Rare it is that a Japanese actor, no matter how big a name back home, makes it as a star in Hollywood.
Only two names that have accomplished this spring immediately to mind: Sessue Hayakawa, the mostly silent-era actor who became the first Japanese to find stardom in America; and Toshiro Mifune, director Akira Kurosawa’s go-to leading man (they made 16 pictures together) whose film career included some very big late 20th century studio pictures (eg. 1976’s Midway).
Although nowhere near as celebrated, Ken Takakura should be ranked among this elite. Born in 1931, he was plucked as rising “new face” by Japanese studio Toei — one of four studios that rule the Japanese film business — and promoted to film roles either as a “salaryman” (aka, office drone) or gangster.
As a salaryman he was a flop, writes author Mark Schilling, who put together 1997’s The Encyclopedia of Japanese Pop Culture.
It wasn’t until he appeared as the loner hero in Teruo Ishii’s ‘Abashiri Bangaichi’ series that he became a star in Japan. A long list of hit Japanese titles followed featuring Takakura as a mysterious loner who resorted to gangster-like mayhem only after being repeatedly provoked.
Despite his appearance of stoic dignity, he could suddenly erupt in displays of edgy, kinetic violence, Schilling observed. Comparisons to Clint Eastwood began cropping up in the late Sixties. Both men, with their strong-but-silent charisma, struck audiences as the epitome of cool. They shot to superstardom less as actors playing roles than as iconographic figures, repeating the same gestures and attitudes in film after film.
Hollywood took notice. Takakura costarred with Robert Mitchum, another actor to whom he was sometimes compared, in director Sidney Pollack’s 1974 gangster thriller, The Yakuza. (Pictured immediately above from left are Mitchum, Pollack and Takakura.)
Takakura also costarred with Michael Douglas — an actor to which he was NOT compared — in director Ridley Scott’s 1989 thriller, Black Rain.
Shifting gears a bit, Takakura turned up as the terse manager coping with an over-the-hill American player (nicely portrayed by Tom Selleck) in director Fred Schepisi’s comedy, Mr. Baseball. This one plus The Yakuza and Black Rain are well worth seeking out.
Back home in Japan, Takakura moved away from gangster and ex-con roles later in his career, seeking parts in movies, the actor said, that pierce the human heart and linger with me. For example, he solidly portrays the veteran sled-dog handler in the 1983 Japanese film, Antarctica, one of Japan’s all-time box office smashes.
In the late Eighties, Frank found himself in a Tokyo hotel suite interviewing Takakura, who was surrounded at the time by various handlers. Unlike the forbiddingly stoic and austere figure he etched many times onscreen, the actor was in person gracious, polite to a fault and subtly communicative.
He died of cancer on Nov. 10 at age 83. Typically, a private funeral was held before the Japanese media were informed.