NYAFF: 2 Tough Guys
Since its beginnings, the Japanese film industry, perhaps in a holdover from the world of kabuki theater, has heavily relied on the star system to make and promote its films. As in many other countries, movie stars, not directors, are the popular face of the film industry, and quite often the determining factor of a film’s success or failure. Late last year, the Japanese film world lost two of its biggest male stars, both of whom were known primarily for their work in yakuza films, but whose careers spanned a variety of genres and roles, and whose onscreen personas defined a sort of alpha and omega of Japanese masculinity, a primal “maleness” that is in very short supply in contemporary cinema. Their careers are being celebrated in the first-ever joint retrospective tribute held outside of Japan, in a sidebar at the 14th New York Asian Film Festival entitled “The Last Men in Japanese Film.”
Ken Takakura, who died last November at the age of 83, and Bunta Sugawara, who died two weeks later at the age of 81, were the twin pillars supporting genre filmmaking at Toei studios throughout the Sixties and Seventies. Both made significant films outside the studio as well, but their defining characters were, for the most part, created within film series produced as part of the “program picture” factory at Toei. And although both made their careers playing yakuza gangsters, their distinct character archetypes and personas couldn’t have been more different. Takakura was almost always the taciturn, soft-spoken, reluctant hero, slow to action but a fierce adversary once provoked. In his performances he often spoke with his head turned at an oblique angle, eyes averted, as if he were unable to address someone directly—until a confrontation became absolutely necessary, and then his dark eyes would burn a hole through whatever they looked at. Sugawara was almost the complete opposite. Whether playing cops or criminals, his tall and skinny frame, always with a buzz-cut hairdo, quivered with restless energy, ready to explode at any moment. When he spoke, it was almost always rapid-fire, with an Al Pacino–style volatility, going from silence to barking in the blink of an eye. And even when his characters were the dregs of humanity, Sugawara managed to work in a bit of sympathy in his portrayal of them, so that they were always the film’s recognizable emotional center.
Tales of Japanese Chivalry
Takakura was born in Fukuoka on the southern island of Kyushu and attended university in Tokyo. He entered Toei as an actor in the mid-Fifties, having originally intended to work as a manager in their office. After bouncing around in various roles, in the early Sixties he began to appear in a new line of Western-influenced gyangu (gang) crime films, notably not yakuza films, but more akin to Warner Brothers noirish crime capers. The first of these, 1961’s Flower and Storm and Gang, was directed by exploitation film mastermind Teruo Ishii, with whom “Ken-san” would make a record 20 films, a number tied only by his collaborations with legendary samurai/yakuza specialist Masahiro Makino. In 1963, Takakura appeared with fellow yakuza superstar-to-be Koji Tsuruta in Theater of Life, a yakuza drama directed by Tadashi Sawashima from a famous novel, and its success both established a new genre (the ninkyo, or “honorable yakuza” film) and opened the commercial floodgates for Toei. The studio quickly cast Takakura as the lead in a new series, Tales of Japanese Chivalry (Nihon kyokaku-den), the first entry of which, directed by Makino, is screening in NYAFF’s sidebar.
Though Takakura gets top billing, Tales is an ensemble film, guest-starring established samurai film actor Kinnosuke Nakamura as the archetypal ninkyo hero, who wants only a quiet life but is moved to act by a strong sense of justice and self-sacrifice. Takakura, instead, plays the returning war veteran, who arrives back in his yakuza family’s neighborhood in Tokyo to find that a new, unscrupulous gang is stealing the lucrative transportation trade away, making violent conflict inevitable. As with many films that initiate a popular genre, this one is a bit naive and undeveloped: Takakura is under-used, there’s an uncomfortable mix of comedy and melodrama, and the bad guys are so villainous that you wonder why nobody tried to stop them earlier. That said, the film is notable in that none of the yakuza is particularly honorable or worthwhile; at the end, Takakura declares that the town would be better off without any of them. It also lacks one of the staple moments of later ninkyo films such as Brutal Tales of Chivalry or The Red Peony Gambler (both also starring Takakura), when the hero attacks the villain’s headquarters in a last-ditch, suicidal effort to right whatever wrongs have been under dispute for the past 80 minutes, usually to the accompaniment of a moody, title theme song. Tales instead substitutes a more disparate, group effort toward vengeance, which still results in a satisfying action sequence, set in and around a working lumber mill.
Wolves, Pigs and Men
At the same time as the burgeoning ninkyo genre was codifying its conventions with Tales of Japanese Chivalry, the short-lived gyangu subgenre was coming to an end, but not without one final, feral scream. Director Kinji Fukasaku only made three films with Ken Takakura: Jakoman and Tetsu, a remake of a Taniguchi film from the Fifties, with a screenplay by Akira Kurosawa; Kamikaze Yaro, a program action film co-starring Sonny Chiba; and in-between, Wolves, Pigs and Men, a crime masterpiece which ranks among the best works in either Fukasaku’s or Takakura’s filmographies. In this gritty, violent, and tragic film, Takakura appears in one of his most atypical roles as Jiro, the hot-headed middle brother in a trio of siblings raised in the slums outside Tokyo, all of whom have followed a life of crime. Elder brother Ichiro (Rentaro Mikuni) is a successful businessman and owner of a yakuza-fronted nightclub. Youngest brother Sabu (Kinya Kitaoji) leads a gang of street punks, and resents his siblings for leaving him to take care of their ailing mother. Once Mom dies and Jiro gets out of prison, he hatches a scheme to use Sabu’s gang to create a diversion so that he and his partner can steal a sack of yakuza cash, implicating Ichiro in the crime. Needless to say, nothing goes as planned in this jazzy, fatalistic black-and-white tale of brotherhood that borrows heavily from Kubrick’s The Killing but also features Fukasaku’s usual social-realist streak in its depiction of the ordinary slum-dwellers as more human than anyone else in the film. None of the Takakura films screening as part of the NYAFF series have ever had U.S. distribution, but this one is the ringer of the bunch: see it at all costs.
The year 1965 was a busy one for Takakura, with additional entries in the Tales of Japanese Chivalry series, the new, postwar-set ninkyo series Brutal Tales of Chivalry starting up, and the start of what would become his most iconic series, and biggest hit, as well as a reunion with director Teruo Ishii: Abashiri Prison; despite prior hits, it was the success of the Abashiri series (10 films in only two years) that made him a superstar. In the first, black-and-white entry, Ken-san plays Tachibana, a yakuza underling who’s sent to the snowy wastes of northern Hokkaido to do his time at the infamous Abashiri penitentiary, from which escape is supposed to be impossible due to its isolation in harsh surroundings. Nevertheless, Tachibana gets caught up in a break-out plot hatched by an adversary, and dragged along for the ride on a chain, Defiant Ones–style, with his probation officer Tsumaki (Tetsuro Tanba) in hot pursuit. With a terrific cast of character actors, a tense dynamic between Takakura and, well, everyone else in the movie, and Ishii’s trademark no-nonsense direction, Abashiri Prison is a B-movie genre classic that heralded even better things to come in the series.
Coincidentally, it was in the tenth episode of the Abashiri Prison series, in 1967, that Bunta Sugawara made his debut at Toei, the first of several collaborations he had with Takakura (none of them really resulting in acting fireworks or memorable films, sadly, though 1975’s The Great Escape, another prison movie, comes close). Sugawara had been marking time at rival studio Shochiku, miscast in family comedies and romance films, when he was recommended to Toei studio chief Koji Shundo by real-life-yakuza-turned-actor Noboru Ando, who’d become a star there in the ninkyo era. Sugawara was born in the northern city of Sendai, but raised in Tokyo, and had worked as a model prior to being scouted by short-lived studio Shintoho, where he began work in 1958, quickly becoming a matinee idol (one of the studio’s “handsome towers,” according to promotional materials), and appearing in various exploitation and action films until the studio went bankrupt in 1961. His star began to rise at Toei in 1967, when he was cast as the lead in the new Modern Yakuza crime series, an early attempt by the studio to depart from the standard ninkyo formula. But it wasn’t until 1972’s Street Mobster, the final film of that series, that Sugawara would first work with Kinji Fukasaku, the who would come to define his career. The result was a hyper-violent, electrically charged, documentary-like depiction of a loser antihero at war with the world, yet one who firmly holds onto audience sympathies—the kind of protagonist that would become a Fukasaku trademark, and lead directly into their most important collaboration, and the most significant and influential film being screened as part of the NYAFF series.
Battles Without Honor and Humanity
Released in 1973, Fukasaku’s Battles Without Honor and Humanity landed like a bombshell on the Japanese film industry. Its style, which had been pioneered in Street Mobster the year earlier, was influenced as much by European crime films as by cinema verité documentaries by directors like Shinsuke Ogawa. Contemporary protest marches and violent conflicts in the streets during the Sixties also fed into the angry and anarchic feeling generated within the film, which resolutely broke with the honorable yakuza of the ninkyo era. Fukasaku’s film—as well as its four sequels, and three additional follow-ups—portrayed gangsters as they presumably really were: greedy, venal, untrustworthy, and out for no one but themselves. Yet within their supposed villainy, as with the heroes of Wolves, Pigs and Men, was a humanity and pathos that more successful and “respectable” individuals lacked.
Fukasaku’s films mapped an alternative history of Japan, forged by criminals and con-men who were born in the filthy black markets yet forgotten by mainstream society once the economic miracle of the Seventies began to take hold. Sugawara embodied this vibrant new archetype, remaining at the center of Fukasaku’s filmmaking world for almost a dozen more films. But their unique collaboration in the first of the Battles Without Honor and Humanity films remained without peer, and the film went on to become a massive blockbuster and consistently tops both popular and critics polls as one of the greatest films Japan has ever produced. NYAFF presents the film in a new 2K digital restoration, fresh off its screening in the Cannes Classics program.
Cops vs. Thugs
Once the main Battles series was completed, Fukasaku and Sugawara had another significant team-up in Cops vs. Thugs (75), which sees “Bun-chan” essay his first cop role at Toei, albeit as a proverbial bad lieutenant who feels closer to his yakuza drinking buddies than to his fellow police. The ninkyo ethic is echoed here, as well, as Sugawara’s Kuno is forced to choose between loyalty to his more-or-less honorable yakuza friends, and devotion to his superiors, whose actions are being orchestrated by powerful businessmen and politicians. With a screenplay by Kazuo Kasahara, who wrote the bulk of the Battles Without Honor films, and featuring an all-star cast of tough guys, it’s an entertaining counterpoint to the Battles series that finds both director and actor at the top of their game. Immediately following Cops vs. Thugs, Sugawara landed the biggest hit of his career in the comedic Truck Guys series for Toei (10 entries in four years), in which he played a romantic, good-hearted truck driver traversing the country with his put-upon sidekick.
The Yellow Handkerchief—1977 version vs. 1982 remake
While both Takakura and Sugawara were Toei mainstays for much of their career, they also found great success at other studios or in independent projects. One of Takakura’s most notable was the 1977 Shochiku road-movie tearjerker The Yellow Handkerchief, directed by Yoji Yamada, which became one of the actor’s biggest hits, and is an odd omission from the NYAFF series. Takakura, as expected, plays a yakuza, but an older and more regretful sort, and in no small coincidence, Sugawara went on to play the same role in a 1982 television remake of the film, also supervised (but not directed) by Yamada, making a fitting parallel between their two careers.
The Man Who Stole the Sun
Sugawara’s greatest success outside of Toei was in the astonishing 1979 independent production The Man Who Stole the Sun, co-written by Leonard Schrader and directed by maverick filmmaker Kazuhiko Hasegawa (whose only other feature film to this date, 1976’s ATG production The Youth Killer, is also a masterpiece). Sugawara again plays a cop, but this time around he’s the epitome of law and order, a kind of balls-to-the-wall Joe Friday, jumping off buildings, hanging from a helicopter, getting shot, and generally showing himself to be the biggest bad-ass around as he hunts down a high-school chemistry teacher (rock-star-turned-actor Kenji Sawada) who decides to hold Tokyo hostage after building an atomic bomb in his kitchen. Since it’s never been released outside of Japan, yet consistently tops critics’ favorite lists there, the NYAFF screening (on 35mm) is a very rare opportunity to catch this epic film, a bizarre and unique mix of counterculture comedy, paranoid thriller, Seventies action, and experimental filmmaking. There’s nothing else like it.
As the Eighties turned into the Nineties, both actors transitioned, as you would expect, into the more “elder statesman” portions of their careers, yet always retained their unique expressions of masculinity, even when portraying fewer tough-guy characters. Having made appearances in international productions like Robert Aldrich’s Too Late The Hero and Sydney Pollack’s The Yakuza (written by Paul and Leonard Schrader) in the Seventies, Takakura continued to work with foreign filmmakers in Ridley Scott’s Black Rain and with Tom Selleck in Mr. Baseball, as well as with Chinese director Zhang Yimou in 2005’s Riding Alone for Thousands of Miles, securing his superstar status in that country as well. Sugawara gradually distanced himself from the entertainment world, retiring to a farm in northern Japan to practice and preach about organic farming, and lending his star status to a variety of progressive causes, most notably anti-nuclear efforts following the disaster of 3/11. He also found time to appear in grandpa roles in films like Takashi Miike’s The Great Yokai War as well as lend his voice to the animated masterpieces Spirited Away and Wolf Children.
The departure of these two paragons of masculinity is keenly felt in a Japanese film industry continuing down its current road of milquetoast, trendy productions featuring skinny boy-band members (derisively called “grass-eating men” by Japanese women). Audiences there—and fans here—may have to look elsewhere for tough-guy role models and actors who can credibly embody some notion of complex maleness, whether it’s as a gangster or as a righteous hero fighting for honor and humanity.