Toshiro Mifune is….Sinbad?

The TCM Movie Morlocks blogathon tribute to Toshiro Mifune continues as I revisit THE LOST WORLD OF SINBAD, a film I first saw as a kid at the National Theatre in downtown Richmond, Virginia. Although TCM is not airing this in their Mifune lineup scheduled for Thursday, August 9th, it is worth checking out (if you have an all region DVD player) to see another side of the celebrated Japanese actor that Western audiences rarely get a chance to see.         

Most moviegoers know Mifune from his long and fruitful association with director Akira Kurosawa, most prominently Rashomon and The Seven Samurai, and a handful of major works from other directors in the Japanese cinema such as Kenji Mizoguchi’s The Life of Oharu (1952) and Hiroshi Inagaki’s Samurai Trilogy (TCM will show all three parts). But beyond his many period samurai roles and his more contemporary dramas and noirs (Drunken Angel, Stray Dog, The Bad Sleep Well), Mifune was much more than an international art house darling and award winning actor. He was a popular star – as much a product of the Japanese studio system as Clark Gable and Spencer Tracy were creations of the Hollywood studio system. Like those two actors, he was as good, if not better, than the material he was given (charisma conquers all!)  and he had his share of genre programmers and lowbrow general audience entertainments but THE LOST WORLD OF SINBAD (1963) is one of his more enjoyable and eccentric efforts.

Made between Mifune’s own self-directed post WWII adventure 500,000 (Japanese title Gojuman-nin no isan) and Shikonmado – Dai tatsumaki (Hiroshi Inagaki’s samurai adventure sequel to his 1961 feature Daredevil in the Castle), THE LOST WORLD OF SINBAD actually has no connection to any Arabian Nights tale or the original Persian legends of Sinbad. American International Pictures simply took a fantasy adventure starring Mifune entitled SAMURAI PIRATE (in some countries it was known as The Great Thief) and redubbed it in English, changing the actor’s character name  to Sinbad from Sukezaemon Naya (his nickname is Luzon to confuse matters more). Any resemblance to any Sinbad movie you have ever seen ends there. This was, after all, a time when wild and exotic imports from other countries would pass as kiddie fare under Americanized titles at your local theatres like The Sword and the Dragon (aka Ilya Muromets from Russia), the animated Magic Boy (aka Shonen Sarutobi Sasuke from Japan), Hercules and the Captive Women (aka Ercole alla conquista di Atlantide from Italy) and Little Red Riding Hood (aka La caperucita roja from Mexico).

By age ten I was already a huge fan of Ray Harryhausen’s special effects work in sci-fi films and The 7th Voyage of Sinbad would have made my top ten list in 1963 of the world’s greatest films. But THE LOST WORLD OF SINBAD was radically different from any Harryhausen Sinbad movie and was one of my first exposures to Japanese fantasy filmmaking outside the realm of Toho monster jams like Godzilla, Rodan and Mothra. For adolescent audiences, this was weird, trippy stuff with plenty of earthy humor, some decidedly un-ASPCA moments (involving a bullfrog and a chicken), bizarre visual effects, a nutty Apache dance production number with a whip-welding master and a bevy of undulating slave girls, and some wink-wink, nudge-nudge sexual suggestiveness not usually found in any Sinbad movies made in America. THE LOST WORLD OF SINBAD was also the first time I had encountered characters bounding into the air or floating gravity-free over the heads of characters they were either fleeing or attacking – a phenomenon that would reach epic proportions in Hong Kong cinema during the seventies and eighties (A Touch of Zen, Mr. Vampire, A Chinese Ghost Story). This was an amazing thing to behold.

Although the English dubbed version of THE LOST WORLD OF SINBAD is not available in any format, I was able to purchase the original Japanese version, SAMURAI PIRATE (with optional English subtitles), on DVD from the Amazon UK site. I was struck by how much I remembered from that one viewing of the film back in 1965 (the year AIP released it in the U.S.), especially the scenes involving the evil witch turning people to stone with her Medusa-like gaze and Sennin the wizard with his transformative powers.

Yet one of the scenes I remember most clearly appeared to be truncated – a sequence where Sennin transforms himself into a fly and lands on a curvaceous dancer, crawling down between her two breasts while chattering excitedly. Now I wonder if I imagined it. Surely not. But then again the running time of the original Japanese version and THE LOST WORLD OF SINBAD appears to be the same – 96 minutes (according to IMDB). The AFI Feature Film Catalog from 1961-1970 notes the film was “released in Japan in 1964 under the title Daitozoku; running time: 97 minutes.” However, the all region DVD I watched from Eastern Eye lists the running time as 93 minutes though the slightly reduced length is probably the result of lexiconing which speeds up the frame rate and is most noticeable here in the action scenes. But whether this infamous scene in my head existed or not, one thing is readily apparent in SAMURAI PIRATE; Sennin is an unrepetant breast man and there are several scenes where he becomes completely immoblized while gazing deep into some woman’s ample cleavage, often like a wooden plank about to fall – at a 45 degree angle – about to fall.

But this is part of the movie’s eccentric charm. It also has a quirky narrative pace, throwing you into the thick of things from the very beginning [spoilers ahead] and proceeding in episodic fashion after that, which is sometimes plodding but more often wacky and unpredictable. It all starts when the sailor Luzon (Mifune) is branded a pirate by the government and sentenced to be burned alive. He miraculously escapes, of course, and returns to his crew, vowing to become the treacherous pirate he is accused of being while his shipmates cheer him on in allegiance. Just when we think Luzon and his posse of roughneck mariners are going to be the main attraction, a deadly storm at sea sinks the ship and the few survivors (except our hero) are picked off by the notorious Black Pirate and his archers who discover them adrift and steal the treasure chest Luzon saved from the wreckage. Though wounded, Luzon is washed ashore an island and wakes up days later under the watchful eye of Sennin the wizard (Ichiro Arishima) who becomes his ally and protector.

As Luzon follows the trail of the stolen treasure, he uncovers a plot by the island’s Chancellor (Tadao Nakamaru) to murder the reigning king (Takashi Shimura in a blink-and-you’ll-miss-him role) and marry his daughter, Princess Yaya (Mie Hama), who is betrothed to Prince Ming of Thailand (Jun Funato). Once Luzon learns that the traitorous Chancellor has possession of the stolen treasure, he commits himself to foiling King Raksha’s overthrow with Sennin’s help and a band of scruffy outlaws led by the flirtatious Miwa (Kumi Mizuno).

Among the many visual highlights of THE LOST WORLD OF SINBAD are an attempt by Luzon to gain access to the king’s impenetrable castle by way of a giant kite and a wild chase/duel between Sennin and the all-powerful, dual-fanged witch (Hideyo Amamoto) who serves the Chancellor. By the way, the special effects in this movie were designed by the legendary Eiji Tsuburaya, the monster creator of Godzilla, The H-Man, Gorath, Dogora, the Space Monster and so many more. According to August Ragone in his career survey Eiji Tsuburaya: Master of Monsters, for THE LOST WORLD OF SINBAD, “Tsuburaya was given another Film Technique Award (by the Japanese film industry), and Samurai Pirate went on to win the Best Specialized Film Award at the Venice Film Festival in 1964.”

One can’t help but be amused by AIP’s attempt to transform SAMURAI PIRATE into a Sinbad movie in the U.S. version (The Lost World of Sinbad) because Mifune’s disgraced sailor is neither dashing, noble or particularly resourceful unlike previous and future portrayers of the role (Douglas Fairbanks Jr., Kerwin Mathews, John Phillip Law, Patrick Wayne). Instead Mifune plays Luzon as a surly mercenary and he lumbers through the movie with a perpetual scowl on his face, occasionally expressing a wry sense of humor or complete bafflement at the strange situations he encounters. It may be a one note performance but it is still fun to see a long haired Mifune with his not quite lithe physique (he was around 43 at the time) be put through the paces as an action hero though the samurai swordsmanship is mostly reserved for the grand finale.

While Mifune may get star billing, the movie is stolen from him by the colorful supporting cast, especially Ichiro Arisima as the lustful but doddering old wizard and his nemesis, the white haired sorceress, played by Hideyo Amamoto, one of Japan’s most eccentric cult actors. He’s in gender bender drag for THE LOST WORLD OF SINBAD which is in the grand tradition of other key female impersonators in Japanese cinema such as Kazuo Hasegawa in An Actor’s Revenge (1963) and Akihiro Miwa, the flamboyant star of Black Lizard (1968) and Black Rose Mansion (1969). Some of Amamoto’s most offbeat roles include Atragon (1963), Key of Keys (1965), which was comically redubbed in Engish by Woody Allen as What’s Up, Tiger Lily?, and in drag again for Kiganjo no Boken (1966) and Message from Space (1978). As for Ichiro Arisima, he was one of the biggest comedy stars in Japanese cinema but few of his films have been seen outside his own country.

Providing the sex appeal in THE LOST WORLD OF SINBAD are Mie Hama, known as Japan’s answer to Brigitte Bardot and famous for her role as the fetching Bond girl Kissy in 1967’s You Only Live Twice, and Kumi Mizuno, who would become a favorite of sci-fi director Ishiro Honda; he cast her to memorable effect in such fan favorites as Frankenstein Conquers the World (1965) and The War of the Gargantuas (1968). Mitsuko Kusabue, who plays the chief villain’s sinister accomplice and unrequited lover, is also deliciously evil and delivers some of the best lines: “I only love your evil heart. Watching your wicked ambitions make me tremble with excitement.”

Senkichi Taniguchi, the director of THE LOST WORLD OF SINBAD, helmed a large number of genre films over the course of his career but is probably best known for The Sound of Waves (Japanese title: Shiosai, 1954), which was based on Yukio Mishima’s novel. Mifune made his share of genre films too such as I Bombed Pearl Harbor (1960), The Last Gunfight (1960), Red Lion (1969) and Zatoichi Meets Yojimbo (1970) but he will always be associated with director Akira Kurosawa whom most critics felt guided him to his greatest performances. Mifune has been quoted as saying “That the Japanese film is known at all in the West is due mainly to the pictures of Akira Kurosawa.  That I am known both here and abroad is also mainly due to him. He taught me practically everything I know, and it was he who first introduced me to myself as an actor.” Regarding Kurosawa, he has also stated, “I am proud of nothing I have done other than with him.” Unfortunately the two collaborators had a falling out in 1965 during the filming of Red Beard (TCM is airing it on Aug. 9th at 4:45 pm ET) and never worked together again.

Yet, despite Mifune’s claims that his best work was done for Kurosawa, one cannot deny that Mifune’s versatility and talent have elevated the work of many a director from Hiroshi Inagaki (The Rickshaw Man, 1958 – also showing on TCM) to John Boorman (Hell in the Pacific, 1968) to Yoji Yamada (Tora-san Goes North, 1987). Even escapist fare as colorful but frivolous as THE LOST WORLD OF SINBAD reveals Mifune plying his trade in a purely commercial venture and proving why he was one of the most popular actors in Japanese cinema, if not the world.

Other sites of interest:

http://streamline.filmstruck.com/2008/02/23/the-kaiju-eiga-man/

http://www.mifuneproductions.co.jp/eindex.html

http://www.criterion.com/current/posts/602-tokyo-journal-remembering-toshiro-mifune

http://www.nytimes.com/1997/12/25/movies/toshiro-mifune-actor-dies-at-77-the-primal-hero-of-samurai-films.html?pagewanted=all&src=pm

http://streamline.filmstruck.com/2008/06/21/ilya-muromets-to-the-rescue/

13 Responses Toshiro Mifune is….Sinbad?
Posted By Juana Maria : August 5, 2012 11:36 am

Thanks for the article! I never saw this film of his before. I have seen a number of Sinbad films. This one makes me think it would have been perfect for MST3K! I also want to add,Mifune is so handsome! I love the last picture in the article.Thanks! Sayonara & Domo Origato!

Posted By Juana Maria : August 5, 2012 11:36 am

Thanks for the article! I never saw this film of his before. I have seen a number of Sinbad films. This one makes me think it would have been perfect for MST3K! I also want to add,Mifune is so handsome! I love the last picture in the article.Thanks! Sayonara & Domo Origato!

Posted By Susan Doll : August 5, 2012 2:21 pm

Genre films always have the best poster art, and this is no exception. What fun.

Posted By Susan Doll : August 5, 2012 2:21 pm

Genre films always have the best poster art, and this is no exception. What fun.

Posted By Jenni : August 5, 2012 6:16 pm

What fun it must have been for you to see this in a movie theatre setting. I am envious! Wish TCM could air it for their Mifune films this month.

Posted By Jenni : August 5, 2012 6:16 pm

What fun it must have been for you to see this in a movie theatre setting. I am envious! Wish TCM could air it for their Mifune films this month.

Posted By Rippke : August 8, 2012 11:56 am

I didn’t know this movie existed! Thanks for writing about it!

Posted By Rippke : August 8, 2012 11:56 am

I didn’t know this movie existed! Thanks for writing about it!

Posted By Janet : August 8, 2012 12:57 pm

I’ve had that experience of a strong memory of a scene in a movie that appears not to exist. There’s a scene I remember from the first time I saw Blow-Up that I have never seen again. Considering it’s my favorite film and I’ve seen it every time it came to a theater near me, as well as owning it on VHS and DVD, I’m near to admitting it doesn’t exist. But I just can’t let it go. That memory is so vivid.

Posted By Janet : August 8, 2012 12:57 pm

I’ve had that experience of a strong memory of a scene in a movie that appears not to exist. There’s a scene I remember from the first time I saw Blow-Up that I have never seen again. Considering it’s my favorite film and I’ve seen it every time it came to a theater near me, as well as owning it on VHS and DVD, I’m near to admitting it doesn’t exist. But I just can’t let it go. That memory is so vivid.

Posted By morlockjeff : August 8, 2012 1:52 pm

Janet,
That has happened to me more than once. I always wonder if something was cut since the film’s original release when I saw it but, then again, memory can be a tricky thing. I also thought I saw something happen in the opening sequence of HORRORS OF THE BLACK MUSEUM that fans of the film insist never appeared or doesn’t exist in any version.

Posted By morlockjeff : August 8, 2012 1:52 pm

Janet,
That has happened to me more than once. I always wonder if something was cut since the film’s original release when I saw it but, then again, memory can be a tricky thing. I also thought I saw something happen in the opening sequence of HORRORS OF THE BLACK MUSEUM that fans of the film insist never appeared or doesn’t exist in any version.

Posted By Irv O. Neil : June 12, 2015 1:43 am

This sounds fantastic. Though I’ve seen many Japanese films, this one has eluded me and I will have to catch up with it. Thanks for your in-depth piece–although I did skip the spoilers! I checked out the trailer on YouTube and it is tantalizing indeed. Toshiro Mifune and Kumi Mizuno are two of my favorite performers.

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