The Japanese movie star Toshiro Mifune would have turned 102 this year.
Mifune, whose greatest prominence came with his performances in 16 films by legendary director Akira Kurosawa, was born in 1920 and died in 1997, but in the eyes of fans of international cinema, he remains a vital force.
Explaining the actor’s ongoing appeal, University of Southern California assistant professor Kerim Yasar puts it bluntly.
“In the simplest and most vulgar terms, he was a badass,” Yasar, who teaches in the Department of East Asian Languages and Cultures, said by email.
“And everyone likes a badass, because they offer a fantasy escape from our own feelings of powerlessness in the face of evil, injustice and corruption,” said Yasar, who is an expert in Japanese cinema who previously taught at Ohio State University.
Monthlong series to feature Toshiro Mifune films
To commemorate Mifune’s legacy, the Wexner Center for the Arts will kick off a month-long mini-retrospective of the actor’s films on Thursday. The series “Mifune + Okamoto,” will present five films the actor made with director Kihachi Okamoto.
Among Mifune’s attributes, Yasar notes the actor’s “rugged physique,” “dynamic motion” and “handsome and expressive face.”
He added: “He had everything you could want in a movie star, and I would rank him among the greatest anywhere.”
The local series piggybacks on a more exhaustive retrospective that took place in February and March at the noted Film Forum movie theater in New York.
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“(The Film Forum’s) programmer, Bruce Goldstein, was working with the Japan Foundation to bring quite a few rare prints over to the U.S.,” said David Filipi, director of film/video at the Wexner Center. “He just reached out to some of his friends in the field and said, ‘Hey, I just want to let you guys all know that we have this coming up and the prints will be here.’”
Instead of featuring Mifune’s famous films with Kurosawa — including universally praised masterpieces such as “Seven Samurai,” “Throne of Blood” and “Yojimbo” — Wexner officials decided to focus on the actor’s work with Okamoto, a prolific maker of mainstream Japanese cinema who didn’t have the cachet of some of his colleagues. Okamoto died in 2005.
“You only have a big handful of well-known Japanese directors, (Yasujiro) Ozu and Kurosawa and (Mikio) Naruse,” Filipi said. “(Okamoto) is not in that group, so I think it’s really cool to bring more attention to a person that’s part of a very rich national cinema, but is not really well-known outside of Japan.”
Sword fights, police work and more
So, if you’ve ever wanted to see Mifune go to battle with the famous Japanese film character Zatoichi, a blind swordsman, or portray a Japanese minister of war during World War II, or simply play a police detective, you’re in luck: The films included in the Wexner Center series feature Mifune in those roles and more.
“People in Columbus are lucky to have this series because most of these films are not otherwise readily available,” Yasar said.
One exception is Thursday’s film: “Zatoichi Meets Yojimbo” can be streamed via the Criterion Channel, but the movie, like all of the others in the series, will be shown on a 35mm print at the Wexner Center.
“‘Zatoichi Meets Yojimbo’ feels pretty contemporary (with) violent sword-fighting scenes, but then lots of humor kind of blended in,” Filipi said. “It’s like two of the most famous sword-wielding characters in Japanese cinema.”
The series will continue with “The Last Gunfight,” starring Mifune as a police detective, on Tuesday; “Samurai Assassin,” in which the actor plays, well, just that, next Thursday; and “Red Lion,” a comedy with the actor masquerading as a high-ranking army officer, on May 19.
The final film to be shown will be among the most intriguing: “Japan’s Longest Day,” showing May 26, offers Japan’s perspective of its surrender to the Allies in World War II. Mifune plays Minister of War Korechika Anami.
“I just love the notion of almost like a documentary look at the 24 hours between when (Emperor) Hirohito decided to surrender and then when he was going to make the radio announcement, by which point it would be too late to go back,” said Filipi, who has not previously seen the rarely screened film.
Taken in tandem, the films demonstrate that, while the actor may be more than a century old, he’s still got the stuff.
“He’s a movie star,” Filipi said. “He has that kind of indefinable quality (where) your eyes just lock onto him whenever he’s on the screen.”
At a glance
The series “Mifune + Okamoto” will begin with a screening of “Zatoichi Meets Yojimbo” at 7 p.m. Thursday at the Wexner Center for the Arts, 1871 N. High St. Tickets cost $9, or $7 for senior citizens and Wenxer Center members, $5 for students. For additional films, showtimes and more information, visit www.wexarts.org.