toshiro Mifune by offering a host of his films, including Yojimbo and Seven Samurai, and they’re also available for rental through video-on-demand.