These past few months, we’ve looked at the lives and careers of a 24-year-old who became a legend (James Dean), a movie star turned activist and environmentalist (Marlon Brando), and a successful African-American actress, singer, and civil rights advocate (Lena Horne). The Old Hollywood Spotlight series has been pretty interesting, don’t you think?

This month I am happy to share with you the story of Toshirô Mifune, a world-famous Japanese actor who became the ideal image of a samurai and who was recently honored with a star on the Hollywood Walk of Fame this past November.

Although he was from Tsingtao, China, Mifune became a Japanese actor who reached worldwide success during his time. Born on April 1, 1920, the soon-to-be-actor was the child of Japanese parents. His father was an importer and commercial photographer, and he allowed his son to work with him in the studio until he graduated from middle school. At age 20, Mifune was drafted into the Japanese Army, and he enlisted in the Air Force’s Aerial Photography Unit during World War II. There he took sky-high photos of enemy grounds, and later in the war he took portrait photos of young pilots before they flew to their kamikaze missions. toshiro-mifune

After the war, the 27-year-old Mifune searched for a job as a photographer and applied at the Toho Studios in Japan. His application was accidentally sent to the acting department, and he ended up auditioning and being cast in two 1947 films: Snow Trail – a film written by Akira Kurosawa for director Senkichi Taniguchi – and These Foolish Times II. A year later, Mifune met Kurosawa with whom the two became “the most prominent actor-director pairing in all Japanese cinema.” There are 16 Mifune-Kurosawa films, and most of them have become worldwide classics, making Mifune the most famous Japanese actor in the world. The first of these Mifune and Kurosawa films was  Drunken Angel (1948), and others included Rashomon (1950), Beyond Love and Hate (1951), Seven Samurai (1954), and their last collaboration, Red Beard (1965).

The duo’s work also inspired American cinema; for instance, The Hidden Fortress (1958) influenced George Lucas’s Star Wars, and Yojimbo (1961) was remade into Clint Eastwood’s Fistful of Dollars (1964).

Mifune began his international movie career when he appeared in the 1962 Mexican film The Important Man, which was nominated for an Academy Award for Best Foreign Picture. Other non-Japanese films Mifune acted in include John Frankenheimer’s Grand Prix (1966), Hell in the Pacific (1968), 1941 (1979) directed by Steven Spielberg, and Red Sun (1971), co-starring Alain Delon and Charles Bronson.

Mifune was known not only for his acting but also for his hardworking personality. Always the first one to arrive on movie sets and completely prepared to act, his work contributed to the rise of post-war Japan and gave hope to its citizens through his movies.

Mifune excelled in action roles, but he could also act the “intricate and subtle” roles, including Hiroshi Inagaki’s Oscar-winning Samurai Trilogy and Masaki Kobayashi’s Samurai Rebellion (1967). Mifune was named Best Actor at the Venice Film Festival twice: the first for his role in Yojimbo and the second for Red Beard. Between those recognitions, he started his own production company in 1963, and eventually he directed the movie 500,000 and produced 15 others, including the 1969 films Samurai Banners and Red Lion.

In 1980, he gained new fame with the American TV miniseries Shogun, and he made guest appearances in TV shows and TV movies. In 1986, he was honored with the Purple Ribbon Award, and in 1993 he received the Sacred Treasure Award from the Japanese government. He also received an honor for heroism in the 1950s from the police authorities when he rescued civilians who were stranded in a flood with his private boat. In his final years, Mifune lived with Alzheimer’s Disease, and in 1997 he died of organ failure, just a few months before the death of his movie-duo partner, Akira Kurosawa.

When Toshirô Mifune was recently honored with a Hollywood Star, his grandson accepted it on his behalf. Fans can visit the 2,594th star as they stroll through the Walk of Fame in Los Angeles, California.


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