The male topknot, otherwise known as the man bun, has been fashionable in recent years. Various hunky celebrities, from Leonardo DiCaprio to Jake Gyllenhaal, have rocked the hairstyle to great effect and made it acceptable in the mainstream spotlight. A hairdo that used to be associated with scruffiness is now acceptable to wear to any societal function. However, know one thing: no one who ever sports a man bun will suit it more than Toshiro Mifune did back in the day.
Of course, Mifune’s history with the man bun is more meaningful than mere fashion. While he was just as hot — if not hotter — than DiCaprio and Gyllenhaal with a topknot, Mifune’s man bun was at the forefront of Japanese cinema’s golden age. A time when Akira Kurosawa‘s period costume dramas were all the rage, telling stories about men with man buns from zeitgeists where the hairstyle was synonymous with power, nobility, war, and savagery.
In The Salon’s fascinating chronicle of the man bun’s history, author Lora Brown highlights how the hairstyle used to be a symbol of class and a warrior’s ability to succeed in battle. While many cultures have embraced the man bun throughout history, they were especially common in Japan during the Edo period, especially among the region’s almighty samurai. The man bun’s roots can be traced back to more primal times, which is probably why it’s a hairdo that’s associated with rugged manliness.
Mifune made 16 films with Kurosawa, many of which revolve around samurai warriors, including Rashomon, Seven Samurai, and Yojimbo. Their collaborations wowed audiences worldwide and directly influenced iconic movies such as The Magnificent Seven, A Fistful of Dollars, and Star Wars. They were game-changers that put samurai films on the map, and they remain popular to this day. As such, when movie fans think about samurais, the image of Mifune and his man bun immediately pop into their heads.
But Mifune’s man bun is more than that. It’s also a reminder of history. Granted, samurai movies have reimagined and exaggerated the past for the purpose of entertainment, but that doesn’t mean there isn’t some truth in their depiction of a bygone era. It’s true that man buns were go-to hairstyles for the samurai during that period, but let’s face it: more people probably learned that from watching Mifune than they did from reading a history book.
The modern man bun is mostly an accessory, but when Mifune decided to tie his hair in a little knot, he did so with the intention of bringing the past to life on the screen, transporting viewers to a world that was dangerous, exciting, and adventurous. And in doing so, he reminded viewers of the hairstyle’s primal history. His man bun was worn with a purpose.
That said, Mifune’s man bun wouldn’t stand out from the pack if the actor didn’t deliver powerhouse performances that embodied the primal fury and majesty of the warriors he brought to life onscreen. Mifune experienced real combat, having been drafted into the Japanese Imperial Army in 1939, so he was better suited than most for playing fighting men. Furthermore, while training to become an action movie star, he studied the movements of lions in an effort to channel their deadly grace into his performances.
One of the coolest scenes in cinema history occurs in Yojimbo when Mifune’s lone wolf samurai character enters a town, ready for battle. Calmly, he walks toward a gang of killers, his man bun firmly in place, with a ferocious wind blowing around him. He then proceeds to unleash chaos on the bandits, and during those moments, the man bun becomes the coolest hairstyle in the world, because one of the most convincing badasses in cinema wears it with pride.
This is one of many scenes in Mifune’s man bun oeuvre that showcases the actor at his most primitively captivating. It’s worth noting that he was a versatile talent with an amazing range, but his most memorable performances are the ones where he rocked a man bun, kicked a lot of butt, and forever changed pop culture as a result.
There was more to Mifune than a man bun, but it was a key characteristic of the legendary characters he played and the contributions he made to cinema. Thirsting for Gyllenhaal when he has a similar hairstyle and performs handstands is great and all, but nothing beats seeing Mifune slice and dice through people with a sword.