Shigeru Okada oversaw production in studio's heyday

TOKYO — Former Toei topper Shigeru Okada, who oversaw production of the studio’s iconic samurai and yakuza pics through its 1950s and 1960s heyday, died on Monday of pneumonia in Tokyo at age 87.

Born in Hiroshima in 1924, Okada joined the predecessor to Toei soon after graduating from the University of Tokyo in 1947.

After Toei launched in 1951, Okada took charge of production at the company’s Kyoto and Tokyo studios, with a keen eye for the B.O. main chance at a time when demand for local pics was still strong. Toei started churning out samurai swashbuckler and other action fare at a ferocious pace, with production hitting more than 100 pics annually. Soon Toei was atop the B.O. heap and Okada’s corporate star was rising.

When television started luring away auds in the early 1960s, Okada and his team responded with a new line of so-called “ninkyo” (code of honor) gang pics starring Koji Tsuruta, Ken Takakura and other top male talent. Mostly set from the end of the feudal era to the dark prewar days, the pics featured loner outlaw heroes upholding traditional gang values such as loyalty and self-sacrifice against unscrupulous gangster enemies.

Though pure fantasy, the pics drew millions of male fans who enjoyed their retro swagger and style. And when the ninkyo boom began to fade at the end of the decade, Okada and uber-producer Koji Shindo deftly switched direction to gang pics that more accurately reflected ruthless contemporary realities. The culmination was the five-part “Battles Without Honor and Humanity” (1973-1974) series that, under helmer Kinji Fukasaku, depicted a violent gang war in Hiroshima with a documentary-like intensity, while luring back younger fans who had abandoned the genre as old-fashioned and formulaic. But a second four-part series (1974-1979) did not scale the same B.O. heights, a symptom of an industry-wide malaise that even Okada could not cure.

Okada served as Toei prexy from 1971 to 1993, then segued to the post of chairman and, in 2006, honorary chairman. As a manager, he was a relentless cost cutter, who viewed pics strictly as products and shifted strategy quickly to meet aud needs. Under Okada, Toei was an early entrant into the toon, TV and soft porn businesses, reaping profits while its more conservative rivals hesitated.

In his later years, Okada became a biz godfather, promoting Japanese pics as head of the industry org Motion Picture Producers Assn. of Japan. He often lent his salty, distinctive presence to industry gatherings, firing off quips to general laughter and applause, though his barbs could also sting. Asked to comment on Hiroyuki Sanada’s title perf in “The Twilight Samurai” (2002), Yoji Yamada’s Oscar-nommed period drama for rival Shochiku, Okada said “He’s a lot better now than when he worked for us.”

Okada’s son Yusuke is now Toei prexy.

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