Toshiro Mifune became Japan’s first global movie icon with 1950’s Rashomon… narrowly beating Godzilla, who didn’t get his first film until 1954.

Popping up this week in select theaters, Mifune: The Last Samurai tracks Mifune’s rise from aspiring assistant cameraman to international icon. Featuring interviews with several Japanese film luminaries as well as Martin Scorsese and Steven Spielberg, the documentary sheds new light on the hard-working, hard-drinking star of Seven Samurai, Yojimbo and nearly 200 other films and TV shows.

So with the help of its Oscar-winning director, Steven Okazaki, we humbly present some surprising facts about the mysterious man who helped pave the way for Clint Eastwood, John Belushi and so much more…

Following an audition, Kurosawa raved that Mifune “said in a single action what took ordinary actors three separate movements to express.”

1. Mifune beats the odds just by staying alive. Born in China to Japanese parents in 1920, he served in the Japanese Imperial Air Force during World War II. One of his more traumatic duties was preparing young kamikaze pilots to fly off to their deaths: He reportedly told them to not yell “banzai” for the emperor but to think of their mothers.

2. His first film dreams were more behind the scenes. Mifune initially aspired to be an assistant cameraman, but thanks largely to a young screenwriter/director named Akira Kurosawa, he was signed by Toho Studios as an actor soon after the end of World War II. Following an audition, Kurosawa raved that Mifune “said in a single action what took ordinary actors three separate movements to express.”

3. Mifune and Kurosawa had the greatest collaboration in movie history. From 1948 to 1965, Mifune starred in 16 films directed and co-written by Kurosawa. By comparison, when The Irishman comes out in 2018, it will be just the ninth feature Robert De Niro has made with Martin Scorsese. They transformed first Japanese and then world cinema almost immediately, as in 1950…

mv5bmty0ndyzmzmzof5bml5banbnxkftztcwoty0mtc4ng-_v1_sy1000_cr0014361000_al_

4. Rashomon brought Japanese movies to the rest of the planet. Offering multiple perspectives on a rape and murder (with Mifune playing the rapist/murderer), Rashomon was of no particular interest to its studio until it won the Golden Lion at the Venice Film Festival and an honorary Academy Award, giving Mifune, Kurosawa and Japanese film in general unexpected international recognition. Throughout their time together Kurosawa drove Mifune to greatness while frequently jeopardizing his health through dangerous stunts. Indeed…

5. Kurosawa nearly killed Mifune in what is, well, a pretty kickass scene. In Throne of Blood, Kurosawa insisted on using real arrows in the climax, when Mifune’s own men turn on him. He did not, however, insist on trained archers. Again: real arrows, amateur archers. The final result looks incredibly risky because it is incredibly risky.

6. During the Kurosawa years, Mifune also made great movies with other directors. Indeed, Okazaki says his favorite work by Mifune is the Samurai Trilogy (a series of three films about the legendary samurai Musashi Miyamoto released from 1954 to 1956): “It doesn’t have the art and the ambition of the Kurosawa films, but for me it has the most power.” Mifune continued cranking out gems throughout the ’60s, including 1966’s The Sword of Doom (a major influence on the first Kill Bill) and 1967’s Samurai Rebellion. He even started working overseas. These films include…

7. An unexpected hit in Mexico. Mifune played a Mexican in 1962’s The Important Man, which became both an Academy Award and Golden Globe nominee. And he got an Oscar-winning American costar in another effort, leading to…

8. Mifune vs. Lee Marvin. 1968’s Hell in the Pacific finds two soldiers—one Japanese, one American—alone on an island and forced to deal with each other, despite not understanding the other’s language. Directed by John Boorman (who went on to make Deliverance), it was sort of Castaway minus the volleyball but with way more testosterone, as both tough guy actors were WWII vets who reportedly bonded by sitting together after the day’s filming and silently drinking for hours. Indeed, drinking is a big part of the Mifune legend because…

“On set, he was really in control and prepared,” Okazaki notes. Off set, Mifune held to a philosophy that “once he opened a bottle of Johnny Walker, it had to be finished.”

9. Mifune’s hobbies included drinking, fast cars and samurai swords, often combined in intriguing ways. “On set, he was really in control and prepared,” Okazaki notes. “He never brought a script because he memorized it before the production started.” Off set, Mifune held to a philosophy that “once he opened a bottle of Johnny Walker, it had to be finished.” His son defended his drinking as “heavy but not constant,” but it still could make for some unnerving behavior. The biggest mistake of Mifune’s life, however, came when he was stone cold sober.

10. Mifune was a better actor than businessman. Mifune’s decision to set up a production company ensured he spent much of the rest of his life desperately trying to earn enough money to cover his payroll. Of course, even as he cranked out other films, he was best known for his work with Kurosawa. Making it all the more depressing that….

11. Kurosawa and Mifune stopped working together over an incredibly dumb reason. Their final film together was 1965’s Red Beard. Okazaki says, “Kurosawa insisted Mifune keep a real beard throughout the entire production so Mifune could not act in anything else.” This in fact was a legitimate problem, as Mifune was falling into debt with his production company, but it doesn’t make it any less depressing that they were torn apart by facial hair.

yojimbo_mifuneak_crop_2

12. Both men worked for nearly 30 more years, but never together. Kurosawa’s final film came out in 1993, Mifune’s in 1995. Of course, they will always be linked in the minds of film geeks because…

13. At least five of their collaborations deeply shaped American cinema. Yojimbo was remade as A Fistful of Dollars, making Clint Eastwood a star. Seven Samurai became The Magnificent Seven. The Big Lebowski heavily borrows the plot of High and Low. Rashomon inspired Courage Under Fire, which is forgettable but did get Matt Damon noticed as an actor. (It’s also the movie where he nearly died, after he decided to lose 60 pounds without medical supervision.) Oh, and Hidden Fortress was a huge influence on a little film called Star Wars. Indeed…

mv5bmtu5ndi2mtkxml5bml5banbnxkftztcwnju0mtc4ng-_v1_sy1000_cr0014141000_al_

14. Mifune was supposed to play Obi-Wan Kenobi. He rejected the part, enabling Alec Guinness to take the Star Wars role. Guinness then spent the rest of his life complaining about how much he hated the movie. Sadly, missing out on a role that would have brought him legions of new fans was pretty consistent with what happened to Toshiro during this period because…

15. The later years were not great for Mifune. As he got further from his Kurosawa glory days, Mifune increasingly became all about paying bills. Okazaki says that he “did a lot of features, usually as a samurai or an officer—normally an admiral—during World War II.” His verdict on the era: “Honestly, I did not find anything of artistic merit at all in this period.” Indeed, Mifune’s better work actually came abroad, as he earned an Emmy nomination for the 1980 miniseries Shogun. And he wound up getting an unexpected dose of recognition because…

mv5bmty3oti1odeznf5bml5banbnxkftztcwmja5mtu4mw-_v1_sy1000_cr0014171000_al_

16. Mifune inspired John Belushi’s “samurai” sketches on Saturday Night Live. Belushi was obsessed with Japanese films—Okazaki says he was a regular at a Japanese film society in Chicago—and adopted a version of Mifune as one of his stock characters, which he performed in sketches including “Samurai Night Fever.” Mifune and Belushi actually made a movie together (Steven Spielberg’s 1941 in 1979), but Okazaki said he could not confirm if Mifune had ever seen Belushi’s samurai, much less report his reaction. Mifune died in 1997 at age 77. In summary…

17. It is difficult to overstate how often Mifune was a samurai. In addition to the movies already discussed, his oeuvre also includes Samurai Saga, 47 Samurai, Samurai Assassin, Samurai Banners and The Shogun’s Samurai. And let us not forget…

18. Mifune was a surprisingly good tailor. The Last Samurai is worth watching just to see the impressively well-stitched outfit he made himself after World War II.