“A Japanese Bull in a China Shop”

Toshiro Mifune and the Art of Failing On-Screen

illustration by Tony Stella

I don’t suppose many of us would think to compare Toshiro Mifune to David Bowie, and yet whilst watching Akira Kurosawa’s feverish 1948 noir Drunken Angel, it was music journalist Paul Morley’s description of the latter circa 1976 that circled my mind. Bowie’s response to his life spiraling out of control, writes Morley, was to “deflate into a more severe, romantically attractive hollow-eyed soul-bruised skin and bones.” In Drunken Angel, Mifune’s tubercular gangster Matsunaga strikes me as a sort of ecstatically tragic figure, motivated by high passion, a pronounced self-destructive streak, and just enough of a sense of duty to others to leave him tormented by his inability to adhere to the various grand plans other characters have built around him. 

Drunken Angel is a bleak, haunting film; Matsunaga and Takashi Shimura’s Dr. Sanada share a quicksilver bond. The disillusioned doctor feels that by saving the young gangster, he may be able to retrieve some of his own lost youth and idealism. The gangster does not seem all that sure he wants to be saved. Within the opening 10 minutes of the film, it is easy to deduce that very little is going to go right for Matsunaga. He strolls into the office of Dr. Sanada and remarks “I hear you look after my guys.” He seems totally louche, all Brylcreem-ed hair and easy swagger. He leaves the office with a life-derailing diagnosis, slowly traipsing out the door with a sense of bewildered, frightened solemnity. Mifune never strikes me as truly wretched or pathetic over the course of this film. I do not intend that as a criticism of the performance; I simply mean that even whilst hacking up blood from his TB-ravaged lungs, Matsunaga seems somewhat mythic, carrying with him at all times a tormented, warped sense of glamour and allure. This can, I’m sure, be attributed in part to Mifune’s quite startling beauty, but I like to believe I am not that shallow. 

Mifune excelled at playing characters railing against the plan life seems to have for them, and his natural dynamism, magnetism, and ferocity means that as the viewer, we never pity him, and genuinely believe that through sheer tenacity, he might yet win. When things go wrong for Mifune—as they often do, particularly in his earlier films—they go tremendously wrong. It is then up to him to decide whether to roll with the punches, or stand his ground and fight back against the terrible plan life seems to have for him. Mifune’s great skill is being able to make both courses of action seem noble, aspirational, and heroic. Even when his decision is misguided, he is never anything less than magnificent in the face of plans unravelling. I’ve been watching a lot of Mifune movies lately, because in their chaos and misfortune and tragedy, they are—paradoxically—something of a comfort. Yes, everything may go wrong, they seem to suggest. But at least it can go wrong in style.

Mifune’s whole career seems like an advertisement for abandoning any pretense at an overarching plan and simply seeing where life takes you. The story of his discovery as an actor has been told many a time, and it’s unclear just how much of it is apocryphal embellishment. The core details, however, are always the same: Mifune applied for a job as a cameraman at Toho Studios, and got the job; somehow, his photo found its way into a pile of applications for Toho’s “new faces” contest, and he was offered a screen test alongside roughly 50 other applicants. Exactly when and where Mifune first encountered Kurosawa is a little less concrete, but Kurosawa wrote of walking into an audition and finding a young man reeling around the room in a violent frenzy…it was as frightening as watching a wounded beast trying to break loose. I was transfixed.”

This about takes us up to Drunken Angel, Mifune’s first collaboration with Kurosawa. Truthfully, Drunken Angel petrifies and fascinates me in equal measure. It provokes a visceral sense of unease in me—unease to the point of nausea—and yet I cannot deny its thin, violent virtuosity. The appeal of the “live fast, die young” lifestyle has always mystified me, but watching Drunken Angel, I feel both comforted and petrified by its tacit suggestion that perhaps it is impossible to escape one’s own fate, and a little humiliating to even try. Maybe the best we can do, it suggests, is choose to bite the bullet a little earlier. Drunken Angel finds honor in that concept; knowing when your time is up and refusing to go out quietly is presented here as something admirable. Tragic, yes, but not for Matsunaga, who dies as he lived. The first time we see Mifune after he’s been diagnosed with TB, he’s on the dance floor in a fantastic white suit, smoking a cigarette and knocking back alcohol. An idiotic response to being told that your grand designs for life may be about to collapse around you? Perhaps. I don’t know whether we’re supposed to disapprove—maybe so. I can’t bring myself to do it. To Dr. Sanada, Matsunaga’s death at the hand of a fellow gangster signifies nothing, and for that reason, he finds himself unable to forgive him, and unable to understand him. 

As the spectator, however, we are privileged with a viewpoint that makes it difficult to feel that same sense of disappointment, because Matsunaga’s death is unsettlingly, ecstatically beautiful. I was shocked, actually, by the delirious intensity of my emotional response to the image of Mifune, dark suit covered in white paint, lying dead across a balcony, head lolling over the edge. I imagine the decades of fervid intrigue surrounding the martyrdom of Saint Sebastian stem from a similar axis—this idea of pain made rapturous, death and misfortune symbolizing something greater, transfigured into something ineffably spectacular. Matsunaga cannot outrun death. His plans for himself do not align, it seems, with life’s plan for him, and Drunken Angel captures the terror and the frenzied sense of abandon that comes with accepting this fact. Untimely death is surely the ultimate case of plans going awry, and yet, in Mifune’s hands, death does not have to mean failure. As performed by Mifune, death can be spectacular, meaningful, transcendent. What more can we ask of an actor than that?


Macbeth is my favorite Shakespeare play. It feels real to me in a way that, say, Hamlet, never did. I have seen good productions and bad productions of Macbeth, but it has never bored mesomething about its innately, almost pathetically human quality gets under my skin. In the face of adversity, most of us, I think it is fair to say, do not spend much time pontificating about why and how things have gone wrong—we’re preoccupied by attempting to solve the problem. Macbeth is carried forward by that sense of lurching, sickening momentum, as the characters hurl themselves in vain in front of the unstoppable tidal wave of misfortune that consumes them. I have yet to see a film adaptation of Macbeth capture this dizzying, mounting sense of the futility of the protagonist’s schemes better than Throne of Blood, Kurosawa’s 1957 retelling of Macbeth set in feudal Japan.  

I first watched Throne of Blood on holiday at the age of about 16, in the front room of the very small cottage we were staying in, with my dad wandering in and out from time to time. After pottering into the room and watching a bit of the film, he remarked something to the effect of “sheesh, this guy’s pretty intense!” I found it—and still find it—a fitting, albeit deeply simplified, appraisal of Mifune’s screen presence. I enjoy writing about acting, and scrutinizing the various contours and nuances of an actor’s established image is one of my favourite aspects of film criticism. Mifune, however, tends to get the better of me. How can the written word possibly convey his almost lyrical understanding of how to hold his body, his ability to begin a line in a furious rage and end it on the verge of tears? I feel that I have the measure of actors like James Stewart, actors whose presence is a known quantity. I do not feel that I could ever get the measure of Mifune.

Of course, it is this unpredictability that makes him so exciting to watch, and, by extension, exciting to write about. Writing about Mifune, it is possible to labor under the illusion that you just might be able to catch him, to seize hold of him and feel that, yes, you finally understand what it is about him that makes him so special. But he will always continue to elude you. His performance in Throne of Blood as General Washizu is grandly theatrical, to the point that some have labeled it “overacting.” I can understand the impulse to categorize it as such, but I don’t agree. Mifune’s performance as a man for whom nothing can possibly go right is towering, and by virtue of its theatricality, it becomes transcendently universal in its vehemence. 

I have seen a clip of Washizu’s prolonged demise, wherein he tries in vain to avoid an onslaught of arrows, uploaded to social media with captions like “me trying to dodge my work emails.” Funny, sure, but perhaps it says something about the sort of eminently relatable quality underpinning the madness of Mifune’s performance. We have all had to endure witnessing our plans unravel. Everyone has bad days (and bad weeks and bad months and bad years). And yes, maybe our plans have not gone wrong to the “I’ve murdered the king and assassinated my best friend and my wife has committed suicide and it was all for naught” extent, but the potent terror of Mifune’s performance is something I can feel in my bones.

There’s a moment where Washizu storms out into the courtyard of Cobweb Castle, shrieks “Do not yield! Return to your stations!,” and is greeted by deathly silence. It makes my stomach drop every time I watch it. The idea that you might be overestimating just how much the people around you are willing to do for you terrifies me. I can’t bear looking like a fool; the idea of being considered delusional frightens me. In that moment of the film, even though I’m fully aware that he is playing a serial murderer driven mad by ambition, I can’t help but feel a pang of sympathy. Mifune’s Washizu seems reasonably confident in his soldiers’ devotion to his cause—perhaps he is aware that they do not love him, but he’s assured enough to bark orders at them and expect them to comply. It makes that silence feel even more excruciating. I always had more time for Macbeth as a character than I did for Hamlet; tyrannical murderer he may be, but something about his grim acceptance of his misdeeds and punishing dedication to simply soldiering on regardless felt more honorable to me than Hamlet’s dithering. His unwillingness to stop, as opposed to inability to stop, resonates. He knows full well that he has messed up, badly, and yet his pride will not allow him to concede this fact to anyone but himself. 

On-screen, Mifune was always proud, always headstrong, and it’s these qualities that make his performance as Washizu ring true. Most people, in the face of such adversity, would crumble. But not Mifune. Never Mifune. Most of us know Macbeth fairly well, and yet watching Throne of Blood, there is still a vague inkling that perhaps Washizu is going to get himself out of this one. Almost 25 years after his death, the element of surprise remains one of Mifune’s most compelling qualities. If things go wrong for him on-screen, he pushes back, and sometimes he even wins. But if it all comes crashing down around him, you can’t say that he went down without a fight.


Mifune wins and loses in roughly equal measure in 1954’s Seven Samurai, in which he plays a swaggering nomad who claims to be a samurai—though Takashi Shimura’s Kambei quickly sees through this particular ruse, the first of his plans to quickly unravel. His name is not Kikuchiyo—that is the name on his counterfeit papers that the other samurai agree to call him as a means of mocking him. We never learn his real name, but in the end it doesn’t matter; he does enough to make the name his. 

British director John Boorman, who worked with Mifune on 1968’s Hell in the Pacific, recalls meeting Kurosawa some years after the film’s release and lamenting how difficult it was to get Mifune to play scenes the way Boorman envisioned them. According to Boorman, Kurosawa replied: “Impossible to direct Mifune. All you can do is point him like a missile.” Mifune certainly does seem to barrel through many of his earlier films with indomitable spirit. He gives the impression of constantly moving forwards, and many of the problems he encounters in those ‘40s and ‘50s movies appear to be a direct result of this unceasing momentum. In Seven Samurai, he is humiliated, sent sprawling in the dirt, chastised as if he is an insolent child, and yet somehow doesn’t seem ridiculous. There is pain undercutting the defiance and impudence of the performance, but that pain manifests itself somewhat gloriously—first in a searing indictment of the detached scorn of the samurai class, and finally and perhaps most memorably in the very moment of his death. 

Kikuchiyo is shot by a gun-toting bandit, and uses his final moments to stagger forward and stab his assailant in the chest. This scene will likely feel innately familiar in its construction to a modern audience; it’s a trope in and of itself at this point. In theory, this should reduce its power; when I finally watched Cape Fear, having seen the “Cape Feare” episode of The Simpsons many times, the film itself felt well-worn, familiar, far less capable of provoking genuine unease. It would be easy to assume that Kikuchiyo’s death might be irreversibly marred by imitation and parody in the same way, but this isn’t the case. It’s the sort of moment that casts a character in amber, and that’s all down to Mifune. Kurosawa’s first impression of him as akin to “a wounded beast” is startlingly accurate here; Mifune careens towards the enemy, compelled forwards by that very unceasing momentum I referenced earlier. When he falls down dead, he’s shocking in his total stillness, and in the undignified way he lies sprawled across the ground. 

There has been a tendency to posthumously canonize Mifune as some sort of perpetually regal, imposing figure—titles like “the last samurai” are often batted around whilst discussing him. Though I agree that Mifune was a magnificent presence on-screen, I can’t help but feel that such sweeping assessments of his talent are missing something. Mifune rarely played figures of noble birth, and many of his performances—particularly earlier in his career—are characterized by an excess of emotion as opposed to the sort of stony impassiveness that words like “regal” conjure in the mind. His performance in Seven Samurai is perhaps the distillation of what makes Mifune so compelling and vital. 

Played by another actor, Kikuchiyo could have been a sort of sad-sack, tragic figure. He is the orphaned son of farmers, living a seemingly nomadic lifestyle whilst play-acting at being a samurai. Calling him a loser is unfair, but it seems reasonable to suggest that he has lost many a time in his life. He accomplishes what he wants only in death, when he is finally recognized as an equal in the eyes of the samurai. Too little, too late? Perhaps. But the fact that he seemingly accomplishes it at all—if not how he envisioned it—is a victory. The plan goes wrong, of course, but in some strange way Mifune still seems to win. His death in Seven Samurai strikes the viewer as another act of martyrdom, as in Drunken Angel, but registers as more mature. I am not unaware of my own gauche-ness; I can’t help but be awestruck by the sort of chic, high-strung tragedy of the death scene in the latter film. I have friends my age who remain vaguely seduced by the morbid allure of the 27 Club; I suppose Matsunaga’s rather sacrificial murder appeals to that same impulse regarding death and youth. 

That sense of reckless, spectacular self-immolation is a common thread between the characters Mifune played, but when it comes to Matsunaga, it’s undercut by a quality we tend to find more distasteful: pride. Kikuchiyo is certainly proud, and whilst this contributes in some way to his death, it’s tempered by a desire we find easier to forgive, and to understand: a need for revenge. You could argue that revenge is a motivating factor in Matsunaga’s fatal decision to confront Reisaburo Yamamoto’s treacherous Okada too, but it’s a petty, selfish sort of revenge, adolescent in nature. Where his death in Drunken Angel is misunderstood, twisted into something selfish and senseless, his demise in Seven Samurai is recognized as magnificent by both the characters and the viewer. He isn’t seeking revenge for himself, but for others (Seiji Miyaguchi’s master swordsman Kyuzo, to be exact). In that sense, Kikuchiyo’s death does not constitute a failure, because it means something to those around him. Mifune brings with him that same reckless abandon that characterizes so many of his earlier roles, but with Kikuchiyo, it’s funneled into a character who, in the end, is more traditionally honorable. In his death, Kikuchiyo secures his ascension to the rank of samurai. It may only be symbolic, but it’s something. 

Perhaps this is why Kikuchiyo is Mifune’s most famous character; he makes us feel that we, too, could be extraordinary, could snatch some sort of glory even from the jaws of death. Mifune did often feel superhuman, as many critics have suggested, but his performances tend to be aspirational, rarely intimidating. We want to be him, even if it means slaying bandits or fighting TB or wrestling with criminals. All those things, it seems, would be worth it, because whether facing disaster or coming out on top, it would be a privilege just to be Mifune.


I spend much of my life lost in the mire of myself, wondering when the penny will drop and I will finally feel like something tangible, as opposed to some swirling kaleidoscope of borrowed mannerisms and half-baked concepts of “Kate” as I envision her. I do a lot in service of this aspirational future self, and yet she continues to elude me. It is hard not to perceive my inability to make this concept of my personhood a reality as a failure. Whilst researching this essay, I came across a short, mournful article by Donald Richie, one of the few texts I have found that casts some light on Mifune the person as opposed to Mifune the actor. In some ways it was shocking for me to even consider that the two might not be one and the same. 

Mifune the actor, Richie writes, was a finely tuned creation, and yet Mifune the person did not appear to be “taken in by this self.” The article builds a picture of a man who looked at his career “as though it were not his own,” and upon reading that line I felt some sort of recognition. Relating to Mifune? I never thought I would have dared—the man was a giant, a legend, an icon. But this idea of him being unable to synthesize the inward and outward faces of his psyche feels eminently human. If Mifune felt that way, too, then maybe my awareness of the sort of gauzy immateriality of my sense of self isn’t a failure. Even if Mifune did see this inability to claim that his career truly belonged to him as a defeat, even if his plans for what he would do upon achieving superstardom left him feeling unfulfilled, even if some of his ventures spiraled out of his control (his efforts to establish his own production studio went badly wrong), he will always exist as an actor who lives so vividly in the mind that to this day he inspires fervent devotion. 

This man whom I have seen fail over and over in various movies does in fact win through his willingness to surrender to, attempt to outwit, or win out against various plans gone awry. Particularly in his work prior to the mid-‘60s, when he was allowed to progress from novice to master, it’s electrifying to watch Mifune respond to his plans crumbling around him. To paraphrase Cary Grant—another star who was always aspirational, never pathetic—everyone wants to be Toshiro Mifune, and maybe even he himself wanted to be Toshiro Mifune. 

Mifune’s career post-Red Beard has been a cause of much consternation. Critics and fans alike often seem bewildered as to how an actor who worked with Kurosawa, Mizoguchi, Naruse, et al. could wind up agreeing to appear in Spielberg’s rather execrable 1941, or 1971’s ambitious but confused Red Sun. It’s important to recognize, I think, that Mifune does not appear to have considered himself a great artist. Stuart Galbraith quotes him as saying of his work: “I’m not always great in pictures, but I’m always true to the Japanese spirit.” He enjoyed working, and seemed largely unconcerned by the overall quality of the films in which he appeared. 

It’s profitable to turn again to Richie here, who, in his anthology Japanese Portraits: Pictures of Different People, writes, “Mifune has no drive for perfection, he has a drive for virtue.” As is the case with Richie’s other writing on Mifune, we’re left with a relatively melancholic portrait of a man who seems rather ill at ease with himself—who is concerned primarily with what he can offer to others. It’s hard not to mythologize the man; when researching him, fantastic details start to pile up very quickly: his audition at Toho, where he claims he replied “whats there to smile about?” when asked to perform happiness; the rumors that his swordwork was sometimes too fast to be caught on film; his willingness to actually be shot at by archers for the climactic scene in Throne of Blood. It’s therefore rather strange to watch him interviewed on Japanese talk show Tetsukos Room in 1981. Mifune is unfailingly polite, gently funny, and perhaps surprisingly reserved. When asked about his feelings towards acting, he gives a vague non-answer about his experience making 1947’s Snow Trail; he had to wake up at 3 a.m. and carry various pieces of equipment up the mountain, and considers the experience closer to being a laborer than an actor. The implicit suggestion is of a decidedly diligent, unfussy approach to the profession. I always seem to gravitate towards performers who seem genuinely unaware of their own ability, or who at least have no pretensions towards great artistry. It’s comforting, in a way, to realize that you can be Toshiro Mifune and still feel insecure. (During that talk show interview he gently mocks his appearance, describing himself as looking “sinister.” The mind boggles.) I suppose what I find rather fascinating about Mifune’s life and career is the idea that you can mean an awful lot to huge swaths of people even whilst your own sense of personhood is failing to cohere. It’s reassuring, even though I’m very much aware that few of us can ever mean so much to so many. 

Towards the end of his appearance on Tetsuko’s Room, host Tetsuko Kuroyanagi starts to ask Mifune about how he managed to convince Toho to take a chance on him, and he concludes, “I was accepted as an oddball, out of mercy.” It’s hard to imagine anyone ever taking pity on Mifune, and it’s unclear how much of that summation can be attributed to modesty. Perhaps it doesn’t matter. Mifune is one of those rare actors who seems to exist, as we know him, entirely on the screen, a thoroughly cinematic creature. On-screen, at least, he can never fail; even in his weakest performances, he is never anything close to boring. It’s a testament, I think, to the power of self-invention. On Tetsuko’s Room, Kuroyanagi and Mifune discuss Alain Delon. “He looks very youthful,” observes Kuroyanagi. “Well, people still have an image of him from Purple Noon,” counters Mifune. “So you may feel he looks young for his age.” 

I think there’s something in that, that idea of an actor’s most famous performances bleeding into the audience’s perception of their personhood. Mifune himself exists in my mind in a state of perpetual stasis, a sort of constantly shifting whirlwind of clenched fists, furrowed eyebrows, mouth set in a straight line. There is not a definitive version of him that I hold dear above all others. He is equally real to me as a shoe tycoon and a bandit, a farmer’s son and a gangster, a noble doctor and a murderous tyrant. It feels like a somewhat perverse compliment, but watching him fail is, to me, one of the great cinematic pleasures.