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.

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

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