Japanese Film Star Toshiro Mifune Dead at 77

Movie fans the world over are mourning the passing of Toshiro Mifune, Japan's greatest film actor. Mifune died December 24 at a hospital in Mitaka, Japan, not far from his home in Tokyo. The cause of death was an unspecified "organ failure." Mifune was 77.

Mifune's death was a serious loss not only to Japanese film society, which just a few days earlier had lost director Juzo Itami to suicide, but to film fans worldwide. Best known as the moody Samurai of Rashomon and Yojimbo, Mifune had an extraordinarily prolific career, appearing in more than 120 movies.

Mifune had done only a few small roles in films immediately after World War II when he was hired by director Akira Kurosawa to play an alcoholic doctor in 1948's Drunken Angel, the role that launched his career. Mifune appeared in 16 of the 17 films Kurosawa made between 1948 and 1965. Rashomon, an internationally acclaimed examination of the question of truth, won critical recognition for Mifune and an Oscar for Akira Kukrosawa.

Mifune was best known for his role as Kikuchiyo, the heroic warrior of 1954's The Seven Samurai. The film became a cult favorite among American college students in the 1960s and '70s, and was remade by US director John Sturges as The Magnificent Seven. In addition to the Samurai, he portrayed generals (1958's Hidden Fortress), sailors (John Boorman's Hell in the Pacific,1968), and admirals (specifically, Adm. Isoroku Yamamoto, who planned the attack on Pearl Harbor, in 1960's Storm Over the Pacific and in Midway, an American film made in 1976), and businessmen---he appeared in 1966 in John Frankenheimer's Grand Prix as the industrialist sponsor of a racing team.

Mifune also delved into serious drama in Kurosoawa's adaptation of Shakespeare's Macbeth, called Throne of Blood (1957), and in film versions of Russian literary classics by Dostoevsky and Gorky: The Idiot in 1951 and Lower Depths in 1957. American audiences best remember him as Lord Toranaga in the television series Shogun, based on James Clavell's novel.

Mifune formed his own film production company in 1963. He directed Mifune Productions' first film, The Legacy of the 500,000, his only venture in directing. He was at his best in front of the camera: he won "Best Actor" awards at the Venice Film Festival in 1962 for his work in Yojimbo, and in 1965 for Red Beard, his last collaboration with Kurosawa.

One of Mifune's last roles was in 1995's Picture Bride by American-Japanese director Kayo Hatta. "It was overwhelming for me as a first-time director," Hatta told film critic Edward Guthmann of the San Francisco Chronicle. "There was an unspoken connection . . . like working with your grandfather." In Something Like an Autobiography, Kurosawa wrote about Mifune that his gift was "the speed with which he expressed himself," a quality he called "astounding."

Mifune was married to Takeshi Shiro, with whom he had two sons. A Japanese magazine's survey in 1984 to find the embodiment of the masculine ideal listed Toshiro Mifune above all others.