Celluloid Style: Toshiro Mifune

Toshiro Mifune wearing a dark shirt and smoking a pipe
Image credit: Wikimedia Commons / Public domain

Over the last few months, after somehow going three decades without ever seeing a single Akira Kurosawa movie, at the behest of the exasperated cinephiles in my life I’ve finally been chipping away at ‘The Emperor’s’ oeuvre. And while admittedly a love of all things Kurosawa still evades me for the moment, I have found myself coming back time and again for the sole joy of getting to see his most famous leading man, Toshiro Mifune, in action.

‘Action’ is definitely the operative word. Mifune’s onscreen persona, whether cast as a warrior, mobster, or otherwise, was typically all intensity, energy, and rage. Kurosawa famously said of him that ‘The ordinary Japanese actor might need 10 feet of film to get across an impression: Mifune needed only 3 feet’. 

This much was clear from their very first encounter. In his autobiography, Kurosawa recalls seeing Mifune at an open audition:

‘A young man was reeling around the room in a violent frenzy. It was as frightening as watching a wounded or trapped savage beast trying to break loose. I stood transfixed. But it turned out that this young man was not really in a rage, but had drawn “anger” as the emotion he had to express in his screen test. He was acting. When he finished his performance, he regained his chair and with an exhausted demeanor, flopped down and began to glare menacingly at the judges.’

Not needing any more convincing, Kurosawa cast him as a cocky, tuberculosis-stricken gangster in his 1948 neo-realist drama Drunken Angel. The film turned both actor and director into stars and of the 17 films Kurosawa made between 1948 and 1965, Toshiro Mifune appeared in 16 of them, including such canonical heavyweights as Rashomon, Seven Samurai, Throne of Blood, and Yojimbo

Beyond his work with Kurosawa, Mifune’s energy on screen equally translated to a notable work ethic. His IMDB profile bursts with some 186 acting credits. Nor was any of this lost on the Japanese public. In 1984, when a local magazine conducted a reader survey asking who best epitomised Japanese manhood with its attendant ideals of pride, power, and virility, Toshiro Mifune topped the poll.

The same proved true in the West. He came became known as ‘Japan’s John Wayne’ and no less a strapping figure than Clint Eastwood said meeting Mifune was ‘like meeting the Asian equivalent of Clark Gable’. And while Mifune did not himself play many roles is Holywood, his influence has long been felt everywhere you look in American popular culture. There are the endless Kurosawa-inspired pictures made by Sergio Leone, George Lucas, and others; the John Belushi’s samurai sketches from the early days of Saturday Night Live; or, more recently, Brad Pitt’s stuntman supreme, Cliff Booth, in Once Upon a Time… in Hollywood who picks as his favourite actor none other than the appropriately macho Mr Mifune. 

Rashomon press photo of Toshiro Mifune and Daisuke Kato
Toshiro Mifune and his co-star Daisuke Kato in Akira Kurosawa’s Rashomon
Image credit: Wikimedia Commons / Public domian

For this reason, when what you’re most familiar with as a filmgoer is the snarling intensity of Toshiro Mifune on the big screen (Kurosawa literally showed him footage of panthers and leopards to help inform his performance in Rashomon) the clothes he wore in his regular life might come as something of a surprise. Contrary to the scraggly and unruly samurai he so often played in movies, the real-life Mifune consistently embodied a unique kind of sleek and easy-going elegance. 

To be sure, there are ample examples of Mifune more than capably pulling off a suit-and-tie look both on-screen and off-, but it was in the realm of casualwear that he truly shone. Knit shirts, long-sleeve polos, pleated trousers, sockless loafers, perfectly ‘thrown-on’ jumpers — these were the staples perfected by a man who, were it not for the fact of him being celebrated as a legend of Japanese film, could easily have been mistaken for a midcentury Italian man-about-town. When not playing tortured loners in film, he seemed to live and breathe a sense of laid-back sprezzatura.

So if you, like me, are perennially in search of a polestar in panache, Toshiro Mifune is your man. I feel I could spend my whole life looking for a single shirt or sweater that fits halfway as well as anything he wore. He seemed to look comfortable, casual, confident, and uncompromisingly suave in everything he wore — always. Whether in style or on celluloid, Mifune made it look easy while the rest of us are just left looking. But what a view it is…

Toshiro Mifune style
Image credit: japanesefilmarchive / CC BY 2.0

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