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Toshiro Mifune: a World-Class Talent

Appreciation: Japanese star, who had a great actor's gift, made an indelible mark on international cinema.

December 27, 1997|STEPHEN HUNTER | THE WASHINGTON POST

Everyone who cares about movies will have his own favorite Mifune moment. Here's just one, from Kurosawa's "The Seven Samurai" of 1954. Mifune plays Kikuchiyo, the rudest, crudest and roughest of the professional soldiers a 16th century Japanese village imports to protect it from marauding bandits. His Kikuchiyo is almost more wild dog than man, a grunting, eating, drinking force of nature who in battle is as invincible as he is annoying in social intercourse. He claims he hates the peasants he's signed up to serve and he's always screaming at them, "Don't cry, fool!," hiding his feelings behind his bluster. But so compelling is Kikuchiyo's humanity that his seems the greatest sacrifice. In the end, doomed by a bullet from the bandit leader, leaking blood in gallons, he still chases the man down and finishes him with the giant blade he's been carrying, dying in the mud to be the most mourned of the fallen. It's a heartbreaking scene.

Of course Mifune rode the internationalization of film culture in the late '60s and '70s. He played Adm. Isoroko Yamamoto, who bombed Pearl Harbor, more times than anyone should have to; he appeared on American TV in the miniseries "Shogun" and in some not terribly great American films like "Red Sun," with Charles Bronson and John Boorman's "Hell in the Pacific." His work in these films is always respectable but never inspired, and it is a puzzle to see the handsome, even elegant man he was in such films and think of the mongrel of sheer aggression that had made him famous.

One hopes the old fighter's passing was swift and painless. Whether or not his name was instantly recognizable, he was a movie star like no other.

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