This brisk, energetic documentary, narrated by Keanu Reeves, examines the work of the Japanese actor Toshiro Mifune (1920-1997) and also traces the history of the chanbara (sword fighting) genre.
“Mifune: The Last Samurai” is a celebration of the originality and influence of the Japanese star Toshiro Mifune (1920-1997), shown as a rare actor capable of the subtlest stoicism and the wildest bravado. It’s a brisk and energetic primer for those who don’t know his movies or are ready to watch them again. And it doubles as a history of the chanbara (sword fighting) genre, providing an opportunity to sample clips from seldom-seen or partially lost silent films.
It is also a biography, somewhat incongruously narrated by a sedate Keanu Reeves.
The director, Steven Okazaki, talks to Mifune collaborators like the actress Kyoko Kagawa and Kanzo Uni, a sword-fight choreographer whom Mifune is said to have “killed” more than 100 times. The actress Terumi Niki discusses how Mifune coaxed performances out of his co-stars during the filming of “Red Beard.”
‘Mifune: The Last Samurai,’ a documentary narrated by Keanu Reeves. Directed by Steven Okazaki, from a screenplay by Okazaki and Stuart Galbraith IV. 80 minutes. Not rated. Grand Illusion, through Thursday, Jan. 12.
The New York Times does not provide star ratings with reviews.
But the film’s richest insights are into Mifune’s longtime partnership with Akira Kurosawa. As the film tells it, that otherwise exacting director accorded his apparently fearless star unusual leeway. Teruyo Nogami, Kurosawa’s frequent script supervisor, recalls how in the violent finale of “Throne of Blood,” the archers shooting arrows at Mifune were college students and not especially good shots.
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Emphasizing samurai movies, this documentary mostly skips contemporary-set dramas like “The Bad Sleep Well” and “High and Low.” As for why Kurosawa and Mifune didn’t work together in later years, Martin Scorsese, another interviewee and no stranger to career-long collaborations, suggests that sometimes two artists “use each other up.”