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BIG IN JAPAN
Takakura Ken

Takakura Ken
Courtesy of Kyodo Photo Service

Ridley Scott' 1989 film Black Rain is not exactly a classic, but it's an object of perverse fascination to anyone acquainted with modern Japan. It largely succeeded because of the fully convincing performance of its cast, which included Michael Douglas and his Japanese costar Takakura Ken. Although Takakura played a cop, he is usually associated in Japan with the yakuza, as he spent the '60s and ''70s playing gangsters in a large number of films that earned him the title of Japan's number one tough guy.

Takakura was groomed for crime films from the very beginning. Born in Kita Kyushu city, Fukuoka, in 1931, Takakura grew up watching Japanese, Korean and American racketeers fight for control of the postwar streets. After graduating from Meiji University, he pursued an interest in acting and passed an audition at Toei Pictures. His film debut came in 1956 with Denko Karate Uchi (Lightning Karate Blow), but he really hit the big time in 1963, when the yakuza movie boom was getting into its stride, in Abashiri Bangaichi (Abashiri Prison) as a stoic ex-convict that his acting skills seemed perfect for.

Yakuza
Black Rain

The yakuza films of this period were known as ninkyo eiga, or chivalry films. The drama was based on the codes of honor and loyalty that bound the gangsters and the endings usually had the central characters forsaking love, freedom, sometimes even life itself, for the sake of duty. The throwback to samurai values was made even more poignant by setting the films in the early 20th century and having the gangsters fight with swords instead of guns. Takakura has often been called Japan's Clint Eastwood, and their on-screen personae do share a lot in common: Their rugged looks, the air of mystery surrounding them and the violence that follows wherever they go.

Takakura first came to the attention of Western audiences in 1975, starring alongside Robert Mitchum in Sidney Pollack's highly watchable epic The Yakuza. Takakura played a hit man who turns against his employers to avenge his family, and his brooding screen presence helped turn an already fine movie into something of a cult favorite.

By the late eighties the yakuza boom had played itself out and Takakura was moving into other roles. Antarctica in 1984 found him costarring with two huskies in a Disneyesque tale of animals struggling to survive against the odds. Comedy came his way with 1992's Mr. Baseball, in which he played Tom Selleck's long-suffering manager. Japanese audiences have seen him paired with some of cinema's hottest starlets, such as Miyazawa Rie in 1994's Shiju Shichinin no Shikaku (47 Ronin), and most recently with Hirosue Ryoko in the hauntingly beautiful Poppoya, for which he won the best actor award at this year's Montreal World Film Festival, finally gaining the international acclaim he deserves.

His acting style may have mellowed over the years, but to older Japanese he will always be remembered as a hard-boiled fighter - and to many Westerners, he is renowned as the man who said to Michael Douglas, "Listen - I do speak f***ing English."

John Paul Catton

BIG IN JAPAN:
299: Nakamura Kankuro
Arizona lover and Kabuki actor
298: Miura Yuichiro
The Man Who Skied Down Everest
297: Iron Chef
Gourmet cuisine battles
296: "Katte wa ikenai"
"Don't buy these products"
295: Oda Yuji
The dancing detective
294: Enoki Takaaki
An artist who acts
293: Glay
Japan's reigning pop princes
292: Akebono
Hawaiian Sumo wrestler
291: Issey Miyake
Fashion designer
290: Murakami Ryu
Radical writer
289: Oshima Nagisa
Movie director
288: Takakura Ken
Crime film actor
287: Miura Kazuyoshi
Soccer player
286: Suzuki Koji
Author of the horror, Ring
285: Tezuka Osamu
God of Comics
284: Yuming
Singer/songwriter
283: Anpanman
Bean-powered superhero
282: Yamaguchi Takashi
Immersed in traditional Japanese music
281: Nasubi
Comedian
280: Doi Takako
First female Speaker of the House
279: Nakamura Kichiemon
Retiring Kabuki actor
278: Oe Kenzaburo
Nobel prize winning author
277: Kimura Takuya
SMAP member
276: Utada Hikaru
Teenage pop phenomenon
275: Bando Tamasaburo
Kabuki female role impersonator
274: Otomo Katsuhiro
Akira creator
273: Dreams Come True
Premier recording artist
272: Dango San Kyodai
Surprise hit of 1999
271: Banana Yoshimoto
Author
270: Matsuzaka Daisuke
Baseball player
269: Moritaka Chisato
Model and singer
268: Mukai Chiaki
Female astronaut
267: Natto
Traditional Japanese health food
266: Hiroaki Kikuoka
Shamisen player
265: Chikamatsu Monzaemon
Japan's most revered dramatist
264: Ryuichi Sakamoto
Oscar-winning musician
263: Shigeo Nagashima
Japan's Mr Baseball
262: Ayako Totsuka
Pioneer careerwoman
261: Yatsuhashi Kengyo
Koto player
260: Chiyotaikai
Sumo wrestler
259: Pocky
Japanese snack food
258: Itsuki Hiroshi
Enka singer
257: Pocket Monsters
Conquering the world
256: Classified ads
New concept in Japan
255: Chara
Japanese pop star
254: Pink Lady
1970's singing duo
253: Takashi Sorimachi
Japanese heartthrob
252: Ennosuke Ichikawa
Kabuki actor
251: Rie Miyazawa
Model and actress
250: Shazna
Visual-kei band

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Issues 349 - 300/1
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