“Without Toshirō Mifune, the films of Akira Kurosawa could never have come into being,” wrote Kurosawa’s longtime script supervisor and principal assistant Teruyo Nogami in her memoirs.1 The collaboration between Kurosawa and Mifune was one of the most prolific in film history. Together they worked on 16 films, including the landmark film Shichinin no Samurai (Seven Samurai, 1954). With Yōjinbō (Yojimbo, 1961), they renewed the sword fighting genre (chambara) and created a new kind of antihero which was quickly copied in and outside Japan; Sergio Leone’s Per un pugno di dollari (A Fistful of Dollars, 1964) being one of the most famous examples.

Toshirō Mifune

Seven Samurai

Mifune’s name is undoubtedly closely connected with the jidai geki (period film) and its sub-category, the chambara, as the title of the recent documentary Mifune: The Last Samurai (Steven Okazaki, 2015) recalls. However, Mifune was a far more versatile actor than his star image suggests. He rose to fame at a time when Japanese society was facing accelerated social changes following the Japanese defeat after World War II. His roles in Yoidore tenshi (Drunken Angel, Akira Kurosawa, 1948), Konyaku yubiwa (Wedding Ring, Keisuke Kinoshita, 1950), Samurai (Miyamoto Musashi, Hiroshi Inagaki, 1954) and Jōi-uchi: Hairyō tsuma shimatsu (Samurai Rebellion, Masaki Kobayashi, 1967) represent different types of male behaviour and reveal changes and tendencies in the representation of masculinity in the years immediately after the war and in the following decades. Although acting cannot easily be disconnected from the multifaceted structure of mise-en-scène and editing devices,2 the actor’s presence and “performance constitutes a specific text in itself.”3 Mifune’s contributions to cinema underscore how much outstanding performances not only sustain mise-en-scène effects but are also central to the meaning of a film.

It is a well-known story that Mifune became an actor only accidentally. The son of Japanese expatriates in Manchuria, he was drafted into the Imperial Japanese Army in 1939, tried to escape postwar poverty and, unable to find a work as a photographer or cameraman, participated in Tōhō’s “New Face” contest. The man who did not want to become an actor made 126 films and 17 television films between his debut in Ginrei no hate (Snow Trail, Senkichi Taniguchi) in 1947 and 1995, when he appeared on screen for the last time in Fukai kawa (Deep River, Kei Kumai). His frantic performance in Drunken Angel propelled him almost immediately to stardom. Following the rules of a system in which actors were contracted by studios, Mifune worked much harder than his Hollywood counterparts. Thus, in the early 50s he appeared in 18 feature films in less than three years.4 Throughout his long career, he switched between leading and supporting roles, some very small as in Saikaku ichidai onna (The Life of Oharu, Kenji Mizoguchi, 1952) or Shiosai (The Sound of Waves, Senkichi Taniguchi, 1954), the adaptation of Yukio Mishima’s novel published that same year. In the early 60s, he founded his own production company, Mifune Productions, which produced, among other films, Samurai Rebellion and Fūrin kazan (Samurai Banner, Hiroshi Inagaki, 1968) and, in 1963, the only film directed by Mifune himself: Gojuman-nin no isan (The Legacy of the 500,000).5 After the split with Kurosawa in 1965 and during a period in which Japan’s film industry was in decline, Mifune’s fame faded. He became sekai no Mifune (Mifune of the world), seeking work opportunities in the West, where, as the internationally most famous Japanese actor, he was cast in productions such as Grand Prix (John Frankenheimer, 1966), Hell in the Pacific (John Boorman, 1968), Red Sun (Terence Young, 1971) and the American mini-series Shogun (Jerry London. 1980).

Toshirō Mifune

Snow Trail

A Hero for Japan: Samurai and Tragic Heroes

At Dairen High School,6 Mifune excelled at national sports such as karate, kendo and kyūdō (archery). Later he perfected the sword fighting skills required for his roles, and even took part in yabusame competitions (mounted archery on a galloping horse). His muscular body, as displayed in Rashōmon (Rashomon, Akira Kurosawa, 1950) or Seven Samurai, made Mifune the obvious choice for characters which are cinematic variations on the tateyaku, the idealisation of strong manhood known from traditional theatre, namely Kabuki.7 His screen persona was undoubtedly built on the strong virile hero figure which Mifune epitomised from an early stage of his career. In Inagaki’s Samurai Trilogy (1954-1956) he is cast as Musashi Myamoto, an archetypal hero in Japanese culture. The untamed peasant Tazeko is transformed into a strong-willed, brave and ascetic fighter, embodying both bun (cultural attainment) and bu (martial valour). Mifune’s Musashi is an update of this well-known figure that could provide viewers with a model for heroic identification at a time when, after war and defeat, the Japanese were coming to terms with shame and guilt and expressing anxieties about the future. Though less egocentric and cold-blooded than the Musashi he played in a small supporting role in Kanketsu Sasaki Kōjirō: Ganryū-jima kettō (Kojiro Sasaki, Hiroshi Inagaki, 1950), it is Musashi’s ultimately selfish motives defining his quest for perfection that are foregrounded in Samurai Trilogy. The clear penchant for bu expressed by Mifune’s Musashi is reminiscent of the approach to the legendary hero in Kenji Mizoguchi’s Miyamoto Musashi, produced during the war in 1944. In contrast to the noble samurai of earlier years, Mizoguchi’s Musashi “never moves to action for utilitarian purpose or out of loyalty. He only acts through his keen, but egoist desire of self-fulfillment.”8 American censors disapproved of the depiction of feudal topics, but the jidai geki blossomed after 1952, the year in which occupation ended. The resurrection of an idealised past embodied by the samurai is expressed throughout Mifune’s career in films such as Aru kengo no shōgai (Samurai Saga, Hiroshi Inagaki, 1959) or Dai tozoku (The Great Bandit, Senkichi Taniguchi, 1963), in which he played outstanding swordsmen and valiant fighters.

Deeply rooted in the tragic hero narrative, Mifune’s heroes lack the general positivism of their Hollywood counterparts such as John Wayne, James Stewart or Gary Cooper. As Isolde Standish demonstrates, the tragic hero narrative, a well-known cultural pattern, provided Japanese cinema with a figurative context by means of which war and defeat and subsequent feelings of powerlessness and guilt could be explained.9 Characters such as Heihachirō Komani in Samurai Saga or Matsugoro in Muhōmatsu no isshō (The Rickshaw Man, Hiroshi Inagaki, 1958) express the “purity of spirit” (makoto), an elemental virtue of the tragic hero, in its purest form. They make up “in sincerity and purity of purpose what they dismally lack in crowning success.”10

It is his role as rickshaw driver in Inagaki’s remake of his own film (The Rickshaw Man, 1943) which is one of the most telling examples of the persistence of “a dominant form of idealised masculinity which has been encoded within a discourse of untamed nature and a naïve innocence”.11 The film is set in the early 20th century, when rickshaw men occupied the lowest position in society. Matsugoro is devoted to the young son of a deceased captain and to the boy’s mother, whom he secretly loves. Accepting that she is above his station, he suppresses his sexual impulse and devotes his life to her and her son’s wellbeing. Matsugoro embodies the ideal vision of an individual who subordinates his personal desires to collective norms and what is good for society. The protagonists of The Rickshaw Man, Samurai Saga and Fūrin Kazan (Samurai Banners, Hiroshi Inagaki, 1969) exemplify the hagakure tradition, inspired by an 18th century treatise on samurai ethics, which teaches that “True love attains its highest and noblest form when one carries its secret into the grave’.”12

In the 60s Mifune was typecast in modern heroic roles, such as a senior naval officer in action-oriented films about the war like Taiheyō no tsubara (Attack Squadron!, Shūe Matsubayashi, 1963) or Rengō kantei shirei chōkan: Yamamoto Isoroku (Admiral Yamamoto, Seiji Maruyama, 1968). Given his star image and fame, it is not surprising that he was cast in the latter film as one of the most admired military heroes in Japan, Admiral Yamamoto.13 In numerous jidai geki, adventure and crime films, Mifune confirmed a rather stereotypical image of laconic Japanese masculinity as conveyed in popular genre films as well as in advertisements such as “Otoko wa damatte Sapporo Biiru” (“If you are a man, drink Sapporo Beer without a word”).14

However, not all the war films with Mifune reproduce mere clichés. In Nihon no ichiban nagai hi (Japan’s Longest Day, Kihachi Okamoto, 1967), General Korechika Anami, still war minister on that early morning of 15 August 1945, opens his belly with a sword. His agony is revealed by his face, distorted in pain, and his barely suppressed moans. By committing seppuku (ritual suicide), Anami fulfils the notion of nobility in failure. The editing links the dying general with the rising sun, a highly emblematic image in Japanese culture. His sacrifice guarantees the future of Japan and by accepting guilt and shame, he purifies the whole nation. This performance by the charismatic Mifune together with his fame offer a huge potential for hero identification. At the same time, Mifune gives Anami’s call to abandon the army in order to save the country even more credibility.

Toshirō Mifune

Japan’s Longest Day

Anami and Matsugoro perpetuate rather traditional visions of masculinity which are, however, updated and individualised by Mifune’s nuanced performance. Despite many rather conventional roles as righteous and self-sacrificing characters, at his best he presented images of a multifaceted, ambivalent masculinity far from monolithic male ideals. These performances include his role in Kurosawa’s jidai geki. Kurosawa, the son of a samurai, both praised and criticised the values of this caste of military nobility by telling stories of outsiders or rebels. Their heroic gesture is not that of the harbinger of hope “but that of hard effort from earlier chambara films in that this effort came to be individual effort.”15 Powerful mise-en-scène and powerful performances by Mifune create a new ideal of Japanese manhood which questioned social divisions. The heroes played by Mifune are masterless samurai (Yojimbo, Tsubaki Sanjūrō/Sanjuro, Akira Kurosawa, 1962) or would-be samurai (Seven Samurai). The amoral opportunist that Mifune plays in Yojimbo challenges the codes of bushidō (the way of the samurai) and the very ideal of the tateyaku through self-knowledge, which creates an ironic distance. The nihilist samurai had already been played by Tsumasaburo Bandō and Denjiro Ōkōchi in the 20s and 30s. Mifune’s presence and performance – his nonchalant moves, laconism and amused detachment – renew this figure in his own original way. In Masaki Kobayashi’s Samurai Rebellion, Mifune is cast in the role of a man torn between loyalty towards his lord and personal feelings towards his loved ones. Mifune’s perfectly paced performance reveals the troubled state of mind of the character he plays through sparse gestures and facial expressions. They are enough to show that he is portraying a complete character who develops from obedient servant to an individual who stands against the system.

Angry Young Men and Suffering Males

In the early years of his career, Mifune played gangsters – angry young men who represent a new kind of masculinity by expressing individual and collective feelings of insecurity and anxiety about the present and the future. The young robber in Snow Trail is depicted as an aggressive and rebellious youth. Mifune’s Matsunaga in Drunken Angel reveals the character’s vulnerability and feeling of loss behind the mask of arrogance in a subtler way. This role contrasts with that of the samurai he later became famous for. Mifune plays the hoodlum as an immature, confused youth driven by self-punishment and self-destruction, a mere pretender who hides his small shoulders under imposing shoulder pads, as Dr Sanada puts it in the film. Matsunaga is one of the sacrificed generation of young people trying to survive in postwar Japan. Undergoing the traumatic experience of living in a society in ruins, he is required to adapt to a new system of values imposed by a foreign power. In Nora inu (Stray Dog, 1949), the young, guilt-driven police officer Murakami fights his moral struggle in a society which regards homecoming soldiers like him or the man who has stolen his pistol as stray dogs. The film establishes a clear connection between compromised society and the failure of masculinity itself.

Toshirō Mifune

Drunken Angel

In facing his evil doppelgänger – the thief who has killed with his pistol – Murakami recognises that evil is part of his own being. The confrontation with evil is depicted as an inner journey which his elderly superiors refuse to undertake. In Shizukanaru kettō (The Quiet Duel, 1949), Mifune is cast as a doctor who had contracted syphilis from a patient during an operation in one of the Southeast Asian countries occupied by the Japanese during World War II. As in Drunken Angel, where Matsunaga suffers from tuberculosis, illness becomes the metaphor for an eroded masculinity and social unease.16 The illness of these two characters and also Murakami’s obsessive quest have pathological traits and reveal the ambiguous status of a generation of men who have been defeated and seek to affirm themselves as individuals in an utterly conformist society.

Toshirō Mifune

The Quiet Duel

The tragic hero figure resonates through the portrayals of suffering males in Drunken Angel and The Quiet Duel. Matsunaga’s sacrifice goes unrecognised by Dr Sanada, who tried to cure him. However, both Matsunaga and the young doctor in The Quiet Duel who renounces his carnal desires and devotes himself to the patients in his poor neighbourhood are depicted as individuals who decide for themselves, even if society is not always aware of their choices. They are, like Dr Niide in Akahige (Red Beard, Akira Kurosawa, 1965), characters in search of a meaning in life which they define by themselves, disregarding social conformity.17

In two other films directed by Kurosawa – Warui yatsu hodo yoku nemuru (The Bad Sleep Well, 1960) and Tengoku to jigoku (High and Low, 1963) – Mifune plays complex roles of men struggling with their conscience. Facing moral decay and conformism, their decisions do not transform them into Hollywood-like triumphant heroes. Nishi (The Bad Sleep Well) leads a desperate battle against the bosses of the keiretsu,18 in whose dealings members of the government are involved. He tries to break the chain of crime and, having himself turned to terror and oppression, finds integrity in love. However, it is love which eventually destroys him. Gondo in High and Low is another ambiguous figure, neither good nor bad. He is eager to ruin his colleagues in order to gain control over the National Shoes enterprise. Gondo’s young son plays cowboys and Indians with his driver’s son, and Gondo is an ambitious man who gives the following recommendation to his son: “In life, it’s winning or losing. Go ahead and win.” In the last sequence, Gondo confronts the assassin Takeuchi. Now condemned to death, Takeuchi points to the gap which separates him from the rich and successful Gondo. Not unlike Murakami, Gondo, recognising himself in the killer, has made other choices than his evil doppelgänger by taking responsible action. Face to face with Takeuchi, Gondo’s awareness of this responsibility includes even responsibility towards the killer who has tried to ruin him. “Why should we hate each other?” he asks.

A Presence Which Conveys Meaning

One can easily draw parallels between Mifune and the fictitious character he plays in High and Low. Both Mifune and Gondo are men who have experienced poverty and both have risen dramatically in society by working hard. Throughout his career Mifune not only portrayed noble samurai but also played outcasts – as in Seven Samurai, Samurai (Samurai Assassin, Kihachi Okamoto, 1965) and many other films – or other roguish underdogs as in Bakurō ichidai (Life of a Horse Trader, Keigo Kimura, 1951), The Rickshaw Man and Kunisada Chūji (Chuji, the Gambler, Senkichi Taniguchi, 1960). Although Mifune was cast in his first films as a gangster, Kurosawa was nevertheless always eager to broaden his acting horizons and offered him the role of a doctor in The Quiet Duel and in their last collaboration, Red Beard. Ikimono no kiroku (Record for a Living Being, Akira Kurosawa, 1955), presented him with a particular challenge: the 35-year-old actor played a man twice his age. Mifune’s attractive face is hidden by the mask behind which he hides, and he plays once again a man whose masculinity is threatened, as is the very concept of fatherhood rooted in pre-war society.

“My face is not made for romance,” says the protagonist of Samurai Saga, which is based on Edmond de Rostand’s 1897 play Cyrano de Bergerac. This is perhaps true for Mifune, whose working-class looks lack the delicate features preferred for the romantic hero. However, in the early 50s he was sometimes cast as the young lover. In Shūbun (Scandal, Akira Kurosawa, 1950) he plays the energetic, positive figure of a painter who defends his private life and that of the woman he falls in love with against the tabloid press. In Wedding Ring and Tsuma mo kokoro (A Wife’s Heart, Mikio Naruse, 1956) he reveals his romantic side, playing happy-go-lucky heartthrobs. The vitality and carefree nature of young Dr Ema (Wedding Ring), in love with the wife of one of his patients, contrasts with the weakness of the tormented husband suffering from tuberculosis. Ema is depicted as a competent doctor and responsible human being who suffers because of his forbidden feelings. He will eventually cure his patient and save the marriage, his vitality seeming contagious. As a result, he appears immature, and he very quickly finds a new love interest to console himself with. In one scene, Mifune, in a swimsuit, displays his muscular body. The heroine (and with her the viewer) expects a heroic plunge into the sea. Instead, Ema jumps rather like a child, with his legs tucked up. This is a new male – one who has suffered in the war and has known poverty but who enjoys life and wants his patient to escape from his depression.

Toshirō Mifune

Wedding Ring

Mifune’s mere presence conveyed meaning. To this he added charisma and subtlety, allowing him to break the rigidity of stereotypical masculinity. For Seven Samurai he did his own research to explore the depths of this physically and psychologically demanding role in which the roguish peasant and would-be samurai is transformed into a loyal member of the group he inspires with his bravery. Kiuchiyo is foolish and insolent but also courageous and sensitive. His menacing glances and provoking poses are typical of an aggressive masculinity. His grotesque jumps and unrestrained shouting and screaming make him appear as a true force of nature closely connected to the earth from which he seems to emerge. However, the actor’s body and face in constant action lay bare the tragedy of the outcast. Kiuchiyo never appears ridiculous, and the miserable end of this man so full of life, dying face down in the mud, is particularly touching.

Kiuchiyo is the one who shakes with laughter, (as is the bandit Tajomura in Rashomon). It is through this laughter that these two characters reveal their humanity and the very engagement with of being alive. Both face death and tragedy and both have animal qualities, moving smoothly, like panthers in the forest, their bodies at one with nature. Tajomura, tied up before the judges, behaves like a caged animal, shouting and swinging back and forth, his body shiny with sweat. 19 Japanese cinema and art do not necessarily rely on mimesis and the illusion of reality. Not unlike the types of masculinity he portrayed, Mifune’s acting is multilayered, informed by a great variety of sources, mirrors, currents in Japanese culture and cinema, and is marked by the complex interaction of both native and foreign traditions. Mifune’s gestures, mimicking pain in an excessive manner in Seven Samurai or The Rickshaw Man, are more reminiscent of silent movies as part of a global culture than of kyōgen.20

Toshirō Mifune


In Kumonosu-jō (Throne of Blood, Akira Kurosawa, 1957), inspired by Shakespeare’s The Tragedy of Macbeth, Mifune’s make-up is based on the Noh mask of a noble warrior (heida). His performance is hieratic and the pace highly precise. Switching between energy and self-control, Mifune created other equally imposing figures such as Rokurota Makabe (Kakushi-toride no san-akunin/The Hidden Fortress, Akira Kurosawa, 1957), Korechika Anami and lsami Kondo in Shinsengumi (Tadashi Sawashima, 1969). He played samurai and military men – upright and almost majestic, with a grim, emotionless face and a stoic demeanour imbuing them with gravity. For other characters he used a more flamboyant style. This is the case in Samurai Saga, in which Heihachiro Komaki is a superlative and selfless fighter as well as a gifted poet and sensitive man, but physically deformed by his big, flat nose. Following Rostand’s play, Mifune plays this noble samurai, who is the perfect embodiment of the tragic hero but without the tragic hero’s good looks, in a comic manner, making funny movements with his (false) nose, grimacing and sniffing. Quite unlike the stoic samurai, Mifune plays peasant characters such as Gōemon (Abare Gōemon/Rise against the Sword, Hiroshi Inagaki, 1966) and Gonzo (Akage/Red Lion, Kihachi Okamoto, 1969) with joyful eccentricity. This expressive acting is in keeping with the character he plays in Red Lion. His clumsiness, underlined by meaningful gestures, together with his stuttering, reveal Gonzo as the none-too-bright peasant who is a pretender and reminiscent of Mifune’s role as the would-be samurai Kikuchiyo in Seven Samurai. And as in Kurosawa’s film, Mifune makes use of subtle facial expressions to reveal the tragic side of this buffoon who will turn hero.

Performing Individuality

The spectrum of the roles Mifune played developed quickly from angry young men in contemporary settings to samurai roles, extending the complexity of his acting style. In numerous period films Mifune “assimilated the facial expression and bearings of the tateyaku”.21 However, his joyful and exuberant acting is, despite all its theatrical impetus, not an imitation of Kabuki or forms of rural acting.

Mifune’s frequent use of mannerisms provides non-verbal clues to the characters he plays.22 This culminates in Yojimbo with its variety of original effects.23 Mifune explained one of the recurrent attitudes of the yojimbo as follows: “Shrugging and scratching myself were my own ideas,” Mifune said. “I used these mannerisms to express the unemployed samurai, penniless, wearing a dirty (kimono). Sometimes this kind of man felt lonely, and these mannerisms characterise the loneliness.”24

Body and hands constantly in motion, Mifune breaks with rigidity, and this is another means to attract the viewer’s gaze and gain his full attention. In Record of a Living Being it is through a fan the old man waves on several occasions. In The Quiet Duel, the young doctor toys with a musical cigarette case when he nervously confesses the truth about his disease to his father. In Donzoko (The Lower Depths, Akira Kurosawa, 1957) it is scratching again and stretching, pulling his arms under his kimono to escape the cold. Mifune’s performance in Record of a Living Being is a flawless tour de force of self-control. This performance – the stare of a myopic, the rigid body of a man stricken with old age – transforms the external aspects (make-up and accessories such as glasses and a wooden walking stick) into internal ones, revealing a man possessed by fear and mistrust, rage and stubbornness. Intensity and energy are appropriate means to reflect the feelings of guilt and despair of a sacrificed young generation that has experienced war and defeat. Matsunaga’s defiant body, his outbursts and menacing looks as well as his angst-ridden face lay bare his emotions. Murakami’s inner torments respond to the heat outside. His body and face are those of a man permanently in action – alert, tense and overwhelmed with remorse. When he is at last tracking down his prey, his unsteady gaze, close to madness, reveals his inner turmoil. In Hakuchi (The Idiot, Akira Kurosawa, 1950), repeated close-ups of the actor’s face reveal the quick changes of mood from amused wisdom to a menacing pose, from boyish grin to the stupor of madness. Musashi’s journey reveals him as a man torn between contradictory feelings. In Zoku Miyamoto Musashi: Ichijōji no kettō (Duel at Ichijoji Temple, Hiroshi Inagaki, 1955), the second film in the trilogy, the protagonist’s confusion and vulnerability are magnificently expressed by Mifune, who succeeds perfectly in expressing the carnal desire and the puzzlement of a young and sexually inexperienced man confronted with unknown feelings.

Toshirō Mifune

I Live in Fear

Mifune demonstrates his aptitude for restraint and naturalness in A Wife’s Heart and Wedding Ring, in which he plays contemporary figures who seem simply to be and not to act. Life of a Horse Trader and The Rickshaw Man exemplify the way in which he used different acting methods at different moments in the same film. His rough, excessive style characterises the protagonists as young men, whereas a more naturalistic approach is used to depict the tragic fate of the older men. Mifune speaks in a loud voice and uses exaggerated gestures when Matsugoro talks to his friends in his poor neighbourhood or to clients for whom he has contempt. However, he deals with the young captain in a very different and humble manner, showing his respect for the man and accepting the social gap which separates them. His sensitive behaviour towards the captain’s widow and his fatherly feelings for her young son contrast greatly with his reputation as a wild man. During the meeting with the official, he reveals his embarrassment by picking his nose and moving his hands nervously. At the end of the sequence, Matsugoro’s changing facial expression and obedient bow mirror his desire for reconciliation.

Toshirō Mifune

The Rickshaw Man

Donald Richie has pointed out the great range of emotions on display in The Lower Depths.25 Mifune is both bombastic and romantic, energetic and powerless, excessive and sublime. His Sutekichi is both a loudmouth and a pretender, manly and immature yet tender and vulnerable. A great variety of expressions pass rapidly over his face, and the anger about the singing of the old monk gives way to mockery and a boyish grin. This independent yakuza is also a desperate young lover whose misery is written all over his face when he is betrayed by the woman he loves. His arrogance is suddenly replaced by a superstitious fear when faced by the corpse in the tenement.

Toshirō Mifune

The Lower Depths

Mifune’s performances in jidai geki such as Red Beard or Samurai Rebellion are very unlike the exuberance in other films of the genre. His acting is even more restrained in The Bad Sleep Well, which deals with loss of identity. He disappears behind the mask of a man with no identity, and a simple pair of glasses is enough to change his outward experience. Mifune’s performance contributes to this representation of an ordinary man with whom many viewers could identify. He plays Nishi as the perfect obedient employee who pretends not to watch while nevertheless observing his prey, the corrupt Shirai, very closely. In High and Low, Gondo’s moral dilemma is expressed by means of just a few facial and bodily expressions. Despite the lack of close-ups, Mifune’s highly nuanced performance reveals the character’s inner torments, the frustration, fear and anger of a man who has lost control of himself and his life. When he listens to his son screaming, his performance reveals contrasting emotions. His body is stiff, his fists are clenched, his face emotionless, but his eyes are glowing. On a different occasion, Gondo declares that he is still not willing to pay the ransom. His voice sounds firm, but his tense body language reveals his doubts and conflicting feelings.

Toshirō Mifune

The Bad Sleep Well

Naturalism and theatrical pose, eccentricity and subtlety – in Mifune’s performances these apparently contradictory elements coexist with each other in dynamic tension, creating colourful and complex characters. In his roles Mifune revealed an eroded masculinity in the aftermath of the war and types of male behaviour which provide evidence of social changes in Japan and, in later years, of the persistence of more traditional role models. It was by means of his intense and highly original acting that Mifune brought the very idea of individuality to the screen and beyond it.

Toshirō Mifune



  1. Teruyo Nogami, Waiting on the Weather: Making Movies with Akira Kurosawa, (Berkeley, Ca.: Stone Bridge Press, 2001) p. 228.
  2. Gianluca Sergi, “Actor and the Sound-Gang” in Screen Acting, eds. Alan Lovell and Peter Krämer (London/New York: Routledge, 1999) p. 126-137.
  3. Maria Viera, “Playing with Performance: Directorial and Performance Style in John Cassavetes’s Opening Night” in More than a Method: Trends and Traditions in Contemporary Film Performance, Cynthia Baron, Diane Carson and Frank P. Tomasulo, eds. (Detroit: Wayne State University, 2004) p. 169.
  4. Stuart Galbraith IV. The Emperor and the Wolf: The Lives and Films of Akira Kurosawa and Toshiro Mifune, (New York/London: Faber & Faber, 2002) p. 149
  5. Mifune had also founded an acting school: Mifune geijutsu gakuin.
  6. The Chinese Dalian is Dairen in Japanese and the city was part of Japan from 1905 to 1945
  7. Tadao Satō, Currents in Japanese Cinema, (New York: Kodansha International, 1987) p. 45-52.
  8. Tadao Satō, Currents in Japanese Cinema, (New York: Kodansha International, 1987) p. 44.
  9. Isolde Standish, Myth and Masculinity in the Japanese Cinema: Towards a Political Reading of the Tragic Hero, (New York: Routledge, 2015).
  10. Ivan I. Morris, The Nobility of Failure: Tragic Heroes in the History of Japan, (London: Intercom, 2014).
  11. Isolde Standish, Myth and Masculinity in the Japanese Cinema: Towards a Political Reading of the Tragic Hero, (New York: Routledge, 2015) p. 160.
  12. Ian Buruma, A Japanese Mirror: Heroes and Villains in Japanese Culture, (London: Phoenix, 1984) p. 128.
  13. Mifune played Yamamoto in two other films: Gekido no shonashi “Gunbatsu” (Hiromichi Horikawa, 1970) and the American production Midway (Jack Smight, 1975).
  14. Philip A. Seaton, Japan’s Contested War Memories: The “Memory Rifts” in Historical Consciousness of World War II, (London/New York: Routledge, 2007) p. 172.
  15. Michitarō Tada. “The Destiny of Samurai Films”, in Cinema and Cultural Identity: Reflections on Film from Japan, India and China, Wimal Dissanayake, ed. (Lanham, MD: University Press of America, 1988) p. 39.
  16. Tadao Satō, Currents in Japanese Cinema, (New York: Kodansha International, 1987) p. 121.
  17. Tadao Satō, Currents in Japanese Cinema (New York: Kodansha International, 1987) p. 123.
  18. The informal business groups controlling the Japanese economy in the second half of the 20th century.
  19. André Bazin, Bazin on Global Cinema, 1948-1958, Bert Cardullo, ed. (Austin, University of Texas Press, 2014) p. 157.
  20. A form of comic theatre, performed as intermissions in Noh plays.
  21. Tadao Satō, Currents in Japanese Cinema, (New York: Kodansha International, 1987) p. 19.
  22. Donald Richie described some of them in The Films of Akira Kurosawa, (Berkeley: University of California Press, 1996) p. 155.
  23. Donald Richie, The Films of Akira Kurosawa, (Berkeley: University of California Press, 1996), p. 155.
  24. Stuart Galbraith IV., The Emperor and the Wolf: The Lives and Films of Akira Kurosawa and Toshiro Mifune, (New York/London: Faber & Faber, 2002) p. 304.
  25. Donald Richie, The Films of Akira Kurosawa, (University of California Press, 1996) p. 130-131.

About The Author

Andrea Grunert is an independent scholar (Ph.D University of Paris X with a dissertation on the films of Clint Eastwood and the American Frontier) and freelance writer and lecturer in film and cultural studies. She has widely published in France and Germany. She is the editor of three books published by the Charles Corlet in France: Le corps filmé (2006), L’écran des frontières (2010) and <em<De la pauvreté (2013).

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