REWIND FEATURE: Interview with Stuart Galbraith IV

Film critic Stuart Galbraith IV has published books on Japanese cinema including “The Emperor and the Wolf: The Lives and Films of Akira Kurosawa and Toshiro Mifune” and “The Toho Studios Story: A History and Complete Filmography”. He has contributed to various DVD and Blu-ray releases with their liner notes and audio commentaries including Akira Kurosawa’s “Rashomon” and the Godzilla film “Invasion of Astro Monster”. His latest work is co-writer for the feature length documentary film “Mifune: The Last Samurai”, directed by Steven Okazaki - a biography on the life of one of the most powerful, original and unforgettable figures to ever grace the screen, Toshiro Mifune.

Rewind DVDCompare is very privileged to have an interview with Mr. Galbraith, as conducted by Rewind’s James-Masaki Ryan.

JMR: First of all, I’d like to thank you for taking the time for this interview. First thing I’d like to ask, how did you first encounter Toshiro Mifune in your cinema-going experience?

SG: Back in the 1970s when I was a young teenager I audited a film course at the local community college where my father taught. It was a small class in a tiny classroom, but they ran a 16mm print of Yojimbo, panned-and-scanned I think, but Mifune’s performance still made a strong impression on me, regardless.

JMR: As of 2017, it’s been 20 years since Mifune passed away. Why do you think Mifune has continued to be popular with worldwide audiences all these years after his death?

SG: Many reasons. For one thing, he’s very obviously the template for a huge swath of roguish heroes and anti-heroes in movies ever since, from Clint Eastwood’s “Man with No Name” with "A Fistful of Dollars", "For a Few Dollars More", and The Good, the Bad and the Ugly" (and hence the entire spaghetti Western genre as we know it) to multiple characters in Star Wars to Bruce Willis’s Die Hard character and on and on.
Less obvious but equally important, I think, is that Mifune was unusual in world cinema in that he started out with zero acting experience and literally the clothes on his back – a kind of suit he himself fashioned out of his old army uniform – and yet within two years was starring in movies like Akira Kurosawa’s "Drunken Angel" and Senkichi Taniguchi’s "Snow Trail", already giving incredible performances.
Other than acting classes at Toho Studios as a “New Face” actor, he had no formal training, but instinctively mined his own difficult past and conflicted emotions into many of his performances. When you see him in movies like "Seven Samurai", "The Lower Depths", and especially "High and Low", one sees, I think, an awful lot of the real Mifune. Plus he was absolutely dedicated as an actor and later a producer as few are. When the role called for it he didn’t hold back, giving 100% emotionally as well as physically. If you look at contemporary English language reviews of his first decade in movies one can see how genuinely startled audiences were. They’d never seen anyone in movies like him before.


Mifune as the legendary samurai Musashi Miyamoto in the three film saga "The Samurai Trilogy" (1954-1956)

JMR: How did you get involved with the film?

SG: Director Steven Okazaki contacted me and we met here in Kyoto. Over dinner at a local izakaya he told me about the project, and I offered some suggestions about people he might try to contact for interviews, as well as my own thoughts about Mifune’s life and career. I’d seen most of Steven’s documentaries before meeting him for the first time, and probably due to my own nervousness wasn’t very articulate and, at the time, didn’t think I was particularly helpful. But a few months later he wrote to say that since a lot of his film was drew upon material from my book "The Emperor and the Wolf", he wanted to give me a co-screenplay credit, which was incredibly and probably overly generous of him.
Last Samurai is, however, in every way his movie. He had his own, personal take on Mifune and wanted to explore that, a very legitimate approach, and so mostly what I did was look at the various cuts as he began assembling it, making suggestions here and there.

JMR: Considering all the issues such as organizing interviews with friends, family, fellow actors, and others, what were some of the difficulties encountered while making the film?

SG: The biggest difficulty concerned the use of film clips. Mifune made the vast majority of his films, including nearly all of his best work, for Toho. They charged budget-busting fees to license clips. I’m sure Steven would have liked to include bits and pieces from many more movies, but the costs and hoop-jumping required by Toho’s legal department made that impossible. In fairness, most film companies and certainly music publishers charge unbelievable amounts of money to license film clips and song excerpts, so Toho isn’t alone in this. For instance, some friends of mine produced a small, independent feature for about $1 million and wanted to include about 60 seconds of a Frank Sinatra song, except the publishers wanted $1 million to license it. It’s really out of control and I think the industry should work to find some reasonable middle ground for producers of documentaries and indie features.

JMR: Issues with music rights and film clips are always a headache copyright-wise, but that is interesting that even Toho would do that even with their involvement. The film has premiered at various festivals. I think the biggest critics are the people closest to the subject matter. How were the reactions from Mifune’s friends and family?

SG: Rikiya Mifune, Toshiro’s grandson, and I helped introduce the film at the Japanese premiere, and we did a couple of interviews as well. He seemed very pleased and it brought back a lot of memories for him.

JMR: Do you think there will ever be another actor like Mifune?

SG: Just as I don’t think there will ever be another Spencer Tracy, Humphrey Bogart, Buster Keaton, Robert Ryan, John Wayne, etc., no. There are more good actors out there today than there are roles to fill, but the circumstances that brought about an actor like Mifune don’t exist today, at least not in Japan, and not in America.


Mifune with actress Kyoko Kagawa at the Venice Film Festival

JMR: You’ve been living in Japan for quite some time now, as have I. What made you decide to move from the US and live in Japan?

SG: Well, I loved Japan since I first visited to do research 23 years ago. I ended up moving here in 2003 through a strange series of circumstances not worth discussing here but I’ve never once regretted it, despite the earthquakes and tsunami and nuclear accidents. I travelled back-and-forth a lot during 1994-2003, and each time I returned to Los Angeles I found the trash and graffiti, the appalling public transportation and infrastructure, the criminally bad health care system ever more depressing. When I moved here 90% of my everyday stress evaporated overnight.
I daresay 99% of those who support the current Administration have never ventured far from their hometowns, let alone spent any significant time as a racial-religious-language minority. Even today many Americans have a completely distorted image of Japan. When they’re not mixing up Japan with China and Korea they imagine we’re all living in huts of straw and corrugated tin eating raw fish. They don’t know I live two blocks away from a 7-Eleven that sells corn dogs, not that I would want to eat those things here. With my unusual perspective, being an expat American looking at America from afar for many years, it’s been like watching a self-inflicted catastrophe in slow-motion, albeit sped up considerably since January.

JMR: I’ll have to defend the Japanese 7-Eleven corndogs, or “American dogs” as they call them in Japan. I’d also like to think people are more educated about basic geography but I’m always surprised with people that don’t know a lot of basic knowledge of other countries or cultures. Film has definitely opened up different cultures for me personally. I’d like to ask some things that are more “home media” related since our site is all about DVDs and Blu-rays. You’ve done many audio commentaries for DVD and Blu-ray releases in the past. Which ones are you most proud of?

SG: That’s a difficult question to answer, because each commentary has its own unique set of challenges. I’m really proud of the one I did for Battles without Honor and Humanity because, for starters, I had an insanely tight window to work with: one month to research, write and record and edit it (My pal Steve Ryfle did the actual cutting of the piece), plus going in I knew a lot less about Japanese gangster movies than many of my colleagues. I gave myself a crash course researching every aspect of the film, particularly in trying to come up with new and intriguing information that hadn’t been written about previously, such as background on the local dialect they speak, Toei Studios’ ties to real yakuza, and even some medical information about what happens when they chop off their pinkies, as my own doctor here used to treat gangsters in the emergency room where he once worked, and had some interesting stories to share.
At the same time I didn’t just want to pack it with information. I wanted to present the material a bit more eloquently than I’d done in past commentaries, and around this time I had just re-watched Ken Burns’s The Civil War, and was struck by the beauty and cleverness of the writing and delivery of that documentary’s narration, which influenced, oddly enough, my work there.
I’m also really happy with what I did on the BFI’s Rashomon and AnimEigo’s Tora-san set. Jobs like that come with a real sense of responsibility: you’ve got one shot at it, so you better be damn sure to get it right. Steve Ryfle and I had a really unusual challenge doing a commentary for an infamously bad Godzilla movie, Godzilla vs. Megalon. Without resorting to MST3K-type mockery, it was interesting to, with relative seriousness, explore why it came out as badly as it did, which led to, I think, a lot of fascinating information about the decline of Japan’s movie industry and austerity at Toho.

JMR: It’s too bad that the "Godzilla vs. Megalon" got into some legal wrangling and was not properly released. I personally enjoyed the Musashi Miyamoto commentary and also the mentioned Tora-san commentary. It’s a shame that the AnimEigo Tora-san boxset was titled “Volume 1” but AnimEigo decided not to continue releasing any more. As for the “Mifune” film, will you be involved in the Blu-ray / DVD release of it?

SG: I’ve heard there was a Blu-ray in the works but, no, I haven’t been contacted about it.

JMR: What are some of your favorite Blu-rays and DVDs?

SG: That’s another difficult question. I’ve resisted streaming media utterly so far, and have built up a DVD and Blu-ray (and HD DVD and laserdisc) library of about 8,000 titles. What I revisit over and over is a mix of obvious stuff like Citizen Kane, 2001: A Space Odyssey, and Lawrence of Arabia, but there are also movies I personally like even if few others do. For instance, I’d argue that Billy Wilder’s best films are Kiss Me Stupid and Avanti, not popular choices, and there are generally unloved movies like Circus World, Chosen Survivors, and Two-Minute Warning that I just happen to like and revisit every few years. Probably any desert island list for me would have to include the French Blu-ray of Jacques Demy’s The Young Girls of Rochefort and the Criterion Blu of It’s a Mad Mad Mad Mad World, two personal favorites.
When I first became passionate about film 40-odd years ago, I was naturally drawn to the classics: John Ford, Howard Hawks, Alfred Hitchcock, Akira Kurosawa, Francois Truffaut, Orson Welles, Ingmar Bergman, etc. For a long time I tended to watch those classics over and over, partly because video stores in those VHS days didn’t offer much else in the way of great classical cinema.
One thing I so love about DVD and now Blu-ray is that I’ve been able to see so many movies virtually impossible even a few years ago, including some titles I’d never even heard of. Over the last few years, for instance, I’ve become a huge admirer of actor Lino Ventura, and have been gobbling up everything I can find. That’s been true of so many things, like Criterion’s Blu-rays of Pierre Étaix’s films and Georges Franju’s Judex, and at the other end of the movie spectrum, gorgeous releases of obscure serials and B-Westerns. I’m also especially interested in earlier technological innovations, so I’ve been thrilled that so many classic ‘50s 3-D titles and all of the original Cinerama films are out or coming out, and that so many movies filmed in larger gauge formats like 65mm and VistaVision look and sound as spectacular as they do on Blu-ray.


A selection of DVDs and Blu-rays featuring Galbraith on the commentary mic

JMR: You’ve written books on various aspects of Japanese cinema including Kurosawa, Godzilla films, and more. If you had the time and resources to write another book on any topic what would it be?

SG: “Resources” is the key word because the publishing industry today can’t afford or just won’t pay authors like me enough to even begin to cover research costs on the books I’d like to write. One of the books I’ve been most interested in writing would have explored the histories and cultural differences of film comedy around the world, from artists like Pierre Étaix, Fernandel and Cantinflas to Asian comedians comedies starring Enoken (Kenichi Enomoto) and Hitoshi Ueki. Apropos to what I said earlier, when I explained my proposed chapter on Japanese film comedy to my agent, he got very excited and said, “I know just the way to sell it, too: Jackie Chan!”

JMR: Oh dear… But as you said before, there are just some people that lump “Asian Film” together and not know the differences.

SG: The other one I’ve wanted to do is a really probing biography of Charles Bronson, whose career is unique in all of cinema, and who during his “European” career during the late 1960s and early ‘70s, made some especially good films general audiences are typically unaware of. Plus he was a fascinating man with an incredible early life, and he’s also a real enigma. Unfortunately, publishers mistakenly think nobody’s interested in him anymore.

JMR: Well, Charles Bronson did have the additional Japanese exposure in Japan doing many commercials in the 1970s and 1980s - similar to how Tommy Lee Jones is probably more well-known in Japan for his coffee commercials now than his movies. Maybe Japanese publishers would be interested in a Bronson biography. As for present-day movies are concerned, what do you think about the current state of Japanese cinema?

SG: Not much. There are a handful of exceptions, of course, but Japan’s Golden Era ended 40-odd years ago, and it’s been in steady decline ever since, with the exception of some anime, of course. The studio system of the ‘30s-‘70s not only subsidized Japan’s great auteurs but also, through its bread-and-butter movies, trained future artists and genre masters so that even ordinary Japanese movies were typically exceedingly well crafted and entertaining. Today virtually all Japanese movies are the product of a dizzying conglomeration of television networks, studios, cable networks wanting “safe” movies for their respective audiences. Jasper Sharp, Tom and Martin Mes nailed this artistic crisis in their final essay for the website Midnight Eye and put it far better than I could.


Mifune with director Akira Kurosawa on the set of their 16th and final collaboration "Red Beard" (1965)

JMR: Could you let us know what some of your upcoming projects are?

SG: Nothing at the moment. Since last spring, I’ve been focusing my energies restoring and renovating a 207-year-old kominka, a type of traditional Japanese farmhouse in the mountains north of Kyoto, and it now looks like I’ll be moving my family there for good next month. It has been a huge undertaking, and it’s something I never could have imagined happening in my life a year ago, but it’s been a really rewarding, exciting change. Of course, if the right project were to come along….

 

"Mifune: The Last Samurai" will be released on DVD in the United States by Strand Releasing on April 25th, 2017.

 

Stills courtesy of Strand Releasing.

 


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