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Takakura Ken (Fukuoka Prefecture,1931- )
Takakura Ken in The Yakuza (1975)He's played a baseball manager; he's played a station master; he's even played a cop. But all of these acclaimed roles haven't changed the image of Takakura Ken as the quintessential stoic and chivalrous yakuza. Often billed as the Japanese Clint Eastwood, Takakura certainly has that same kind of persona - a guy who may do bad things but always for the right reasons. This makes him a kind of respected and trustworthy father-figure, something sorely lacking in Japan today. Takakura's continuing appearances in TV commercials are proof of his lasting appeal.

Takakura (real name Oda Goichi - his given name means 'tough one') started his acting career with the Toei company in 1955 at the age of 24. He played salaryman and gangster parts but had more success with the latter. Having grown up in Kitakyushu in Fukuoka during the postwar years of black markets and racketeering, Takakura's rise to fame coincided with a boom in movies about the underworld. As the loner hero in Abashiri Prison: Longing for Home (1965, Abashiri Bangaichi: Bokyohen), the third in a movie series, his role was typical of the ninkyo eiga (chivalry film) star. But he had something that appealed to young men struggling to realize the Japanese economic miracle in cities far from home: his strict adherence to the samurai values of chivalry combined with his strong-but-silent charisma lent him an iconographic air and he became the epitome of cool. Takakura's image belies the fact that, unlike fellow '60s yakuza star Tsuruta Koji, he graduated from the prestigious Meiji University and was a virtual teetotaller. It was perhaps this background that helped him lend dignity to the more often than not violent roles he played so successfully. By the time he left Toei in 1976, he had appeared in over 180 films (as opposed to around 20 since), many of them popular yakuza movie series.

Takakura Ken first appeared on the Hollywood radar in 1975, starring - very much to type, as a yakuza hitman - with Robert Mitchum in Sidney Pollack's cult classic The Yakuza and he has since held his own on screen with Michael Douglas and Tom Selleck. With Ridley Scott being my favorite movie director I'm obviously a bit biased, but his 1989 film Black Rain stands out as one of the better depictions of urban Japan by a western director (Bladerunner finally makes it to Osaka!). One reason why this movie retains its appeal is the solid performances of Matsuda Yusaku as a sinister yakuza and Takakura as a middle-aged cop who learns to not always do things by the book. Watching it again recently, it seemed a bit dated somehow. Then I realized that it wasn't so much that Douglas and Andy Garcia looked so young but just that urban Japanese have got so much more used to foreigners on their turf in the last decade. A big factor in my fondness for Fred Schepisi's1992 film Mr. Baseball is that Takakura's Chunichi Dragons team, with a bit of western enlightenment from Selleck, get to beat the almighty Kyojin, the Yomiuri Giants in the climax (sorry if you haven't seen it yet!). These movies also perhaps helped ease Takakura out of his typecast career and allowed him to show his depth as an actor.

Takakura Ken
Takakura won the Best Actor award at the 1999 Montreal World Film Festival and a Japanese Academy Award for his portrayal of a station master in the sentimental drama Poppoya (Tetsudou-in; Poppoya). Over the course of a long and hugely prodigious career, he appeared in more than 200 movies. His last screen appearance was in 2012, when he starred in Dearest (Anata e) alongside Kitano "Beat" Takeshi, one of the few modern stars whose screen career can even get close to filling the big man's shoes.

In 2013 he was awarded the Order of Culture by Emperor Akihito for his contribution to the arts. Takakura passed away in November 2014 after losing a battle with lymphoma.


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