Mifune's experience of the war and his struggle to find a new life afterward have marked many of his performances, his "ordinary man" roles. The desperate young cop in Stray Dog (Nora inu, 1949), the kindly laborer in Downtown (Shitamachi, 1957), the impulsive Matsu in The Rikisha Man (Muho Matsu no issho, 1958), the stevedore foreman in Man Against Man (Otoko tai otoko, 1960), and Tetsu the fisherman in Jakoman and Tetsu (Jakoman to Tetsu, 1949).
Internationally, Toshiro Mifune has had two careers. First, of course, is the reputation he has built for himself around the world in Japanese films. Second are his performances in non-Japanese films. The world was first alerted to the arrival of this charismatic new Japanese film star when Roshomon won the Grand Prize at the Venice Film Festival in 1953 and took the Academy Award for Best Foreign Language Film the following year. Mifune's performance as the wild bandit Tajomaru stunned audiences and critics all over the world, and it was followed soon after by equally powerful appearances in a stream of Kurosawa films that found enthusiastic international audiences and garnered one film award after another. Mifune's films for other Japanese directors--Kenji Mizoguchi's The Life of Oharu (Saikaku ichidai onna, 1952), Hiroshi Inagaki's Miyamoto Musashi (1954) and The Rikisha Man (1958)--also were well received abroad and strengthened Mifune's standing as Japan's preeminent film star. In the 1960s, Mifune's compelling samurai roles in Kurosawa's Yojimbo and Sanjuro, as well as performances featuring brilliant swordplay in other samurai films by Inagaki and Kihachi Okamoto, won him a passionate following among student audiences on college campuses all across America. Yojimbo and Red Beard also won him the Best Actor Award at the Venice Film Festival, and the distinction of being the only actor to have received that prestigious award twice.
Mifune's career in international films began with a reprise, in a sense, of the inebriated routine he performed at his first Toho audition in 1946. The Mexican producer/director Ismael Rodriguez cast him as the drunken Indian peasant in Animas Trujano: El Hombre Importante in 1961. Not knowing Spanish, Mifune had a Mexican actor record his dialogue on tape. He then memorized his lines from listening to the tape, and in shooting the film spoke his entire part in Spanish. The performance is a tour de force.
His first American picture, Grand Prix, made for John Frankenheimer in 1968, provided Mifune with a very different sort of role, that of a wealthy Japanese industrialist who sponsors an auto racing team. The fee Mifune reportedly received was appropriate to the well-heeled character he played and more than double what he'd ever earned for a role in Japan. Since Grand Prix, he has gone on to appear in nine more American and European films. Mifune has acquitted himself with real distinction in a number of his international films. In Hell in the Pacific, directed by John Boorman, Mifune and co-star Lee Marvin generate powerful dramatic tension as two enemy castaways on a deserted Pacific island. In Red Sun, made for Terence Young in 1972, he maintains genuine dignity and authority in the potentially ludicrous circumstances of a samurai-official in the wild West of the 1860s. In Steven Spielberg's 1941, Mifune displayed a talent for parody as an inept submarine captain sent to bombard the California coast. Here he was sending up the soldierly types like Admiral Yamamoto he had so often played, and had no difficulty holding his own against the brilliant American comic John Belushi (who had made something of a career out of his own parodies of Mifune). Finally, the performance in which all of America saw Mifune was that of Toranaga, the title role of James Clavell's Shogun, which when broadcast as a twelve-hour series in 1980 attracted one of the largest television audiences in history.
Toshiro Mifune's career has not been confined to performing. In 1963, he formed his own production company and that year directed his first (and last) film, The Legacy of the 500,000 (Gojumannin no isan). He also starred in it as a war veteran abducted by a fortune hunter to lead him to a cache of gold abandoned by Japanese soldiers in the Philippines. The film is not one that Mifune remembers fondly. He has continued to produce films, however, and has appeared in a dozen of his own productions, most notably Rebellion, which was named Best Film of 1967 in Japan and had a highly successful international run. Mifune Productions has also contributed to some of the international films he has appeared in: for Hell in the Pacific Mifune brought in a Japanese screenwriter, art director, and technical crew; his company also arranged many of the requirements for shooting The Challenge in Japan in 1981. The company, which includes an acting school, is now devoted chiefly to the production of television films and maintains studios not far from Toho's, where Toshiro Mifune underwent that fateful audition 38 years and more than 130 films ago.
Here's an idea some producer should consider. It would make a great movie. Perhaps Kurosawa could direct it and get Mifune to star in it. It's about this young fellow who has just gotten out of the army at the end of World War II and made his way to Tokyo...