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.