Takakura Ken (Fukuoka Prefecture,1931- )
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 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.