Toshiro Mifune Conquers American TV

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.

0 Response Toshiro Mifune Conquers American TV
Posted By Jenni : August 9, 2012 12:07 am

Shogun! I remember being glued to the screen and watching it all 5 nights. My Dad loved it too. I’d like to see it again on dvd and thanks for the warning that the shorter movie version isn’t worth viewing. Reading your post has made me wonder why network tv drifted away from showing mini-series programming? They certainly were popular in the 1970′s and 80′s. I miss them!

Posted By Susan Doll : August 9, 2012 1:28 am

Oh, the heyday of mini-series. I miss their scope and breadth. And, this one was a classic. With the networks barely allowing their series to go for 5 or 6 episodes before pulling the plug, I doubt if they will ever again devote 5 nights to one program like a mini-series. Too bad. It was a terrific format for TV.

Posted By iris : August 9, 2012 8:02 am

I loved Shogun. I remember watching it while I was in Jr. HIgh School. I came across the book in a client’s home and had the pleasure of reading it. the book made me want the mini series and am glad that it is available on DVD. i plan to get it so tht m;y children can watch.

Posted By medusamorlock : August 9, 2012 9:22 am

I think the excitement and impact of the miniseries format has evolved into the (mostly) pay TV channel-model, kind of, with shortened seasons which may or may not come back for a second time around, but we anticipate them highly and they are over before we know it! The big minis were a great way for the networks to fight against the growing strength of great independent stations, and the independents used their own minis (often in ad hoc networks) to fight back against the networks, too! And boy, did it bring some wonderful TV!

And thirty years — yikes! I’ve definitely been in the business too long!

Posted By medusamorlock : August 9, 2012 9:26 am

Speaking of miniseries, I just found this interesting article where FX tries to redefine the term. I don’t buy it and it seems an Emmy snafu, but interesting, anyway.

Posted By John Maddox Roberts : August 9, 2012 12:26 pm

I recall reading that SHOGUN was the occasion of a falling-out between Mifune and Kurosawa. Kurosawa thought the project was beneath an actor of Mifune’s stature while to Mifune it was a paying gig. Don’t know if this is true or not.

Posted By Kimberly Lindbergs : August 9, 2012 1:15 pm

It’s great to see you posting at the Morlocks again, Lisa! We miss you.

And I’m so glad you highlighted Mifune’s performance in SHOGUN. I’ll be forever grateful to James Clavell’s “Shogun” for inspiring my mother to take me with her to Japan. My cousin was living there in the ’70s (he was in the Peace Corps. and taught English) so he let us stay with him and the experience totally changed my life. Afterward I became a lifelong Japanophile and have made a couple of return trips there as an adult. But back to SHOGUN the TV event…

I watched it right along with my mother every night and was inspired to read the book afterward. I’d seen Mifune in TORA TORA TORA and HELL ON THE PACIFIC before but I’d never seen him in a period piece. I remember finding him absolutely fascinating in the role. I miss these kind of lush costume period mini-series too and really wish they’d return to network TV. This is why I spend so much of my TV time watching PBS where I can get absorbed in stuff like DOWNTON ABBEY.

Posted By Kimberly Lindbergs : August 9, 2012 1:20 pm

John Maddox Roberts – As for SHOGUN being the cause for the falling out between Mifune & Kurosawa, I don’t think that’s the case. The two parted ways long before SHOGUN. Rumor has it that their relationship got tense during the making of RED BEARD (the last film they made together in 1965). Mifune supposedly didn’t want to grow a beard for the role and their working relationship hit some bumps but more than likely they just wanted to explore other creative avenues. Mifune continued to speak fondly of the director throughout his life and often said the best work he did was with Kurosawa.

Posted By Medusa : August 9, 2012 4:35 pm

Thanks for the kind words, Kimberly! And how great that “Shogun” was a seminal viewing experience for you — I’m sure that was the case for a lot of folks. If you look around message boards and the like, lots of shout-outs from people who became fascinated after watching it. Certainly it brought fans to Mifune’s other work, which is a wonderful after-effect!

And yes — more miniseries, please! Or at least let’s be able to watch the old ones!

Posted By morlockjeff : August 9, 2012 4:41 pm

I love the fact that it was an American TV mini-series that introduced mainstream American audiences to Toshiro Mifune. Perhaps a few of them were curious enough to seek out Mifune’s Japanese films and got converted into Asian film fanatics in the process.

Posted By medusamorlock : August 10, 2012 10:10 am

Jeff, I wouldn’t doubt that more than a few Asian film fans were sparked by watching “Shogun” as kids!

And it wasn’t just any miniseries,but one that was insanely popular at the time when network TV viewing was still king. Quite an exposure for Mifune!

Posted By tdraicer : August 14, 2012 12:30 am

While I understood the decision not to translate the Japanese, I’ve always wanted a version of Shogun where they did translate it-does anyone know if the dvds have optional subtitles that accomplish that?

Posted By medusamorlock : August 14, 2012 11:38 am

Hi tdraicer! I’ve looked on the Amazon page for the new release — sounds like the Japanese portions are NOT translated, even if you are running the subtitles — I quote: “The dvd’s quality is very good. No complains what so ever in the packaging and the mailing, everything is impeccable. I noteced on some reviews about the dvd’s lack of english subtitles when japanese is spoken. If one checks the production’s notes you’ll see why…”

So I would take that no mean that the Japanese is NOT translated, but it doesn’t specifically mention if you have the actual hearing-impaired subtitles on, but I would imagine it says “Speaking in Japanese” or something like that, which I have seen on other movies that have passages in another language.

I’ll keep investigating, though!

Posted By tdraicer : August 15, 2012 11:47 pm


Leave a Reply

Current ye@r *

As of November 1, 2017 FilmStruck’s blog, StreamLine, has moved to Tumblr.

Please visit us there!

 Streamline is the official blog of FilmStruck, a new subscription service that offers film aficionados a comprehensive library of films including an eclectic mix of contemporary and classic art house, indie, foreign and cult films.