Kaiju Shakedown: Tetsuro Tamba
Eight years ago last month Tetsuro Tamba went to the After Life World, leaving behind a cloud of contradictions that linger in the air long after his departure, like a zesty aftershave made of man-sweat and punches to the jaw. Simultaneously the best actor in Japan and the worst, a man of refined taste and of no taste at all, a rich kid whose career was either shotgunned from the hip with no planning whatsoever or a carefully wrought piece of performance art, one thing is for certain: Tetsuro Tamba is probably the only man to direct a movie that ends with a dead poodle turning to the screen and saying “Sayonara.”
Appearing in either 268, or 301, or 350 movies, depending on who you ask, Tamba was born rich, descended from Japanese aristocracy, and he lived his life according to the rule he laid out for Sean Connery when he appeared opposite him as Tiger Tanaka in You Only Live Twice (67), “Rule number one—never do anything for yourself when someone else can do it for you.”
The Five Man Army
For Tamba, that meant: never watch your own movies, never turn down a role, and never memorize a line. Whether he was on the stage in Takashi Miike’s Demon Pond or a scientist trying to save the world in The Last Days of Planet Earth (74), Tamba gave his super-serious performances from inside a vortex of notecards and script pages taped up all over the set. Watch him move around his office in The Last Days of Planet Earth delivering a speech about the coming apocalypse and you’ll see him reading his first few lines from a file folder he’s holding, looking inside a desk drawer for the next few, and delivering the clincher from off the back of a lampshade.
That didn’t mean he was a bad actor, but he wasn’t exactly a good actor either. Tamba transcended acting and simply existed, generating a force field made of machismo that fermented into gravitas with age. Whether he was the President of the Earth Federation in Kinji Fukasaku’s Message From Space (78), or a po-faced grandpa killing a bird with a thrown log in Happiness of the Katakuris (01), Tamba was the Troy McClure of Japanese cinema, a man as stiff and reassuring as Charlton Heston, and as rugged and out-of-date as John Wayne.
Happiness of the Katakuris
His father was physician to the Meiji Emperor, and Tamba himself was a pampered aristocrat who lied his way into a job as a translator for Occupation forces after WW II, making up for his total lack of English by taking GIs to all the best whorehouses. In 1951 he won a “New Face” competition at Shintoho studios, and his movie career began. Shintoho had been launched in a burst of optimism four years previously, a splinter group of artists who left Toho over a labor dispute, who cared deeply about cinema, and who vowed to build a brighter future.
Full of potential, Shintoho attracted directors from Ozu to Kurosawa but the one thing it couldn’t attract were audiences. By 1956, it had been taken over by Mitsugu Okura, a circus ringmaster turned theater owner, and he unleashed a tidal wave of sex, horror, and mutilation under its logo. Before Okura, Shintoho released Mizoguchi’s classic Life of Oharu (52); under Okura, it released Nude Actress Murder Case: Five Criminals (57). See what he did there? Tamba clashed with the studio constantly, believing that he came from just as good a family as they did, and therefore they were his equals, not his bosses. Three years after Okura took over, Tamba squirmed out of his contract and went rogue. He took part in high-class pictures like Kobayashi’s Harakiri (62) but his most important role came when he conned his way onto British film, The 7th Dawn (64), again using his nonexistent English. (According to legend he just answered “yes” to every question at the audition). 7th Dawn was directed by Lewis Gilbert, whose next movie, Alfie (66), won a special jury prize at Cannes. Next up for Tamba was Gilbert’s You Only Live Twice.
You Only Live Twice
Set in Japan, Gilbert turned immediately to the one Japanese actor he knew for the role of Tiger Tanaka: Tetsuro Tamba. Putting his machismo into overdrive, Tiger Tanaka’s office is only accessible via a chrome laundry chute, he has a school of ninjas, a bikini beauty bathing squad who wash him, and he gets to admire Sean Connery’s chest hair and utter such immortal lines as, “In Japan, men come first, women come second.”
With a Bond film in his back pocket, Tamba had a license to appear in any movie he wanted and the movie he picked was…all of them. He appeared in Italian spaghetti westerns (Five Man Army, 69), he appeared in the Shaw Brothers' wuxia (The Water Margin, 77), big-budget disaster flicks (Sinking of Japan, 73), Teruo Ishii softcore samurai pictures (Bohachi Bushido, 73), science fiction films (Message from Space, 78), and Buddhist biopics alongside Tatsuya Nakadai (The Human Revolution, 73). He had his own late night talk show, Tamba Club, he was in the movies, he was on TV, he was everywhere, reading his lines off cue cards and tightening his jaw on cue.
The Water Margin
He was also in the afterlife.
In the Seventies, Tamba got interested in the possibility of life after death, and decided to do research, which meant reading a bunch of books. This led him to become leader of the Dai Reikai (Great Spirit World) movement, a new age, afterlife-focused group that appeared in Japan in the Eighties promising to scientifically investigate the afterlife, which apparently involves flying around on a trumpet. Tamba wrote dozens of books on the Great Spirit World, worked on opening a Great Spirit World theme park, gave lectures about spirituality, and made three feature films on the subject, the most infamous of which, Tetsuro Tamba’s Great Spirit World—What Happens After Death (89) features a dead dog who gives the aforementioned “Sayonara” sign-off at the end of the film.
But an interest in life after death didn’t stop Tamba from appearing in plenty of other movies, including Hong Kong’s Riki-Oh: The Story of Ricky (91) and Takashi Miike’s Happiness of the Katakuris (01), Deadly Outlaw: Rekka (02), and Gozu (03). In 2006, he passed away at the age of 84, and by all accounts his death was a quiet affair, which seems tremendously out of character. Terrible, amazing, awesome, and awful, Tetsuro Tamba was the very definition of a cinematic icon. Hell, he even gets his own hip-hop track. If that doesn’t guarantee immortality, I don’t know what will.
LINKS! LINKS! LINKS!
…Clips are showing up online from Shinya Tsukamoto’s Fires on the Plain, his remake of Kon Ichikawa’s 1959 classic of the same name. Still one of the most singular directors in the world, Tsukamoto’s new movie is excerpted here and here.
…That took its own sweet time. 14 years after rocking the Korean box office, Korea’s My Sassy Girl (01) is getting a remake. The male lead, Cha Tae-Hyun, is returning but no one else from the original is on board. Telling the tale of his marriage to his childhood sweetheart, it’s a China-Korea co-production that’s set to debut in May of next year.
…With the sound of a dozen pampered executives plugging up their ears and denying the future, AMC, Regal, Cinemark, and Carmike are refusing to screen Yuen Wo-ping’s Crouching Tiger, Hidden Dragon sequel, which is slated to be released August 28, 2015. Partnering with Netflix, the Weinstein Company wanted to debut it day-and-date on Netflix and on IMAX screens, but the big chains say they’ll never cooperate with this kind of release. Then like a bunch of small children they passive-aggressively dismissed it as a made-for-video movie that might play “science centers and aquariums.” You never know what a movie’s going to be like until it’s released, but budgeted at over US$20 million, starring Donnie Yen, one of the biggest action stars in the world, co-starring Michelle Yeoh, and directed by the man who gave us some of the greatest action scenes ever shot, I think this sequel deserves the benefit of the doubt. But, let’s face it, movie theaters are not going to survive in their current incarnations for much longer, which is entirely the fault of the people who own them and who have chosen to treat their customers to expensive tickets, sub-standard projection, and unimaginative programming. I’d be happy to live in a world where AMC doesn’t exist. As much as I dislike them, I’m betting on the Weinsteins this time around.
…Speaking of people denying the future, the American exhibition chains can join China’s Communist Party in sticking their fingers in their ears and chanting “la, la, la, I can’t hear you.” In a spontaneous escalation of events, Hong Kongers from all walks of life have taken to the streets to demand free elections (a promise China made, then recently reneged on). At first, the police extended the standard tear gas/pepper spray greeting to the students who started the protests, but that BS got shut down quick when tens of thousands more people hit the streets, appalled that their law enforcement officers were acting like thugs. Since then, the cops have chilled out, and in some cases even helped the demonstrators. The crowds have refused to be provoked into anger, and instead are showing almost superhuman calm and dignity as they call for the immediate resignation of the Chief Executive and for Beijing to honor its promises. Solidarity demonstrations have broken out across the globe, and as of this writing, despite street attacks by pro-Beijing triad gangs, the people of Hong Kong are standing strong. Andy Lau has responded with a message that can definitely be read as a statement of support, and Patrick Tam (star of Rigor Mortis) said of the protesters, “They are braver than me.” Anthony Wong gave the best celebrity response, however, writing on Facebook after police launched 87 canisters of tear gas at protesters, “That's enough for a war, did the protesters have any weapon? Unless they are Wong Fei Hung, who can use umbrella as a weapon. 87 tear bombs against umbrellas. Hong Kong cops is [sic] truly amazing, amazing!”
…Two of the biggest statements of support for the Occupy Central movement have come from two of Hong Kong’s biggest stars. Chow Yun-fat told Apple Daily, “The students are reasonable. When the government uses violent measures on students, it’s a turn-off for the people of Hong Kong. I don’t wish to see anyone getting hurt… it was a peaceful demonstration and there was no need for any violence or tear gas.” Then jaws around the world dropped when the notoriously press-shy Tony Leung Chiu-wai went to the media and said, “I support all the people of Hong Kong who peacefully ask for what they want, and protest the government’s use of excessive force against people who have gathered peacefully.” Actor Chapman To followed up on Twitter, saying, “If even someone as silent as Tony Leung is saying something, then you’re truly screwed.” Yep.