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Why Japanese media still kowtow to Ken Takakura

by Philip Brasor

Special To The Japan Times

“Ken San” is a new documentary about late actor Ken Takakura opening in local theaters next month. Described as Japan’s “greatest” and “last” movie star, Takakura was respected by both the Japanese people who worked with him and international film giants such as Martin Scorsese, John Woo and Paul Schrader. The star quality they identified in Takakura was, as Scorsese puts it, his “presence” both on and off the screen — a kind of “aura,” as one Japanese character actor described it. Though he was just a man, a fallible human, the personality Takakura conveyed in his movies transcended his imperfections, and he worked hard to make sure his “aura” outlived him.

When any Japanese celebrity dies — regardless of their stature in the public imagination — they become subject to closer scrutiny by the showbiz press: old rocks are overturned, secret lovers trotted out, bad family blood spilled. After Takakura died in November 2014, several media reported items that were previously considered taboo, given Takakura’s position in the industry. However, other media continued to put Takakura on a pedestal as the paragon of Japanese masculinity: reticent, suffering, morally uncompromising and, most essentially, alone.

That image was developed in the 1950s and ’60s when Takakura was signed to Toei Studios and made dozens of ninkyō eiga (yakuza “chivalry” films). Takakura always played to type, but that type wasn’t the gangster we tend to associate with the yakuza persona known today. As Schrader points out in “Ken San,” these men were samurai by any other name — defined by their loyalty but possessed of independent sensibilities because they were outsiders by temperament. Takakura became so convincing playing this fantasy that he became close friends with several genuine yakuza who admired his work. This wasn’t as unusual as it may sound. Japanese show business and the criminal underworld have always had a close relationship, and fraternization, while not publicized, wasn’t as frowned upon then as it is now.

A series of articles published by the Weekly Asahi Geino shortly after Takakura’s death outlined in detail the actor’s relationships with at least two high-ranking yakuza executives, including Kazuo Taoka, the third-highest kumichō (organization “head”) of the Yamaguchi-gumi, the most well-known underworld organization. The two became friends in the ’50s, when Takakura was cast in a movie as the boyfriend of superstar singer Hibari Misora, whose real-life sponsor-guardian at the time was Taoka. It was through this relationship that he met a friend of Misora’s, pop singer Chiemi Eri, whom Takakura later married. In 1973, he even played a character directly based on Taoka.

Asahi Geino was not revealing anything scandalous in the article, but times have changed. These days, when showbiz personalities are connected to yakuza, they are blackballed immediately. But the article emphasized that Takakura was never comfortable with Taoka and his ilk. He didn’t drink with them (he didn’t drink at all) and when they sent women to his rooms he would send them right back — or flee in terror.

Such intelligence must be taken with a grain of salt, especially when it’s about people who are no longer around to corroborate it, but it seems clear that by the mid-’70s Takakura was trying to distance himself from his yakuza typecasting. He left Toei to reboot his image. And while he was eventually successful as an independent actor, his image didn’t change radically. He still played characters who stood at the margins of society or on the other side of the law — men who bore their punishment with tight-lipped stoicism. If the main appeal of ninkyo eiga was that they “rejected modernism” — as film critic Saburo Kawamoto says in the documentary — Takakura’s post-yakuza films presented him as the ultimate anti- organization man. He was a hero because he didn’t fit the Japanese norm even if, paradoxically, he embodied a Japanese ideal.

It was thus all the more shocking when, following his death, weekly magazine Shincho started running articles that contradicted this image. At the time of his death, Takakura had been living for more than a decade with a woman 20 years his junior, whom he adopted shortly before he died. Such adoptions are relatively common in Japan for people who don’t have natural heirs. The woman was originally hired by Takakura’s production company as a housekeeper-assistant, but Shincho implied that their relationship was intimate. She was his sole heir and has since become the CEO of his production company, in charge of administering his legacy.

This woman did not inform Takakura’s surviving sister of his death until after the funeral, a private affair closed to the media, saying that those were his wishes. Shincho nominally took the side of the sister, Toshiko Mori, probably because she granted them exclusive interviews, and Mori made the woman out to be an opportunist. Later, Shincho’s main rival, Bunshun, published an essay by the woman, explaining that Takakura was an extremely private person and that it was her duty to protect that privacy, even after his death.

A non-blood relative who takes it upon herself to commandeer a famous person’s legacy is normally treated derisively by the showbiz press, but, except for Shincho, the woman’s story has been taken at face value, possibly because they agree with her purposes.

These is plenty of testimony and hearsay that indicate Takakura wasn’t as constant as his perfect-man image. Despite his legendary lifelong love for Eri — who divorced him in 1971 — he had affairs, and reportedly never got along with his family. A former colleague in the documentary says Takakura once told him he wanted to play “a Japanese man,” meaning a normal person. During a rare late-’90s interview on the TV variety show “SMAP X SMAP,” he obliquely complained about his image, joking that he didn’t get offered “jobs where I can sit on a yacht and play the ukulele,” like one of his contemporaries, actor-musician Yuzo Kayama.

But in terms of Takakura being a loner, that seems to be true. Several interviewees in the documentary mention Takakura’s habit of taking long road trips by himself, and even on movie sets he was courteous but aloof. In that regard his adopted daughter’s stated task should be easy. So far, his carefully cultivated image has survived his passing intact.

“Ken San” opens Aug. 20 at Shibuya Cine Palace in Tokyo and other theaters throughout Japan. For more information, visit www.respect-film.co.jp/kensan.