Happy 96th Birthday, Toshiro Mifune!

Toshiro Mifune, born 96 years ago today to Japanese parents in Manchuria, just barely fits into our preferred timeframe here at Cladrite Radio, but he’s badass and that’s that.

To the international audience, at least, Mifune is probably the most iconic of Japanese actors, so it’s ironic to think that he didn’t set foot in Japan until he was 20 years old. As a Japanese citizen, he was drafted into the aviation division of the Japanese army and assigned to the Aerial Photography Unit for the duration of World War II.

The story goes that Mifune became an actor by accident. In 1947, he went to Toho Studios to interview for a photographer position, but unknowingly ended up in an audition room with director Kajiro Yamamoto and a few others. Mifune was asked to laugh, and he became indignant. Why must he demonstrate his manner of laughing in applying for a cameraman position? Then it was explained that he was, in fact, at an audition and he was asked to play drunk. He did as he was asked, assaying a very angry drunk, indeed.

Another version of the story has it that Toho was conducting a “new faces” competition, to find replacements for a number of actors who had left the studio to form another company. This version has some of Mifune’s friends submitting his photo for the contest, unbeknownst to him. According to this account, Mifune was selected, along with 48 others, out of thousands of submissions.

We have no idea which version of the story is true, but we can tell you that we prefer the first one. The great director Akira Kurosawa wrote of seeing Mifune audition, saying that he was “a young man reeling around the room in a violent frenzy…It was as frightening as watching a wounded beast trying to break loose. I was transfixed.”

Kurosawa clearly saw something special in Toshiro Mifune that day—so special that he cast Mifune in leading roles in 16 of his next 17 directorial efforts over a 17-year period. The roster of pictures they created together is amazing, including such classics as Rashomon, Seven Samurai, The Hidden Fortress, Throne of Blood, High and Low and Yojimbo.

幸せな誕生日, 三船 敏郎, wherever you may be!

Toshirô Mifune