In November 2014 Japanese Cinema lost two of its greatest: Ken Takakura and Bunta Sugawara. Since both legendary actors have had a great impact on the world of Japanese film and have starred in countless classic productions, I felt the need to write a short article about the matter and salute these two great actors.
On the 10th of November 2014, Ken Takakura passed away at the age of 83. He was known as the “Japanese Clint Eastwood”. Starting his career in 1955, Takakura became mostly known for his portrayal of tough but disciplined gangsters in the 1960s and 1970s. Most famous of these films is his performance as gangster Shinichi Tachibana in the Abashiri Prison series (1965-1972). This lead to him eventually working together with Sydney Pollack for the film The Yakuza (1974), his first international production.
But it wasn’t until 1989 before Takakura became internationally known by playing alongside Michael Douglas and Andy Garcia in Ridley Scott’s Black Rain, a cop thriller that is set in the dark underworld of Osaka. Here, Takakura plays a good and loyal cop; basically the opposite of his tough guy image that was established in the 1960s. It was the role that gave him international renown and is the film most of us know him for today.
In 1992, he played in the comedy Mr. Baseball and also famously worked together with internationally acclaimed Chinese director Zhang Yimou in 2005 for Riding alone for thousands of miles. Takakura won the impressive amount of 4 Japanese Academy Awards, and received the Academy’s Lifetime Achievement Award in 2014. With over 140 films in his repertoire, Takakura leaves a legacy for movie viewers to enjoy with mostly showing his toughest egde as gangsters in his earlier career, and his softer and more emotional side later on (be sure to check out the beautiful Nankyoku Monogatari from 1983).
Another icon sadly passed away on the 28th of November: Bunta Sugawara. He was 81 years old. Just like Takakura, Sugawara gained fame in hard-boiled yakuza films in which he played tough guys that shouldn’t be messed with. Born in Sendai in 1933, Sugawara made his acting debut in 1958 in director Teruo Ishii’s White Line.
He rose to fame in the 1970s, where director Kinji Fukasaku’s Battles without Honor and Humanity (1974) was the film that would change his life and image forever. Fukasaku’s Battles without Honor and Humanity saga (1974-1976) consists out of eight films, and are most probably the films he will be most remembered for. In the films Sugawara plays a man who lives in the times just after the end of World War II, a time where the infamous modern yakuza clans come into existence. It is a harsh world where only the strong can survive, and Sugawara portrays the role fantastically.
Next to the Battles without Honor and Humanity films, Sugawara also starred as a hard-edged but kind-hearted truck driver in the Truck Guy films (1975-1979), further expanding his tough guy image, but also exposing audiences to his more comedic side. The first film was a great succes, leading to 9 sequels (!). In 1979 he won a Japanese Academy Award for his supporting role in The Man who stole the Sun, a satirical film concerning nuclear weapons. In his later career Sugawara is mostly known for his voice work. He lend his voice to two studio Ghibli films, from which most famously Hayao Miyazaki’s Spirited Away (2001). Sugawara made over 160 productions during his lifetime and has, just like Takakura, left us with many films to enjoy.
Japanese cinema has sadly lost two of its greatest icons. They will both be missed, may they rest in peace. If you are interested in Asian Cinema, and Japanese Cinema in particular, be sure to check out some of these actors’ work. Their filmographies will surely have something that will interest you.