On November 10, 2014, one of the greatest legends of Japanese cinema passed away: Having experienced almost 40 years of unparalleled stardom, Ken Takakura’s death of lymphoma at age 83 severed one of the last remaining links to the Golden Age of Japanese Cinema. In America and Europe, he is often called the “Japanese Clint Eastwood”, a term which probably stems from his relatively late discovery in the West, when the already seasoned veteran played the roles of introverted, stubborn old men. A nickname, which I feel does no justice to the impressive résumé of Takakura’s career.
Ken Takakura seldom played the roles of wise-cracking vigilante cops or cynic cowboys, Eastwood became famous for in the 1960s. Indeed, the punkish nonchalance and characteristic tough guy swagger of his on-screen persona in his earlier career bore more resemblance to a young Steve McQueen. As a contract actor for Toei, Ken Takakura began his carreer playing a multitude of different roles, from romantic leads in several Hibari Misora films to morally corrupted gangsters as in “Pigs, Wolves and Men”. It was, however, in the middle of the 1960s, when he first achieved major stardom as a leading actor in Toei’s ninkyo eiga-type yakuza films.
Ninkyo eiga were glamorized accounts of gangsterhood, whose yakuza heroes were heroic loners, fighting a steady battle between their own desires as human beings (“ninjo”) and their duties towards their clan (“giri”). Playing these noble yakuza, Ken Takakura became the venerable sustainer of the traditional values of Japan and the supposedly honorfic way of the yakuza.
In this phase of his career, he might well be called the Japanese John Wayne. His stoic presence and air of melancholy made him a role model for Millions of young Japanese fans, while he also enjoyed great respect among older generations for evoking the conservative values of Japan, which many Japanese believed to have been lost in the increasingly capitalist, liberal and outspoken atmosphere of the 1960s.
The famous author and conservative politician Shintaro Ishihara once called Takakura “the last big star”. Indeed, one hardly could name another actor, who already became a megastar in the his 20s and whose popularity only rose when he got older. Takakura managed what only the greatest of actors, among them Toshiro Mifune, Marilyn Monroe or James Dean, were able to achieve: He transcended his state as a human being and became a legend, whose death will only further reinforce his on-screen immortality for generations of films fans to come.
This list tries to trace back this process of becoming a legend by chronicling the most important stations in Takakura’s long career. Despite many of his films being landmark works, the focus should be mostly on the performances of Takakura in those films and the effect they had on his career. The author hopes that Takakura will emerge as more than the Japanese equivalent of some Hollywood icon. In the end, Ken Takakura was neither the Japanese Clint Eastwood, nor the Japanese Steve McQueen or the Japanese John Wayne, but a magnificent star in his own right, whose magnetizing screen presence was uniquely his own.
1. Deep Blue Sea (Aoi Unabara, 1957)
Considering that Ken Takakura made his breakthrough as an action star in yakuza pictures, it will come as a surprise to many that he cut corners in his early career, playing opposite to Hibari Misora in several romantic comedies. Shot on low-budget and directed by anonymous directors, those films were often lightweight and rather trivial, depending completely on the star appeal of Hibari Misora, both Japan’s most successful actress of the 1950s and legendary pop singer queen.
However, while Ken Takakura’s fame in no way matched the popularity of Hibari Misora at that time, her films starring him mark one of the few instances where the male co-star appears as an equal charismatic personality as the great female star. With his good-looks and noble charm, Takakura soon became popular among the crowds of teenage girls, which largely made up the demographic of Misora’s films. Thus, while seldom particularily memorable, those films were important for introducing Takakura to the public and establishing him as a promising new talent of Japanese cinema.
2. Miyamoto Musashi 3: Birth of the Two-Sword Style (Miyamoto Musashi: Nitoryu kaigen, 1963)
As a contract actor for Toei, Ken Takakura enjoyed a certain star status from the beginning due to his outstanding screen presence and was often cast in contemporary prestige pictures. However, while he never played roles in the so-called Toei gorakuhen, Toei’s trademark low-budget jidai-geki (“period films”), he also made some memorable appearances in the more elaborate of Toei’s period pictures in the beginning of his career.
In Tomu Uchida’s celebrated six-part Miyamoto Musashi series, which chronicle the rise of legendary swordsman Miyamoto Musashi, he was cast as Kojiro Sasaki, the arch enemy of Kinnosuke Nakamura’s Musashi. His stoic and noble presence made him an ideal choice for this role, which coincidentally was also played a few years earlier by Koji Tsuruta in Toho’s Academy Award-winning take on the Miyamoto Musashi mythos. In the 1960s, Tsuruta, along with Ken Takakura, should become the greatest male star of Toei’s ninkyo eiga circle.
3. Theater of Life (Jinsei gekijo, 1963)
“Theater of Life”, directed by Toei artisan Tadashi Sawashima, was the first great hit of the ninkyo eiga and boosted the genre’s popularity. It’s leading man, the already experienced actor Koji Tsuruta, successively became a major star of the genre. He plays the role of a noble yakuza hero, who after being released from prison, discovers that his wife has committed adultery – with a character played by Ken Takakura.
Thus, while the man of the hour was Koji Tsuruta, this film also gains particular importance for the career of Takakura, who played his treacherous adulterer with unexpected nobility and heartfelt sorrow over the deed he has committed. Establishing Takakura as a mainstay in the genre, the film was at the same time only the first step for Takakura to gain major stardom as a leading actor of the ninkyo eiga. A genre, which should soon become dominated by Takakura, playing the lead in literally hundreds of these films.
4. Wolves, Pigs and Men (Okami to buta to ningen, 1964)
A financial and critical flop at its time, “Wolves, Pigs and Men” could be nonethelessly named the artistical breakthrough of Toei director Kinji Fukasaku. Shot in gritty black-and-white, full of ultraviolence, out-of-control camera angles and immoral human filth, it seems truly unbelievable that this film could be made in the early 1960s, when most Japanese gangster films were still rather tame and strightly modelled on routine Hollywood potboilers.
In what is without a doubt his most disgusting and evil role, Ken Takakura acts as an inscrupulous gangster, who doesn’t even recoil from torturing his own brother to achieve his goals. Here, his noble behaviour in other gangster films gives away to utter disregard for human lives, his readiness for self-sacrificing to the desire for egoistic self-preservance. “Wolves, Pigs and Men” is truly a film that has to be seen to be believed. An aggressive and violent tour-de-force, which shows Ken Takakura not only at his most diabolic, but also at his most intense and diverse.
5. Abashiri Prison (Abashiri bangaichi, 1965)
Spawning 17 sequels from 1965 to 1972, all but the last 8 directed by the prolific Teruo Ishii, “Abashiri Prison” ist often seen as the breakthrough of Ken Takakura as a new star of the ninkyo eiga. However, set in the snowy fields surrounding the legendary Abashiri prison (Japan’s equivalent to America’s Alcatraz) and modelled after Stanley Kramer’s “The Defiant Ones” (1958), “Abashiri Prison” is actually more of an exciting and action-packed prison breakout film, incorporating a few elements of the ninkyo eiga, mainly in the form of Takakura’s stoic yakuza leading character.
Nonetheless, while no pure ninkyo eiga, in terms of its commercial success “Abashiri Prison” is certainly one of Takakura’s most important films. Becoming the most successful film series of the 1960s in Japan with almost every film reaching top spots at the annual box-office, it boosted Ken Takakura’s fame to enormous proportions and made him the most popular Japanese film star of of his time.