×

Japanese Gangster Movie Icon Bunta Sugawara Dead At 81

TOKYO – Bunta Sugawara, who rose to fame in the 1970s playing wild-at-heart gangsters on the mean streets of post-war Japan, died on Friday at age 81 of liver cancer in a Tokyo hospital, the Toei studio announced Monday.
 
Born in Sendai, in northern Japan, in 1933, Sugawara entered the Shintoho studio in 1958 after leading a scuffling existence on the fringes of Tokyo’s underworld that furnished material for his later roles. When the studio went bust in 1961, he left for rival Shochiku, but his career was treading water until former-gang-boss-turned actor Noboru Ando helped him join the Toei studio in 1967.
 
After that he rose to stardom in Toei’s signature yakuza films, culminating with the lead role in Kinji Fukasaku’s 1973 “Battles Without Honor and Humanity.” Based on a yakuza’s memoirs of a gang war in Hiroshima and the nearby port of Kure, this film and its four sequels marked a sharp break with the romanticized gang pics of studio stalwart Ken Takakura. Shot in a gritty, realistic style, the series was popular with fans, but the gang genre as a whole was in decline and Sugawara’s reign as a yakuza star was brief.
 
He made a smooth segue, however, to Toei’s hit “Truck Guy” series, starring in ten installments from 1975 to 1979 as a rough-edged but good-hearted trucker. He also won a Japan Academy Best Supporting Actor award for his turn in Kazuo Hasegawa’s 1979 “The Man Who Stole the Sun” as a cop pursuing a high school teacher (Kenji Sawada) who has two homemade atomic bombs in his possession.
 
In the succeeding decades Sugawara continued to work steadily in both films and television, including voice roles in Hayao Miyazaki’s 2001 Academy-Award-winning animation “Spirited Away” (2001) and Goro Miyazaki’s 2006 hit “Tales from Earthsea.” By the time of his death, the “Battle Without Honor and Humanity” series was widely recognized by Japanese critics as a post war masterpiece, while Sugawara himself had become a tough-guy national icon, similar to fellow Toei star Ken Takakura, who died on Nov.10.  
 
 

Popular on Variety

More Film

  • Rules Don't Apply

    Warren Beatty and Arnon Milchan Settle Suit Over 'Rules Don't Apply' Flop

    Arnon Milchan and Warren Beatty have settled their two-year legal battle over the disastrous release of “Rules Don’t Apply,” Beatty’s period drama about Howard Hughes. Milchan’s attorneys have filed a notice with the court dismissing his suit against Beatty. Terms of the settlement were not disclosed. Milchan’s company, New Regency, sued Beatty and other investors [...]

  • Brazil's President Jair Bolsonaro attends a

    Bolsonaro LGBTQI Outburst, Subsidy Freeze, Stirs Outrage

    Ramping up the drive into censorship in Brazil, its Minister of Citizenship, Omar Terra, has suspended a call for applications for governmental TV funding – until new criteria are established for its application. The country’s secretary for culture, Henrique Pires, who reports to Terra, has resigned in protest of the incentive freeze. The suspension, for [...]

  • Adam Brody'Ready or Not' film premiere,

    Adam Brody to Executive Produce, Star in 'The Kid Detective'

    “Ready or Not’s” Adam Brody has signed on to star in “The Kid Detective.” Sophie Nelisse will co-star in the dramedy from writer-director Evan Morgan. Brody will star as a once-celebrated kid detective, now 31, who continues to solve the same trivial mysteries between hangovers and bouts of self-pity until a 16-year-old client (Nelisse) brings [...]

  • Alita: Battle Angel VFX

    How Previsualization Helps Create Pitches for Projects Like 'Alita: Battle Angel'

    Filmmakers are increasingly using previsualization, a now-standard technique for planning highly technical shots and sequences, as a tool for pitching a project to production companies, investors and studio executives — before a single full scene has actually been shot. More creatives are relying on the technique, dubbed “pitchvis,” to fashion a compelling and engaging presentation [...]

  • Theo Von arrives at the Global

    Chris Pratt's 'Ghost Draft' Adds Comedian Theo Von

    Comedian Theo Von has boarded the sci-fi thriller “Ghost Draft” starring Chris Pratt. “Lego Batman” filmmaker Chris McKay is directing Skydance and Paramount’s upcoming film, which stars “Handmaid’s Tale” star Yvonne Strahovski alongside Pratt. J.K. Simmons and “GLOW’s” Betty Gilpin are also in talks to join the pic. Written by Zach Dean and Bill Dubuque, [...]

More From Our Brands

Access exclusive content