BEVERLY HILLS — “Mifune: The Last Samurai,” a new documentary by Steven Okazaki, is playing through Dec. 8 at Laemmle’s Ahrya Fine Arts, 8556 Wilshire Blvd. in Beverly Hills.
Okazaki will participate in Q&A sessions after the 8 p.m. screening on Friday, Dec. 2, and after the 6 p.m. screening on Saturday, Dec. 3.
Nearly 20 years after his death, Toshiro Mifune remains a true giant of world cinema. He made 16 remarkable films with director Akira Kurosawa, including “Rashomon,” “Seven Samurai” and “Yojimbo,” and together they shook the film world, inspiring not only “The Magnificent Seven” and Clint Eastwood’s breakthrough movie, “A Fistful of Dollars,” but also George Lucas’ “Star Wars.”
Okazaki explores the evolution of the samurai film; Mifune’s childhood and World War II experience; his accidental entry into the movies; and his dynamic but sometimes turbulent collaboration with Kurosawa.
Narrated Keanu Reeves, the film includes interviews with Mifune’s son Shiro, Kurosawa’s son Hisao, directorsSteven Spielberg, Martin Scorsese, Teruyo Nogami (Kurosawa’s longtime script supervisor), Kanzo Uni (sword-fighting choreographer), and actors Kyoko Kagawa (“Red Beard”), Yoshio Tsuchiya (“Seven Samurai”), Takeshi Kato (“Throne of Blood”), and Yoko Tsukasa (“Yojimbo”).
The New York Times called the film “a celebration of the originality and influence of the Japanese star…a rare actor capable of the subtlest stoicism and the wildest bravado.” It is an official selection of the Telluride Film Festival, BFI London Film Festival, AFI Film Festival, and Mill Valley Film Festival.
Okazaki’s films explore a range of subjects – from heroin addiction to hula to Hiroshima – and a mastery of a range of filmmaking styles – from streetwise vérité to historical narratives, personal films, music documentaries, and “whatever happens” projects like his short films on the Minnesota State Fair and the Tokyo art scene.
He has received numerous honors, including four Academy Awards nominations; an Oscar and a Peabody for the 1991 PBS documentary short “Days of Waiting”; a Primetime Emmy for the 2007 HBO documentary “White Light/Black Rain”; and Camerimage’s Outstanding Achievement Award.
A Sansei and a Southern California native, Okazaki grew up in Venice, went to film school at San Francisco State University, studied painting and played in punk bands before getting serious about filmmaking. He directed children’s films and low-budget features, but focused primarily on documentaries, making “Survivors” for WGBH Boston, the Oscar-nominated “Unfinished Business” and “Troubled Paradise,” all for PBS.
Frustrated with the creative and content limitations of working with PBS, he considered quitting filmmaking until he met a group of young heroin addicts. Armed with a digital camcorder, he spent three years on the streets in San Francisco making “Black Tar Heroin,” a gritty, groundbreaking documentary for HBO. “The digital cameras changed everything,” he says. “Finally, you could go anywhere and shoot anything.”
For the past 20 years, he has worked primarily with HBO Documentary Films, recently producing the highly praised “Heroin: Cape Cod, USA,” which explores New England’s devastating heroin epidemic.
Looking for a change of scenery, Okazaki connected with producers Toshiaki Nakazawa and Toichiro Shiraishi to make “Mifune.” The actor, along with baseball legend Sandy Koufax and painter Amedeo Modigliani, was one of his childhood heroes.
Remaining showtimes: Friday, Dec. 2, at 8 p.m.; Saturday, Dec. 3, at 12, 2, 4 and 6 p.m.; Sunday, Dec. 4, at 12:30, 2:30, 4:30 and 6:30 p.m.; Monday, Dec. 5, at 12, 2, 4 and 6 p.m.; Tuesday, Dec. 6, at 4, 6, 8 and 10 p.m.; Wednesday, Dec. 7, at 12, 2, 4 and 6 p.m.; Thursday, Dec. 8, at 12, 2, 4 and 10 p.m.
Four of Mifune’s best-known films will also be shown at the Fine Arts. The schedule is as follows:
• “Samurai Rebellion” (1967), directed by Masaki Kobayashi, on Saturday, Dec. 3, at 8 p.m. The mother of a feudal lord’s only heir is kidnapped away from her husband by the lord. The husband and his samurai father must decide whether to accept the unjust decision, or risk death to get her back. Also starring Go Kato and Yoko Tsukasa.
• “The Hidden Fortress” (1958), directed by Kurosawa, on Sunday, Dec. 4, at 10 a.m.; “High and Low” on Dec. 4 at 8:30 p.m. Lured by gold, two greedy peasants escort a man and woman across enemy lines. They do not realize, however, that their companions are actually a princess and her general. Also starring Minoru Chiaki and Misa Uehara.
• “High and Low” (1963), directed by Kurosawa, on Sunday, Dec. 4, at 8:30 p.m. Mifune is unforgettable as Kingo Gondo, a wealthy industrialist whose family becomes the target of a cold-blooded kidnapper, in a compelling race-against-time thriller and a penetrating portrait of contemporary Japanese society. Also starring Tatsuya Nakadai and Yutaka Sada.
• “Throne of Blood” (1957), directed by Kurosawa, on Thursday, Dec. 8, at 7:15 p.m. A war-hardened general, egged on by his ambitious wife, works to fulfill a prophecy that he would become lord of Spider’s Web Castle. Also starring Isuzu Yamada and Minoru Chiaki.
For more information, call (310) 478-3836 or visit www.laemmle.com/theaters/25.