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    Takakura Times Three

    Posted by Mike Finnegan on

    Through the action, drama and humor of more than 200 films, most originating in his native Japan with occasional international outings, the ruggedly handsome face, expressive eyes and stoic, slow-burn aura of cinema icon Ken Takakura (1931-2014) seemed to suit a variety of characters, from cynical hard cases to shattered souls, from chillingly efficient criminals to vulnerable, haunted outsiders. On what would have been his 87th birthday, Twilight Time calls prideful attention to three beautifully made examples of archetypal roles in the label’s hi-def Blu-ray library. Made at the same time Clint Eastwood’s antiheroic Man with No Name trilogy for director Sergio Leone arrived on the Western landscape with its take on the man-of-few-words standing his ground against menacing lowlifes, Brutal Tales of Chivalry (1965, directed by Kiyoshi Saeki) is an intriguing glimpse of a hardscrabble post-World War II Japan, in which rapacious opportunistic rival family gangs exert a violent hold over the conduct of everyday livelihoods in local Tokyo neighborhoods. Into these tense circumstances walks ex-soldier Takakura, reluctantly drafted into the struggle and finding his Yakuza-rooted codes of personal and national honor stretched to the limit by a younger generation of murderous hotshots. This Toei Studios film would kick off a succession of popular action thrillers that would cement the actor’s image and stardom, not as a soulless killing machine but as a man whose identity is fused with an inviolable strain of nobility and resolve. The turbulent times of the ’60s and ’70s would affect Japan as profoundly as other nations, and with that came a rebellion against bureaucratic corruption and ominous corporatization. So in the mass entertainment guise of a ticking-clock, Hollywood-inspired disaster thriller, Toei’s spectacular The Bullet Train (1975, directed by Junya Satö) offers a taciturn yet somehow sympathetic Takakura as the coolly efficient mastermind of an extortion plot in which a super-speed commuter locomotive is implanted with bombs set to detonate below a certain speed. Playing a shattered man whose business was unfairly ruined by bankruptcy and whose family was splintered as a result, Takakura colors his calculating, ransom-seeking terrorist in shades of gray, as Satö allows him to play the underlying humanity beneath his cold-blooded plan, in flashbacks to his once happy and thriving life and his unexpectedly tender care for the ragtag bunch of criminal cohorts he recruits. Two years later came a project of surface simplicity but weighty impact that gave him critical cred to go along with his personal popularity. Inspired by newspaper stories by then-New York Post columnist Pete Hamill, The Yellow Handkerchief (1977, directed by Yôji Yamada) was a road movie and an exquisite character study, in which Takakura’s soulful, hard-luck ex-convict, a coal miner newly released after serving time for an accidental-death manslaughter conviction, hitches a ride home – where he’s unsure whether or not his wife will be waiting – with two young people, a young man of lots of bravado (and little experience behind it) and a young woman unsure of where her life’s headed. It involves exchanges of ideas, intakes of scenery, confessions of doubt, sharings of wisdom, recognitions of limits, embraces of hope; unlike the simmering confrontations between the oppositional forces in the above two titles, each of the three leads, and particularly Takakura, draws strength from their intergenerational connection in a slice-of-life context invested with a direct, honest, unadorned sentiment of which the veteran writer/director Yamada is a master screen practitioner. The Yellow Handkerchief won Takakura and his co-stars/traveling companions Kaori Momoi and Tetsuya Takeda the Japan Academy Prizes for their performances and would mark the first of several acting honors Takakura would accumulate across 35 subsequent years. TT’s Takakura trio is a great start to any exploration of the birthday honoree’s career.

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