6. Brutal Tales of Chivalry (Showa Zankyoden, 1965)
While the “Abashiri Prison” series was arguably the greatest commercial success of Ken Takakura’s entire career, it should be noted that “Brutal Tales of Chivalry”, released in the same year and directed by Toei veteran Kiyoshi Saeki, was an even more crucial film in Takakura’s career for shaping his unique type of tateyaku (“heroic leading man”). With its atypical story about a noble yakuza being forced to go on a rampage, when his yakuza clan is attacked by an evilish rival clan, the film emerges as a rather routine ninkyo eiga, its greatest asset being the performance by Takakura.
In contrast to the other two great stars of the genre, Koji Tsuruta and Junko Fuji, who were often hopeless romantics, torn apart between their human feelings (“ninjo”) and their responsibilities towards their clan (“giri”), Takakura was the sole personification of “giri”. A stoic hero, who sacrifices his love for a woman without a blink in his eye to exact uncompromising vengeance upon everyone who threatens him, killing his enemies with trademark line, “shinde moraimasu” (“Please, Die!”).
7. The Red Cherry Blossom Family (Junko intai kinen eiga: Kanto hizakura ikka, 1972)
By the 1970s, the great ninkyo eiga boom of the 1960s began to wane. When Junko Fuji, the greatest female star of the ninkyo eiga, announced her retirement in 1972 to marry the kabuki actor Onoe Kikugoro VII, critics proclaimed the end of the genre. “The Red Cherry Blossom Family” was Toei’s celebratory send-off film for Junko Fuji. Directed by legendary veteran Masahiro Makino, it featured appearances by literally every great star of the genre, among them Koji Tsuruta, Bunta Sugawara and, of course, Ken Takakura.
In regards to its ending the film takes an interesting different approach. Usually every ninkyo eiga starring Junko Fuji ends with the death of her yakuza lover, often played by Takakura, their mutual love remaining unconsumed. In the probably sole happy end of the genre, ninkyo eiga queen, Junko Fuji, and her king, Ken Takakura, get to live through the climactic swordfight, leave the yakuza world and wander off to get married. An ending which must have brought tears of joy to the eyes of many fans, who beforehand had to endure Junko Fuji’s grief in film after film, when once again Takakura died during his quest to protect his clan.
8. Bullet Train (Shinkansen daibakuha, 1975)
After Toei ceased the production of ninkyo eiga, Ken Takakura’s career experienced a temporary slump. In an attempt to escape his image as heroic yakuza leading man, Takakura tried to broaden his range by appearing in several comparatively unheroic roles. In Junya Sato’s “Bullet Train” he played the role of a terrorist, who threatens to explode the legendary “shinkansen”, the Japanese Bullet Train, if his noble demands are not fulfilled.
“Bullet Train” eventually became a giant box-office hit and even got remade in the US as “Speed” (1994) with Keanu Reeves. Thus, while filled with clichés and flat characters, it set Ken Takakura again on the map and helped him to enter a new phase in his career, where the seasoned actor was able to discard his status as a genre actor and rose up to become a celebrated character mime.
9. A Distant Cry From Spring (Haruka naru yama no yobigoe, 1980)
While Ken Takakura remained a Toei contract actor for the greater part of his career, he occasionally also acted in films of other studios. In what is maybe his most heartfelt performance Ken Takakura played against type for Shochiku in Yoji Yamada’s “A Distant Cry From Spring” as an convicted murderer on the run, who helps a widow and her little son to manage the deceased husband’s inherited farm.
What could have easily been a sentimental tearjearker in the hands of a lesser director, emerges as a genuinely moving and lovingly characterised drama under the direction of legendary Shochiku director Yoji Yamada. Yet, the center piece of the film is Takakura and his relationship with the widow’s traumatized son, helping him to open up to other people again. “A Distant Cry From Spring” may have been a far stretch for Ken Takakura from his image as stoic yakuza loner, but it is exactly for this reason that his performance in this film ranks among the most nuanced and beautiful of his entire career.
10. Black Rain (1989)
While Ken Takakura’s stardom almost always remained confined within the borders of Japan, his relatively good English skills also made him suitable to play supporting characters in several Hollywood films. He acted as honorful Major in Robert Aldrich’s “Too Late the Hero” (1970) and as baseball couch in “Mr. Baseball” (1992), but he made his most memorable appearences in Hollywood films by playing versions of his honorific yakuza personality as in Sidney Pollack’s “Yakuza” (1974), written by Paul Schrader, screenwriter of “Taxi Driver” (1976).
The role he is probably best remembered for in the West, however, is that of the hardboiled detective Masahiro in Ridley Scott’s grim crime thriller “Black Rain”. While the hectic MTV-influenced visual style make the film seem rather dated, it is elevated by its multi-national cast, among them Michael Douglas and Tomisaburo Wakayama. Yet, it is Ken Takakura who makes the most lasting impression as Masahiro by successfully translating his heroic tateyaku personality to the completely different way of filmmaking of 1980s Hollywood.
11. Railroad Man (1999)
Despite Takakura’s memorable attempts at widening his range as an actor, he never fully escaped his profession as purveyor of traditional values. Thus, it was the collaboration with former ninkyo eiga director Yasuo Furuhata, which brought Takakura his greatest successes in his later career, acting as leading man in 8 films of Furuhata from 1977 to 2012.
In films like “Poppoya”, Ken Takakura played the roles of lonely men, long left by their beloved ones. It could be said that those roles were extensions of his stoic ninkyo eiga heroes of the 1960s, who without a doubt would have become the same kind of bitter old men, who have lost their fight against modernity and whose stoicism and conservative beliefs serve as a last reminder of the supposedly traditional and honorful values of Japan.
12. Riding Alone for Thousand Miles (2005)
In the 2000s, Ken Takakura’s output slowed down markedly. From 2000 until his death, he only appeared in three films, two of them being again directed by Yasuo Furuhata. It was, however, in this period when Takakura appeared in his most acclaimed role in the West. In the Chinese film “Riding Alone for Thousand Miles” by Zhang Yimou, he played an old men, who travels to China to fulfill the last wish of his dead son, gaining the love of a little Chinese boy in the process.
After having played conservative and old-fashioned characters, whose quest for preserving the traditional ways of Japan often bordered on the xenophobic, for numerous decades, it is certainly notable that Ken Takakura dedicated the penultimate performance of his career to the understanding and harmony between the cultures. With this, he elevated his status as a national icon and became a true legend of cinema, whose unique career transcends the arbitrary confinements of race and nationality.
Author Bio: Pablo is a 20-year-old freelance critic and film historian from Germany. He is fascinated by classical Japanese cinema of the 20th century, you can check out his website at http://www.nippon-kino.net/.