Ken Takakura, who first rose to stardom in the 1960s playing yakuza outlaws, but later became Hollywood’s go-to actor for made-in-Japan films, died on Nov. 10 at age 83 of malignant lymphoma. A private funeral had already been held when the Japanese media broke the story today.
The legendary actor most recently starred in “Dearest” and Zhang Yimou’s “Riding Alone for Thousands of Miles.” Western audiences best know Takakura for his roles in Ridley Scott’s “Black Rain” and 1992’s “Mr. Baseball.”
Born on Feb. 16, 1931, in Fukuoka, Japan, Takakura entered the Toei studio in 1955 after graduating from Meiji University. His breakout role was as an escaped prisoner in Teruo Ishii’s 1965 hit “Abashiri Prison,” which was loosely based on Stanley Kramer’s 1958 “The Defiant Ones.” The film spawned a long-running series, while Takakura churned out hit after hit for Toei in the remainder of the decade and beyond. Usually playing stoic loners who move into action only after repeated provocations, Takakura became an iconic figure for a generation of Japanese moviegoers, much as Clint Eastwood did in Hollywood.
Takakura played a version of this character in Sydney Pollack’s 1974 “The Yakuza,” with a script co-written by yakuza movie aficionado Leonard Schrader, together with Pollack and Robert Towne. By this time, however, Japanese moviegoers had tired of Takakura’s brand of gang actioner, whose good guys followed a code of yakuza chivalry routinely disregarded by the more realistic hoods of Kinji Fukasaku’s popular 1973 “Battles Without Honor and Humanity” and its sequels.
Even before leaving Toei in 1976 Takakura had begun moving away from his signature yakuza genre, playing a bankrupt-businessman-turned-extortionist in the 1975 Junya Sato thriller “The Bullet Train.” In the remainder of the 1970s and after he appeared in a succession of starring roles, including an ex-con journeying to reunite with his wife in Yoji Yamada’s 1977 hit “The Yellow Handkerchief.” Based on a story by Pete Hamill, the film was remade as a 2008 film of the same title by Udayan Prasad, with William Hurt starring in the Takakura role. Takakura also played a veteran dog handler in the 1983 Koreyoshi Kurahara smash “Antarctica,” which set a record as the highest-earning Japanese film of all-time that was only surpassed by Hayao Miyazaki’s animation “Princess Mononoke” in 1997. “Antarctica” was remade as the 2006 “Eight Below,” with Frank Marshall directing.
In 1989 Takakura appeared in “Black Rain” as a forbearing Japanese cop assigned to deal with Michael Douglas’s hot-tempered detective, who is after an escaped yakuza played by Yusaku Matsuda. He followed with a similar role as a pro baseball manager dealing with Tom Selleck’s spoiled former major leaguer in the 1992 Fred Schepisi comedy “Mr. Baseball.”
After the turn of the millennium, Takakura appeared only in a handful films, including 2005’s “Riding Alone for Thousands of Miles” and his 205th and last film, Yasuo Furuhata’s 2012 “Dearest,” playing a retired prison counselor making a journey of remembrance to the port where his deceased wife was born.
From 1959 until their divorce in 1971 Takakura was married to singer Chiemi Eri, but they had no children.