Japanese movie star Toshiro Mifune turned 102 years old this year.
Mifune, who appeared in 16 films by legendary director Akira Kurosawa, was born in 1920 and died in 1997, but in the eyes of global movie fans, he remains a vital force.
Explaining the actor’s continued allure, USC Associate Professor Karim Yasar puts it bluntly.
“In the simplest and most obscene terms, he was a badass,” Yasar, who teaches in the Department of East Asian Languages and Cultures, said via email.
“Everyone loves badass, because they provide an imaginative escape from our own feelings of powerlessness in the face of evil, injustice and corruption,” said Yasar, an expert in Japanese cinema who previously taught at Ohio State University.
A month-long series of Toshiro Mifune films
To celebrate Mifune’s legacy, the Wexner Center for the Arts will kick off a month-long mini-retrospective of the actor’s films Thursday. Mifune + Okamoto presents five films directed by actor Keihachi Okamoto.
Among the attributes of Mifune, Yasar refers to a “strong physique”, “dynamic movement” and a “handsome and expressive face”.
“He had everything you could want in a movie star, and I would rank him among the best anywhere,” he added.
The local series showcases more comprehensive retrospectives that took place in February and March at the movie theater at the Film Forum in New York.
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“The (Film Forum) programmer, Bruce Goldstein, was working with the Japan Foundation to bring quite a few rare prints to the United States,” said David Phillipe, 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 all know we have this coming soon and the prints will be here. “
Instead of showing off popular Mifune films with Kurosawa — including world-famous masterpieces like “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 had no character 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 (Mikyo) Narus,” said Felipe. “(Okamoto) is not in that group, so I think it’s really cool to get more attention to someone who’s part of a very rich national cinema, but isn’t really known outside of Japan.”
Sword battles, police work and more
So, if you ever wanted to see Mifune do battle with famous Japanese movie character Zatoichi, blind swordsman, embody the role of Japan’s Minister of War during WWII, or simply play a police detective, you’re in luck: Movies Included in the Wexner Center Series Mifune advances in those roles and more.
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“People in Columbus are lucky to have this series because most of these movies are not readily available,” said Yasar.
One exception is Thursday’s movie: “Zatoichi Meets Yojimbo” can be streamed via the Criterion Channel, but the film, like all other films in the series, will be shown on a 35mm edition at the Wexner Center.
“‘Zatoichi Meets Yojimbo’ feels very contemporary (with) the violent sword-fighting scenes, but then a lot of humor mixed in,” Felipe said. “She’s like two of the most famous sword-wielding characters in Japanese cinema.”
The series will continue with “The Last Gunfight” starring Mavonne as a police detective on Tuesday. “Samurai Assassin” in which the actor plays, well, that’s exactly, next Thursday; and “Red Lion,” a comedy in which the actor disguises himself as a high-ranking army officer, on May 19.
The final film to be shown will be among the most intriguing: The Longest Day in Japan, showing on May 26, presents Japan’s perspective on its surrender to the Allies in World War II. Mifune plays Minister of War Korechika Anami.
“I just like the idea of looking at the documentary for almost 24 hours between the time (Emperor) Hirohito decided to surrender and then when he was going to make a radio announcement, at which point it would be too late to come back,” said Felipe, who has never seen The rarely shown movie.
The movies in tandem show that even though the actor may be over a century old, he still has things.
“He’s a movie star,” Felipe said. “He has that kind of indefinable quality[that]your eyes stick to him whenever he’s on screen.”
In a glance
The Mifune + Okamoto series will begin with the show “Zatoichi Meets Yojimbo” at 7 p.m. Thursday at the Wexner Center for the Arts, 1871 N. High St. $5 for students. For more movies, showtimes, and more information, visit www.wexarts.org.