Major outlets (including Reuters) are reporting that Ken Takakura, the Japanese-born actor who rose to international prominence playing hardscrabble tough guys, died of malignant lymphoma on November 10. He was 83.
Born to the mean streets of Fukuoka, Japan in 1931, Takakura first developed the gangster’s sense of braggadocio that would characterize his on-screen persona while watching Yakuza soldiers jockey for control of the postwar black market in the Fukuoka Prefecture province. Takakura matriculated from Tokyo’s prestigious Meiji University, and fell into his first major audition soon afterward. Having noticed that the Toei Film Company was having an audition, Takakura gave it a shot on a lark. Wowed by the actor’s brooding intensity, Toei heads had Takakura starring in his first film, Denko Karate Uchi, by the next year.
Takakura arrived at a fortuitous time in Japan’s film history: As the postwar recovery years bled into the disillusionment of the 1960s, gangster films captured the generational gap between those who had witnessed the bomb and those who hadn’t. Hitting his stride in 1965’s Abashiri Prison and its sequel, Takakura had a way with complex antiheroes that spoke to a culture embittered by tragedy and in need of a strong, silent type. During his 180-film tenure at Toei, he eventually drew the attention of domestic directors. Takakura would leave Toei for Hollywood in 1976.
Prior to his official departure from Japan, Takakura made a splash in a handful of Japanese-language roles in American films. He appeared alongside Henry Fonda and Michael Caine in the 1970 war picture Too Late The Hero and helped turn Sydney Pollack’s The Yakuza into an unlikely hit in 1974. But Takakura’s most memorable role came with five little words in Ridley Scott’s 1989 crime thriller Black Rain. Michael Douglas’ NYPD cop uses a less-than-polite term when asking if any local officials at a Japanese crime scene will be able to communicate with New York’s finest. Takakura’s character casually introduces himself and, without missing a beat: “I do speak fucking English.”
Takakura’s output flagged after the year 2000, when he appeared in just three films (including Zhang Yimou’s excellent Riding Alone For Thousands of Miles). But his legacy as Japan’s Clint Eastwood remains fully intact. During his time in Hollywood, he may not have achieved the level of ubiquity he enjoyed in Japan, but over the course of his long career, Takakura achieved that rare thing, the thing to which all actors must necessarily aspire: He gave a face and voice to a unifying national feeling. Through his art, he gave postwar Japanese audiences the new breed of hero they needed.