Toshiro Mifune did not receive an Oscar nomination for portraying the samurai in Yojimbo.
Toshiro Mifune plays an outsider to this story as he plays a Ronin who happens to stumble upon this town who is made up of various criminals who work for either one gangster family or the other who try to control the town. This actually might be Mifune's quietest performance oddly enough since his performances in High and Low and The Quiet Duel had those moments of well earned reasonable emotional outbursts. Here Mifune shows considerable restraint in his creation of the samurai which is a remarkable one beginning right from the way he walks. It would be easy enough I suppose to simply walk normally, but Mifune playing the character as a wolf of sorts walks in this particular way. It comes off as completely natural to be sure but that little itch he gives the samurai makes him stand out in the way the samurai should stand out as it becomes clear he is far different from any other man in the town.
Mifune obviously was no stranger to the role of the heroic swordsman as shown through his performance in the Seven Samurai. In the Seven Samurai though he was a crazed man who was only a wannabe samurai in reality, who became very emotionally invested in the plight of the farmers he was helping. The nameless samurai here is a bit more distant but that is not to say Mifune plays him as a cold man. No, Mifune instead gives this character just a coolness factor to him. Everything that Mifune physically does in the role just has this effortlessness in creating just how well frankly awesome the character is. Before we even see just how great of a sword fighter he is Mifune obviously shows exactly how great of a sword fighter he is through the way he approaches the role. There is a pervasive confidence Mifune exudes with such ease, and never does even slightly approach into pompousness.
When the samurai first comes into town he finds out about the whole dynamic of the town and the gangs from a good restaurant owner who hates the ways of the criminals. The samurai therefore decides on a plan to make basically both sides of the town kill each other to rid the town of all of its negative influences. Mifune honestly could not be more bad ass than he is here as the samurai so calmly makes his decision through speaking the line akin to "I'll get paid for killing, and this town is full of people who deserve to die". Mifune delivers that we such a calm reserve, but in this reserve you can see that the samurai clearly means what he speaks. Through most of the film Mifune stays fairly reserved like that but it only adds to the fierce quality in the man. Mifune is able to be extremely imposing without even seeming to have to try, that's just how good Toshiro Mifune is here.
Mifune goes much further than simply being a tough guy with the samurai as he creates a certain mischievousness in his performance. Mifune plays it as that the samurai is not simply causing the deaths of the criminals because they are bad, but also that the samurai just really enjoys doing this. There is such a constant sense of fun in his performance, and a certain slyness that properly shows that the samurai is several steps ahead of everyone else in the town. That chin rub when looking over something is just perfect as Mifune basically let's the audience in on the fun of creating this havoc for the villains of the piece. This is a rather surprisingly humorous performance from Mifune as there is a certain comedic quality he brings in most of the scenes where he is tricking one of the sides. I particularly love his rather funny reaction of disgust when one side tries to get his support by offering him some female companionship.
Mifune even sometimes goes even more broadly comic with his performance yet he always keeps it within the confines of the samurai, who after all is a bit of a joker right down to the fake name he gives Kuwabatake Sanjuro which means "thirty-year-old mulberry field ". Mifune knows exactly when to go a little broader which occurs when the samurai watches the chaos between the two gangs, a chaos that he purposefully caused himself. Mifune is very entertaining as he basically shows the samurai, for a lack of a better word, trolling the criminals as he laughs in great glee at their various misfortunes that he has orchestrated. Again Mifune does this so well because he never makes the samurai seem distant toward the audience himself. Instead Mifune brings this relaxed and very welcoming quality that always allows the audience pretty much troll right along with him.
Mifune's performance is not all fun and games though in that there is a very real threat from the criminals particularly a gun touting one (Tatsuya Nakadai), and the whole game becomes even more problematic when the samurai finds that there is a family of innocents caught in the crossfire. The samurai does go out of his way to help them but very coyly acts as though he does not care. Mifune plays these scenes particularly well by subtly suggesting that there is a heart in that cynical calm. These moments are very brief but Mifune brings just the right heart to them well still keeping that front as thought the samurai doesn't care. The samurai due to these actions must also lose that confidence he exudes in every scene when he is finally caught by one of the families in one of his double crosses and is receives a severe beating as he is interrogated for the location of the family that he helped.
The scenes of the beaten samurai are expertly handled by Mifune as he very bluntly makes you feel the pain as he honestly shows the results of the beating. Although the samurai is not defeated mentally Mifune does quite brutally realize the severity of pain caused by the torture, and in doing so make it all the final duel all the greater impact. The final duel is technically quite absurd when you get right down to it as it is the sole samurai versus an entire gang and one of them even has a gun. Mifune makes it believable though through that undeniable strength he brings to the character. Mifune even more remarkable in this scene though as you see in his face a deadly conviction and that this killing is going to be his most personal. Mifune is great in the moments where the samurai attacks as he is almost like lighting in his manner as he has such a pronounced intensity in each stab yet he keeps it almost as an eloquent dance fitting for the intelligence of the samurai.
Toshiro Mifune gives a brilliant performance here as he just so perfectly creates the character of samurai. Every awesome moment the character has is earned entirely by Mifune's equally awesome performance. Mifune carries the film incredibly well as he is perhaps at his most assured with his performance here. There is not a moment waste or ill used in this performance as he always brings something in the scene. Mifune makes the samurai one of the all time great onscreen bad-asses but even that is not enough. He really is absurdly entertaining in this film and brings the humor from the character so naturally with everything else that he must do. Mifune meets every challenge of the character giving such a memorable performance and making the lone samurai one of the best heroes of cinema. It seems like the greatest actors all have that one performance where they frankly get to show off a little this one's Mifune. That approach works flawlessly for the character, and this is easily one of the greatest performances by Toshiro Mifune.