“I think that the reason the general public identified with the roles I played, was that they were struck by my stance as a man who unrelentingly stands up to absurd injustices. It wasn’t just that I was just going off to a sword fight, but that my character was willing to sacrifice himself in order to protect the people important to him.”–Ken Takakura, August 2013
In honour of Japan’s Celebration of Cinema Day, December 1st, we’ve reposted some reviews and articles on classic films. Some good, some bad, some epic. This was originally published shortly before his death.
Japan’s best actor Ken Takakura has died of lymphoma, at age 83. The actor passed away at a Tokyo hospital on 10 November, his office said on Tuesday. He has been called the “Clint Eastwood” of Japan. Takakura was renowned for his stoic roles in scores of action films and yakuza movies–he was also adept at playing tough but caring men, clumsy in expressing their emotions. He played alongside Robert Mitchum in Paul Schrader directed film, The Yakuza in 1973. He also starred as a by-the-book, honourable and ultimately brave Japanese police officer alongside US actor Michael Douglas in the 1989 Ridley Scott film Black Rain. One of his lines in the movie, probably inspired millions of Japanese men to later study English conversation: “(I’m ) Assistant Inspector Matsumoto Masahiro, Criminal Investigation section, Osaka Prefecture police. And I do speak fucking English.”
Mr. Schrader told me in March of 2011 that Takakura was one of the most impressive actors he’d ever worked with and that his Kendo (Japanese fencing) ability seemed top-notch. He had once offered Takakura the role of Yukio Mishima, the literary genius turned right wing extremist, in his bio-pic film Mishima and Takakura had seriously considered it. However, in the end for reasons he only obliquely hinted at, he politely declined the role. The film Mishima has never been shown in a film festival in Japan.
Among his well-known films were “The Yellow Handkerchief”. He won the best actor prize at the Montreal World Film Festival for “Poppoya” (The Railway Man). He also appeared in some the final “real-life” yakuza bio-pics including 3rd Generation Leader of The Yamaguchi-gumi. During the filming, the former head of the Yamaguchi-gumi, Kazuo Taoka, actually visited the set and spoke with Takakura. Ken Takakura was the consummate professional and even in supporting roles such as in Mr. Baseball, he brought dignity to the Japanese characters that seemed to embody many of Japan’s virtues.
In August of last year, we were able to interview him via FAX and his polite and short responses give a good sense of the man. They are here in both English and Japanese.
originally posted on January 31st 2014
Ken Takakura, 82, aka “the Alain Delon of Japanese cinema” was awarded one of Japan’s greatest honors on November 3rd 2012. The Order of Culture was given to him by the Japanese Emperor at a ceremony held at the imperial palace. Four other notable people, such as researchers and literature academics also received the award.
Known as to be very quiet and tough, Ken Takakura (高倉健氏） rarely gave interviews to the media throughout his career. He is known for having stayed silent nearly for 13 seconds (a record for Japanese TV programs) after a famous television caster asked him a question that he did not want to answer. “In Japanese show business, only a tough and well respected celebrity is able to stay silent during a live show and have that tolerated by the producer,” explained a newscaster for one of Japan’s largest broadcasters.
Ken Takakura became an icon of the so-called ninkyou eiga, (任侠映画) or yakuza chivalry movie, inaugurated in 1963 by Toei Production. In the 1960s, as Japan was still recovering from its lost war and musing over the the atomic bombs dropped on Nagasaki and Hiroshima, the Japanese audience wanted to see heroes in the black market making justice in the streets and feeding the dismissed hungry people, right after the war. The movie that kick started his career was Abashiri Prison. He also gained international recognition with the war movie Too Late The Hero, in 1970, and The Yakuza, in 1975. His role in Black Rain with Michael Douglas 1989, made him even more well-known in the West.
Takakura-sama, agreed to answer few questions for JSRC. We carefully translated it and have posted the entire interview. We are also posting it in Japanese, for our Japanese readers.
Interview with Ken Takakura, in August 2013
JSRC: At present, many film fans in the world see you as the personification of the yakuza on screen, almost a symbol. What are your feelings about this?
Ken Takakura: It’s true that I did many yakuza films in the past, but whether or not I’m a symbol or not, I don’t know. I have done many other roles besides those of a yakuza.
JSRC: What led you to join the world of cinema?
Ken Takakura: I had to make a living.
JSRC: What kinds of movies do you like?
Ken Takakura: As I get older, my tastes changed, but I like movies that pierce the human heart and linger with me.
The Deer Hunter, 1978.
The Godfather 1 & 2.
Posta Pappi Jaakobille (2009).
JSRC: Do you have any interest in the modern yakuza films?
Ken Takakura: None whatsoever.
JSRC: Mr. Takakura, you have been called the Clint Eastwood of Japan, what do you think of that?
Ken Takakura: It’s what someone else thinks, so I have no thoughts on the matter.
JSRC: Why did you leave Toei Production in 1976?
Ken Takakura: There is no short answer (to that question).
JSRC: After leaving Toei, people were able to see you in many different roles? Was that your goal?
Ken Takakura: (My goal) was to meet people.
JSRC: Directors Takeshi Kitano and Miike are said to be geniuses of yakuza film but what do you think?
Ken Takakura: I’ve never worked with either director so I can’t answer.
But the most striking explanation Ken Takakura gave us was worth mentioning here.
Ken Takakura: You seem to be very focussed on the yakuza films I did while at Toei. If you want to understand, why the yakuza films were endorsed by the (Japanese) people, you can’t do it without thinking of the social situation at the time.
When low budget films (picture programs) were at their peak production in Japan, I’d have a schedule where I’d be doing in 4 or 5 films a months. That doesn’t leave much room to really put your heart into a role. But I think that the reason the general public identified with the roles I played, was that they were struck by my stance as a man who unrelentingly stands up to absurd injustices. It wasn’t just that I was just going off to a sword fight, but that my character was willing to sacrifice himself in order to protect the people important to him.
The thing that really changed after achieving independence from Toei was that I could choose which films I wanted to be in. I had my own standards for what films I would act in. Who would I meet? The words and lines written in the script. But the most important thing to me was this: would I be able to like the person I was going to play?*
*Portions of this interview were originally published in a French film magazine
Please read this review by Jake Adelstein on the yakuza movies.
The Deer Hunter, 1978, 監督：マイケル・チミノ
The Godfather 1, 2, フランシス・フォード・コッポラ
Gladiator, 2006, リドリー・スコット
Heaven, 2002, トム・ティクヴァ
Posta Pappi Jaakobille, 2009, クラウス・ハロ
17 thoughts on “Some parting words from Yakuza movie icon Takakura Ken on yakuza films, his favourite movies, and acting”
The explanation he provided about the social backdrop to yakuza chivalry movies in the 1960s was very insightful.
The first I saw featuring Takakura Ken was Mr. Baseball back in 1992. As a kid at that time I knew nothing about his illustrious film career. But I was impressed by his portrayal of a baseball manager under extreme pressure to win the pennant. It was until I came to Japan and experienced life here firsthand that I truly understood the intensity of that sense of pressure portrayed in the film. It’s not the greatest film in the world, but I did it appreciate it much when I watched it again. As Takakura-sama said in the last quote you posted, the important thing was whether he liked the character he was portraying. You can tell he enjoyed playing the manager in Mr. Baseball.
Thank you very much sharing that. It’s a great comment and insightful.
No problem. On second thought, I can say my appreciation for the film Mr. Baseball has grown immensely during my time here. It may be over 20 years old, but much of what it portrays about sports in Japan and Japanese society is still extremely relevant.
If you haven’t already done so, I’d highly suggest reading Robert Whiting’s books on Japanese baseball (as well as the Yakuza). “Mr. Baseball” might be a good starting point, but Whiting’s books go much more deeply into how Japanese society functions – – and his books were used as references for the film.
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I was sort of shocked to see such ridiculous and asinine questions posed to Takakura Ken. Surprised he went as far as he did in his one sentence answers. But then I looked up to see the name Jake Adelstein and everything made perfect sense.
Thanks for the mention.