Posted by medusamorlock on August 8, 2012
With apologies to all the film aficionados and experts frequently present here on Movie Morlocks, I don’t believe I’m going out on much of a limb in saying that many other people know or have heard of Toshiro Mifune not from his appearances in masterworks of Japanese cinema but from his appearance in one of the most famous broadcast television miniseries ever presented. On September 15, 1980, NBC presented Part 1 of their five-part adaptation of Shogun, novelist James Clavell’s sweeping saga about a British sailor shipwrecked in 17th century Japan who ends up smack in the middle of an intense rivalry between two powerful and ambitious men who crave the same thing — to win the title of Shogun.
Toshiro Mifune had appeared in a handful of non-Japanese films up to this point, of course, including 1966′s international racing car adventure Grand Prix, 1971′s Charles Bronson western Red Sun, 1975′s David Niven-starrer Paper Tiger, 1976′s World War II historical drama Midway, 1979′s political thriller Winter Kills, and director Steven Spielberg’s broad WW II comedy 1941. True film buffs throughout the years had also savored Mifune’s performances in Japanese-language foreign imports, and yet a truly successful mainstream breakthrough to American audiences hadn’t happened yet for Mifune. (Not that he was necessarily looking for one, even).
NBC, whose only spots on the yearly Top Ten list for the 1979 – 1980 season were thanks to Michael Landon’s Little House on the Prairie and Erik Estrada’s tight motorcycle pants on CHiPS, chose to open their 1980 season with the ambitious and meticulously-produced Shogun, twelve hours scheduled over five nights — Monday thru Friday — dominating the network’s schedule and allowing the network to get a head start on the season. An actors’ strike had delayed summer production on most series and the ABC and CBS were not declaring the Fall Season official a “go” until late October, but that didn’t stop NBC from firing off its first and ultimately incredibly successful salvo.
Former Dr. Kildare TV heartthrob Richard Chamberlain starred as Blackthorne, the waylaid seaman, with Toshiro Mifune received second billing as Lord Yoshi Toranaga. The prestigious pair toplined a large cast that included John Rhys-Davies, Michael Hordern, Yoko Shimada, Frankie Sakai, Alan Badel, and a huge contingent of Japanese actors and actresses who fleshed-out the filmed-entirely-in-Japan production. No expense was spared, no detail overlooked in giving Shogun a sumptious verisimillitude — dialogue between Japanese characters was not translated for viewers, for instance – that captivated television audiences who had grown to love the miniseries format. Favorite books and assorted historical sagas were being given adequate airtime to properly bring to life the complex stories that simply couldn’t fit into two hours, and networks (and their competition, the independent stations in every TV market) found that these special events were never less than ratings gold. Richard Chamberlain, especially, was dubbed “King of the Miniseries” for his roles in Shogun and his earlier Western mini Centennial, and most importantly his 1983 role as the troubled priest in The Thorn Birds.
But we’re celebrating Toshiro Mifune this week here at Movie Morlocks, and Shogun was surely a triumph for him. At nearly 60 years of age, Mifune did many of his own stunts (and took some hard knocks at least once during a strenuous sequence), and his onscreen power and charisma did not fail him. His Toranaga was a highlight of the production, with Mifune’s ability to both charm and dominate his screen moments in ample supply.
In case the clip of Blackthorne teaching Toranaga a dance doesn’t come up, it’s available at this embedded link.
And there’s a montage of Toshiro as Toranaga clips here, too.
However, nothing conveys the many-faceted appeal of Mifune as well as simply looking at him inhabing the role of Toranaga.
Shogun is now available on DVD in its original full miniseries length, as well as a very much shortened movie version (which is not recommended). Have the years been kind to Shogun? Thirty years is a long time, but the purpose, ambition and scope of Shogun remain intact, as well as the wonderful performances from its cast and the beauty of historical re-creations done with care. Incidentally, both Chamberlain and Mifune were nominated for Emmy Awards in the Outstanding Lead Actor in a Limited Series or a Special category, but Anthony Hopkins took the prize for his Hitler in The Bunker, though Shogun won for Outstanding Limited Series.
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