The opportunity of seeing MIFUNE: THE LAST SAMURAI and then getting to interview Academy Award winning director Steven Okazaki was something I had to jump on. Mifune is an action actor legend who revolutionized film genres along with Kurosawa. Before the film gets to Mifune’s life and impact it first describes the art of chanbara, a Japanese sword fighting martial art, and its influence on the Japanese film industry. Following the films fair blend of praise and humanity, I got to sit down with Steven Okazaki and explore more of its elements and social implications. Be sure to check the New York City listings for the teatrical release on Friday, November 25th or check out the website to see how you can see it.

ComicsVerse: Your past work has been heavy exposes on Japanese-American wartime relations and drug abuse, so what was the thought process taking on this type of project?

Steven Okazaki: Well, I guess just initially I was thinking instead of being out in the field and doing cinéma vérité I was thinking ‘Hey, I could just watch a bunch of old movies and talk to some actors.’ It just seemed like a great break from what I usually do. But I love the films as a kid. I grew up on them and Toshiro Mifune was like a childhood hero for me.

CV: Did you have rework your thinking doing this biopic?

SO: Rework my thinking from approaching other films?

CV: Yeah.

SO: Well, no, I think you just try not to come with preconceived notions of how it ought to be and just see what you have, see what the compelling elements are, and try to be true to the tone of the people that are in your film, whether it’s heroin addicts (BLACK TAR HEROIN: THE DARK END OF THE STREET) or Hiroshima survivors (WHITE LIGHT/BLACK RAIN) or anybody.  I vote for the Academy for best documentaries and they give you like a 100 to 150 films. The one thing I really react badly too is when the film starts and you know immediately what the conflict is and how the story is going to play out. You know there’s an Israeli child and a Palestinian child and you know where the film is leading and I just think why watch the film if the filmmaker…if  the filmmaker is not discovering they’re doing propaganda. Maybe entertaining propaganda or not, but for me, film is a process of discoveries, so you try to find the subject as you’re researching it, find it while you’re filming it, and find it while you’re editing it. And in that way, it’s no different. I mean I do try to, as much as possible, sort of give myself a creative challenge with a style of film and try not to repeat. On one hand, if you saw my films together you would seem like they were from the same filmmaker, but it’s not because they all look the same or the stories evolve the same way, but i think it comes from a mindset of letting the characters speak for themselves and letting the story define itself.

CV: You were able to get legends of the film industry (Martin Scorsese, Steven Spielberg) how did that work out with them and get them for this project?

SO: I think it was really important to just state, as we do in the film, what a big influence Kurosawa and Mifune were and are on what we see. I mean they had a big impact on film-making in the 60’s and they continue to. What would American cinema be without STAR WARS, which was directly taken from a film called HIDDEN FORTRESS. THE MAGNIFICENT SEVEN was taken from SEVEN SAMURAI. Clint Eastwood’s career was launched from a complete steal from YOJIMBO. So, I think it was really important to have American voices in the film and talking about Mifune’s influence. Spielberg and Scorsese were totally enthusiastic. They said yes immediately. They were lifelong fans and openly influenced by Kurosawa and Mifune and I think had a real appreciation of Mifune as an actor and what he brings. They know how special it is when you have the kind of charismatic powerful actor and how that frees the director up when the actor just comes on screen and is so magnetic, you know, what you can do with that.

CV: Yeah and they gave such rich and profound answers, which I wouldn’t say is shocking, because they’re geniuses in the field, but just to see that admiration for an actor most American audiences wouldn’t recognize is pretty astonishing. You also got Keanu Reeves to narrate the film, who has Asian ancestry and has done similar projects along these lines so…

SO: Americans, younger people, many haven’t seen these films, but you know, I think just this moment in time where people are watching everything streamed on Netflix, or whatever, people are not…In some ways, people are watching a lot of stuff, but at the same time their viewing is getting more bracketed and it’s less open. Young people don’t know the films of John Wayne or John Ford or Jimmy Stewart, great directors like Preston Sturges. They might know CITIZEN KANE from watching in film school, but it’s such great stuff. Yeah, they’re doing epics without special effects, and that’s what we called art.

CV: Did you have any expectations or trepidation in diving into Mifune like this and what was the most surprising aspect that you learned about him?

SO: I was considered. People who grew up on Mifune or saw these films in college, they usually are very passionate about the films, so when you do a film about an iconic figure…Mifune was popular in Europe and South America, the United States and in Asia people have strong feelings so you want to try to give them an enriching experience watching the film. I felt that weight of responsibility and that challenge. He was a fairly straight forward human being. He was very private. It’s not a muckraking tabloid film although I think we give an honest appraisal of his life. The ups and downs personally. There was nothing that surprising to me. He was who he appeared to be. I was surprised sometimes at just how dedicated he was. Many of the other actors that I talked with or read about with sword fighting scenes he was really into it so sometimes his opponents would be clearly afraid. Mifune takes it seriously, so in the films sometimes you see him coming at a group of guys and a couple of guys automatically run away, I don’t think that was all scripted.

Koji Tsuruta and Mifune in SAMURAI TRILOGY
Koji Tsuruta and Mifune in SAMURAI TRILOGY

CV: Is there any actor from American cinema that reminds you most of him? I know he’s a completely unique person, but maybe even a mash-up of some people.

SO: You know it’s hard to imagine someone…there’s a lot of actors that have that power on screen where whatever the movie is you want to see them. I think bits of Paul Newman. More contemporary, it’s not the same kind of dynamism, but I think Tom Hanks is immediately likable and you sort of care about him. You feel you get some of Tom Hanks in his character and you care about the story because of him. I don’t know beyond that.

CV: Maybe add Clint Eastwood a bit with the Spaghetti Westerns persona?

SO: Definitely Clint Eastwood. Yeah. A writer I know who was going to interview Clint Eastwood two weeks ago mentioned the film and Eastwood said “Yeah I heard about it. Can I see it? I might not of had a career if it wasn’t for Mifune.” And yeah I love Clint Eastwood’s stuff and there’s a very Mifune-esque feeling in the westerns with him. Even in the film where he plays the drunken cowboy who gets revenge…UNFORGIVEN, even that has a little Mifune in it. That likable character that could just explode at any time.

CV: This is discussed in the film, but it’s still pretty vague, in your opinion what attributed to the Mifune-Kurosawa fallout?

SO: It’s vague because I don’t think there was one reason, there were a lot of reasons. We asked everybody what they thought about the breakup. People had theories and other writers and filmmakers have theories and all of them are sort of true. They were being broken apart. They were often compared with each other. People often said to Kurosawa “What would the films be without Mifune” and would say to Mifune “What would you be without Kurosawa?” There was the economics of the time. It was 1965 when they split. Japan was changing really fast. T.V. had come in. They had the Tokyo Olympics in 1964, and Japan was modernizing really fast. Movies were changing really fast with that and with the popularity of T.V. it wasn’t possible to make the kind of films that Kurosawa was making with Mifune really. Also the actual production of the last film they did together RED BEARD, Kurosawa insisted Mifune have a red beard for more than a year and Mifune couldn’t do any other work. Mifune was starting his own studio and had a lot of people depending on him to make films. He was getting offers from abroad, as was Kurosawa, but I think the truth really is mostly what Scorsese says that they kind of took a lot from each other and then it seems there’s nothing more to give. Scorsese is speaking from experience with his relationship with De Niro where it comes time to go your separate ways.

Mifune and Kuroswa on the set of SEVEN SAMURAI
Mifune and Kuroswa on the set of SEVEN SAMURAI

CV: The film is edited is this rhythm of stills, clips, Japanese and English interviews. What was the most challenging aspect of making that gel?

SO: By necessity, we didn’t…well we have clips from the movies but we couldn’t overuse them because licensing was expensive and the goal was just to have an entertaining rhythm. Keep people into the film and just film-making. It wasn’t challenging. You try to make it fun. It’s going to be interested when the film is going to be shown in Japan. It has a really different rhythm than a Japanese documentary, but I think people will enjoy it.

CV: You also used orange subtitles for specifically the Japanese translations. 

SO: Yeah I had nothing to do with that. I just saw them myself.

CV: Oh haha okay.

SO: I had yellow. I don’t know why they changed it.

CV: As a broad wrap-up what impact did Mifune have on both american and Japanese culture, as well as film? I know the film discusses Star Wars, he’s the first action star, but without him where would these things be?

SO: Firstly, you think about the time those movies came out. For me, I grew up in California in the 1960’s and there was nothing on T.V. with…there were no characters with Asian faces except really humiliating demeaning characters. I mean, there was one show, probably one of the most popular shows was BONANZA. They had a Chinese coolie servant with the tail and the little hat and the black jacket. That’s all there was and then a little later there was another show with a Japanese servant woman. For some reason we saw the Jerry Lewis movies, one was THE GEISHA BOY which was really offensive: buck tooth, big glasses, really unappealing character and so here you this character Mifune who was very masculine with integrity. He could kick anybody’s butt and that too me was a huge statement. Unfortunately, he was unique and there wasn’t a lot of other characters like that broke through with an international audience. On one hand, he is sort of the iconic samurai character, but I don’t think you can see him as a stereotype, especially in the Kurosawa films. They were creations of the time and really appealing ones. So, the social impact of seeing that and I’ve had Mexican-American tell me they were excited for this because they saw Mifune as a hero, as well. It was part of just opening up of media between other countries to see Asian people differently and interest people. I think Mifune played in just people’s fascination with Asia.  Japan, in particular. Beyond that, I’m not sure.

CV: And just to bounce off from that, there’s still a lacking presence of Asians in American cinema.  People can get Korean, Japanese, and Chinese movies fairly easily now, but films like GHOST IN THE SHELL show the discrepancy casting Scarlett Johansson as a Japanese character originally. I’ve seen plenty of backlash here and I’m sure not everyone in Japan is thrilled, however, I’ve seen videos where they asked Japanese people about the backlash, to which some didn’t see an issue. How do you feel about this issue?

SO: Well, I think if they were asking people in Japan, I think Japanese people are overly polite when they are not really saying what they think, or they may believe what they’re saying, but I think there is a certain embarrassment, I mean certain low self-esteem that Asians have. There was just recently a New York Times op-doc that had Asians talk about their experience being Asian in New York and people would tell stories like “hey are you Bruce Lee?” or something like “do you know karate?” Things like that, but none of them spoke in real defiance. I think it’s a cultural thing. I think most Asians are disturbed. My feelings is if they’re not, then they are delusional. Most depictions of Asians are stereotypical. There’s a racism in changing characters who are Asian from a well-known story or having them played by non-Asians. I think it’s offensive and I think if Asians say they’re not they’re delusional and self-hating frankly.

Mifune in YOJIMBO
Mifune in YOJIMBO

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