To call Ken Takakura an icon is almost an understatement. He is not only one of the few stars left from the heyday of the studio era, but he has for decades embodied the sort of ideal Japanese male (stoic, self-sacrificing, unstoppable in a fight) who is vanishingly rare in real life. (Clint Eastwood has a similar image in the United States, though as Dirty Harry his values were more social Darwinian than traditionally American.)
No wonder that for the lugubrious road movie/melodrama “Anata e (Dearest),” Takakura’s 205th film, producers were able to round up an all-star cast that includes “Beat” Takeshi Kitano, the comedian, actor and director who last worked with Takakura in the 1985 drama “Yasha (Demon),” and Tadanobu Asano, the one-time indie stalwart whose most recent credit is “Battleship.” In fact, it’s hard to imagine any Japanese actor turning down a chance to work with the man nicknamed Ken-chan, since it’s the local show-business equivalent of walking in the footsteps of God.
This reverence may be puzzling to foreign filmgoers, since relatively little of Takakura’s immense oeuvre has been exported abroad. Also, starting with “The Yakuza,” Sydney Pollack’s 1974 gang actioner, Takakura was long the go-to actor for Hollywood films set in Japan, but most have been mercifully forgotten.
In Japan he is best known as the biggest star in yakuza films at the height of the genre’s 1960s popularity, playing outlaw heroes who embodied the gangs’ code of obligation above self, typically moving into death-dealing action only after enduring provocations that would test the patience of Job. But these films, the best of his work, have had patchy distribution abroad and are now known only to dedicated Asian cinephiles.
In “Dearest,” the now-octogenarian Takakura plays Eiji Kurashima, an elderly, if still active, counselor at a prison in Toyama, a prefecture on the Japan Sea coast. His wife, Yoko (Yuko Tanaka), recently died of cancer at age 53, leaving him with an illustrated card asking him to scatter her ashes in the harbor of the small Kyushu port where she was raised. Kurashima is puzzled by this request since she never mentioned it while she was alive, or said anything about her family for that matter, but he loads up his mini-van with supplies, as well as wooden furnishings he has handcrafted, and hits the road alone for Kyushu.
This sort of journey over long distances (the film’s cast and crew covered 9,000 km in the course of the three-month shoot) is a frequent theme in Takakura’s films, including the 20 he has made with “Dearest” director Yasuo Furuhata, as well as his previous film, Zhang Yimou’s aptly titled “Riding Alone for Thousands of Miles” (2005).
But the comic relief found in even serious Hollywood man-on-a-quest movies (see Alexander Payne’s “The Descendants” for a recent example) is conspicuous by its absence. The folks Kurashima meets along the way, including a Japanese-language teacher (Takeshi) driving an inexplicably luxurious mobile home and two food-stall cooks (Tsuyoshi Kusanagi of SMAP and Koichi Sato) traveling the country together, are mostly leading lonely existences, cut adrift from loved ones. No joking matter, that. And for all their sympathetic, even poetic words, none has an answer for Kurashima’s question of why he’s on the road in the first place.
Finally he reaches the port, where he gets a warm welcome from a mother (Kimiko Yo) and daughter (Haruka Ayase) running a popular local eatery. A typhoon threatens, but Kurashima remains undaunted; he’s come too far — and remembered too much — to give up now.
Throughout we are reminded again and again that the Japanese countryside, at certain angles, seasons and times of day, is still beautiful and atmospheric and that the Japanese people are big-hearted folks always ready to help a stranger. And over everything looms the sad but determined figure of Kurashima, facing off against crashing waves, whipping winds and even death itself like an old tree than will bend but never break.
Furuhata’s treatment of this story is unapologetically old school, right down to the scenes of Kurashima’s prisoners and other audiences riveted to Yoko, a professional singer prior to her marriage, as she plaintively croons a nostalgic tune with lyrics by poet Kenji Miyazawa (1896-1933). Listening to it, I felt the film itself was like a melancholic song from another era not meant for foreign ears, just as the appeal of Takakura, with his air of loneliness and his utter lack of irony, often escapes outlanders.
I loved Ken-chan as a gangster, but as a model for the sunset years, I prefer Clint, who can still glint — and grin.