The Chivalrous Heart
What led him to be in films? “I had to make a living.” What kind of film work interested him the most? “As I get older, my tastes changed, but I like movies that pierce the human heart, and linger with me.” Those simple, direct answers to Japan Subculture Research Center interviewer Jake Adelstein came from Japanese cinema great Ken Takakura (1931-2014) less than a year before he died, and though the formidable actor was wary of the media spotlight, his sparse words belied his thoughtful approach to the characters he created across 56 years of screen role-playing. Historians might peg him as, in Adelstein’s prose, “an icon of the so-called ninkyou eiga, or yakuza chivalry movie, inaugurated in 1963 by Toei Production. In the 1960s, as Japan was still recovering from its lost war and musing over the atomic bombs dropped on Nagasaki and Hiroshima, the Japanese audience wanted to see heroes in the black market making justice in the streets and feeding the dismissed hungry people, right after the war.” But he rightly kept his own counsel, defining himself as a working actor, and also felt capable of more, often stepping outside genre boundaries and taking on Hollywood fare that broadened his worldwide appeal in the crime thriller The Yakuza (1974), the disaster epic The Bullet Train (1975, a Twilight Time title), the gritty policier Black Rain (1989) and the cross-cultural comedy Mr. Baseball (1992). Yet just as enduring screen giants of the Bogart/Tracy/Stewart/Fonda ilk would branch out into a variety of personas, there had to be the touchstone early parts to initially burnish the image. Pablo Knote at the Taste of Cinema website writes: “While the Abashiri Prison series was arguably the greatest commercial success of Ken Takakura’s entire career, it should be noted that Brutal Tales of Chivalry [aka Shôwa zankyô-den] (1965), released in the same year and directed by Toei veteran Kiyoshi Saeki, was an even more crucial film in Takakura’s career for shaping his unique type of tateyaku (‘heroic leading man’). With its atypical story about a noble yakuza being forced to go on a rampage when his yakuza clan is attacked by an evilish rival clan, the film emerges as a rather routine ninkyo eiga, its greatest asset being the performance by Takakura. In contrast to the other two great stars of the genre, Koji Tsuruta and Junko Fuji, who were often hopeless romantics, torn apart between their human feelings (‘ninjo’) and their responsibilities towards their clan (‘giri’), Takakura was the sole personification of ‘giri:’ a stoic hero, who sacrifices his love for a woman without a blink in his eye to exact uncompromising vengeance upon everyone who threatens him, killing his enemies with trademark line, ‘shinde moraimasu’ (‘Please, Die!’).” Takakura distilled his appeal down to its essence for Adelstein: “I think that the reason the general public identified with the roles I played was that they were struck by my stance as a man who unrelentingly stands up to absurd injustices. It wasn’t just that I was just going off to a sword fight, but that my character was willing to sacrifice himself in order to protect the people important to him.” And in turn, Takakura became important to his nation’s cultural screen identity and a leading man for the ages. Derived from a crisp, new Toeiscope widescreen transfer, TT’s upcoming Region A hi-def Blu-ray of Brutal Tales of Chivalry includes a 2017 interview with the film’s producer, veteran Toei producer Toru Yoshida. This historic and heroic Chivalry is alive and kicking May 16. Preorders open May 3.