April 1 Birthday: Toshiro Mifune

Toshiro Mifune
Toshiro Mifune

Before Bruce Lee There Was Toshiro Mifune

          — with Thanks to Akira Kurosawa and the Toho La Brea Theater

Toshiro, you were so much more to me
than your movie star beauty,
though no one but you could look so appealing
in a ragged kimono, days without a bath,
scratching your head as you’d scrutinize the world.

Undeniably the best swordsman in Japan,
you took on single opponents or a gang of forty
with equal aplomb. And with that almost humane
efficiency, your sword moved faster than the eye,
each cut so quick and clean your victims fell
before they could utter a cry.

You were the perfect imperfect hero —
willing to defend a village of poor farmers
who’d repay you with a bowl of hot rice,
or selling yourself to the highest bidder,
you’d play crooked merchants against
conniving officials and noblemen.

It was your unfortunate karma
to be born into the rank of bushido warrior.
Each time you killed I knew you felt no satisfaction.
You were never the first to draw your sword.

All the women who watched you wanted you,
though you were awkward at romance. Not once
did I see you kiss a leading lady. Or lie
naked with her the night before battle.
You’d keep a girl waiting for months,
even years, like the lover who followed you
through the long 3-part saga, “The Legend of Musashi.”

Toshiro, you were my first true film idol,
the Asian hero I could never find on the American screen.
I’ll even admit you blessed those early years of marriage,
when my young husband and I spent Saturday nights
at the Toho La Brea. As the lights flashed back on,
my husband and every other Japanese man in the audience
would go home at least a few inches taller.

No one can forget you, Toshiro, in that brilliant duel
when you shifted your sword to reflect the sun,
the steel blade dazzling your enemy’s eye.
And at the end of the story, as you slowly turned
your back and walked into the horizon,
that slightly bowlegged swagger
in your every step — no one came close.

–Amy Uyematsu

NOTE: In honor of National Poetry Month, each day a person’s birthday will be celebrated with a poem about or by him/her. The poems come from all over the place.