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In this, the first edition of the new Focus, film critic Chuck Stephens takes an in-depth look at the five-decade-long career of the versatile and venerable leading man, chanbara icon, and Japanese screen legend Tatsuya Nakadai.
When I was a boy and Abbey Road was still on the New Release racks at my local record store, one familiar pop culture question my friends and I would often entertain concerned the potential existence and probable identity of a "fifth Beatle"—a session-seasoned ghost-star brought in to buoy up Paul's bass lines, or some funk-for-hire kagemusha, secretly shadow-doubling keyboard rumbles deep within the mix. Today—grayer, far less groovy, and no longer so susceptible to such frivolous and rhetorical pop-cult idylls as those of yore—I tend toward weightier and more serious concerns. The possibility, for example, that alongside the seven blade runners of Akira Kurosawa's sword-toting supergroup there might have strode an extra warrior—an "eighth samurai."
In fact, the existence of a supernumerary slice-artist among those Seven Samurai has been verifiable all along, and sharp-eyed cineastes will have long since spotted his inaugural if momentary membership in that Kurosawa-gumi, just as you can today—by scanning and rescanning the frames between the film's ten-minute-sixteen- and ten-minute-nineteen-second marks. The fleetingly glimpsed swordsman who saunters through those scant few frames of screen time has no bearing on that 1954 classic's surrounding narrative, and if you blinked through those three seconds, his absence would remain unfelt—he is but one stubbly bearded mercenary among the many potential warriors-for-hire that the film's desperate rice farmers observe striding through the city, his only attribute an attitude of indifference, another replacement killer, cameo'ed and left unnamed. But for Tatsuya Nakadai—then a contract player at Shochiku Studios and not yet twenty-three years old—those flash-frames in the spotlight would prove three of the most decisive seconds in front of a camera an actor ever spent.
Soon to become as overwhelmingly familiar to Japanese film fans as the pair of Kurosawan icons upon whom Seven Samurai most depends—the older, wiser Takeshi Shimura and the wilder, dankly odored Toshiro Mifune—Nakadai wouldn't remain in eighth position very long. Even before he'd succeed in working again with the director nicknamed "the Emperor"—under whose imprimatur he'd eventually rise in rank to become the jidai-geki genre's irrefutable "second samurai"—Nakadai was rapidly forming associations with an entire generation of filmmakers that would last most of them a lifetime. By the end of the decade that followed, he'd already made his mark in the films of left-of-mainstream studio drifters Mikio Naruse and Kon Ichikawa, radical-aesthetes Masaki Kobayashi and Hiroshi Teshigahara, and idiom savants Hideo Gosha and Kihachi Okamoto—and each of those directors would continue hiring Nakadai throughout the following decades, as if they'd come to consider his recurrent presence an essential component of their auteur identities till their very ends. For most of them, Nakadai's name would still faithfully appear in the closing credits of their final films.
As befits a celestial celebrity from the golden era of any movie-mad country's studio system heyday, Nakadai's storied "discovery" is so legendary and stardust-sprinkled as to dissuade even the most cynical historian's efforts at disproof. Born in Tokyo, while Japan was still enjoying the prewar fizz of Jazz Age frivolity and Western-flavored high times, on December 13, 1930—or, according to some sources, in 1932, the year Yasujiro Ozu completed his classic I Was Born, But . . .—Nakadai, so the story goes, was working as a shop clerk when, in 1953, fledging Shochiku Studios director Kobayashi chanced to walk through the door. The actor made his screen debut in Kobayashi's first film, The Thick-Walled Room, later that year. Whether or not the shop clerk story is true, Nakadai was scarcely green when Kobayashi first encountered him, and it was his prior training as a stage actor specializing in Shingeki (the Japanese New Theater movement, which rejected the traditions of Noh and Kabuki in favor of Western "realism") as much as his fresh-faced photogeneity that quickly endeared the young actor to directors and audiences. By 1960, Nakadai had more than twenty feature films on his Shochiku résumé, including the three installments of Kobayashi's nine-hour social realist scroll-painting The Human Condition (1959-61), where he staggers through the trenches from hell to Manchuria and back, only to be systematically stripped of his convictions, his conscience, and the last vestiges of the film's titular concern, until the horrors of war are etched into the death mask that had once been his face. As the new decade dawned, so too did Nakadai's hard-won celebrity as one of the last of pre-new wave Japanese cinema's most versatile and resilient new talents—and shortly thereafter, as one of samurai cinema's all-time genre giants and immortal superstars.
There are those who like to say that Nakadai was once, and perhaps still is, the second best-known Japanese actor in the world, his global cine-celebrity rivaled only by that of Toshiro Mifune, with whom, from opposing extremes of the widescreen battlefield, he would come so often face to scowling face, in such genre-molding chanbara chestnuts as Yojimbo (1961), Sanjuro (1962), The Sword of Doom (1966), and Samurai Rebellion (1967). The truth is that neither actor ever fully cracked the crossover conundrum, and if the stage-trained and always technique-driven Nakadai never quite got the opportunity of working with an oddball international auteur and a charismatic celebrity costar like the ones afforded the flamboyant and fiery Mifune in his encounter with John Boorman and Lee Marvin on Hell in the Pacific (1968), he also never suffered the sorts of indignities that assailed Mifune after Shogun (1980), and haunted him to his grave. Indeed, if Nakadai is less recognizable around the world today than ever before, perhaps it has something to do with his longevity: while all of his most famous cinematic collaborators have now slipped the surly bonds of earth, the still hearty and passionate 72-year-old Nakadai keeps right on working in Japanese movies, television, and in the place he first began, as an actor on the stage.
Possessed of no more or less of the sort of movie-star handsomeness upon which every leading man depends, Nakadai displayed an unadorned exterior that tended less toward suave than somehow slightly embalmed. The qualities that truly define him are those that seem sprung from electrifying forces deep within—a stentorian baritone that might belong to the devil's own ventriloquist dummy, and a pair of orb-wide eyes as alabaster as snake's eggs so eerily inner-illuminated they threaten to rupture into liquid light. Whatever Nakadai might be said to lack in sex appeal, however, he more than compensates for in the prowess of his extraordinary versatility across performative styles and mannerist methodologies, and his specialization in the superelastic changeability of visual demeanor from one role to the next remains the cornerstone of his cinematic career. As Howard Hampton notes of Nakadai in an essay on Okamoto's black-tongued samurai satire Kill! (1968), it is perhaps the actor's "intense part, as the man with the surgically devised mask-visage, in Teshigahara's The Face of Another (1966) [that provides] an apt metaphor for his acting career in many respects: he adopts different looks, expressive methods, and strategies for presenting himself from one film to the next. Unlike the proverbial swordsman who sticks to a single school, he has been more of a self-effacing craftsman who uses whatever technique seems appropriate to the context at hand."
From the walking (nearly-)dead ronin of Kobayashi's Harakiri (1962), where the venality of official indifference to the Edo era's rampant poverty and starving peasant class is reduced to cowering terror by the actor's tomb-toned vocal intonations and horror-hollowed cheeks, to the alternately scurvied insouciance and Silver Surfer-like existential interiority he'd evince in Okamoto's tonally disparate genre classics Kill! and The Sword of Doom, Nakadai's lingering legacy rests entirely on his resplendent and extraordinary range. Was it the salt-and-pepper point-counterpoint of his fame-making roles as Mifune's altogether unlike antagonists in Yojimbo and Sanjuro that first set Nakadai's depth-testing of his various characters' visual and visceral extremes in motion? In the former film, Nakadai essays the part of a flashy young assassin named Unosuke-who, according to some, "looks as timid as a rabbit" in order to conceal the savagery of "a wolf inside"—as if he were some sort of time-out-of-joint chinpira, his top-knot climaxing in a toy-poodle spray of bangs, a loudly patterned and tightly wound muffler warming his throat atop a ratty old kimono, an imported Old West six-shooter hidden lethally within. Though a gale-force wind sends him gusting through most of the picture, he exits with a simper, luffless as he dies. In the sequel, as the shaven-headed and stolid security chief Murota, his steely efficiency and ossified air of authority render Nakadai almost entirely unrecognizable from the earlier role, and his iron-girdled rectitude makes the fire hydrant hyperbole of his jaw-dropping destiny during Sanjuro's climactic showdown at once hilarious and obscene.
Those prone to cruising a film's back alleys in search of subtext will be richly rewarded by a close reading of Nakadai's career-and not just because his demise in Sanjuro remains the single greatest money shot that sexually inexplicit cinema has ever seen. The actor has always made a habit of imbuing his most complex creations with a combination of adamantine outer armor and exquisitely tormented internal affairs. And while some may find Nakadai's candied affectations and ultraexpostulatory approach to acting overbearing, his fans remain forgiving, as if preferring their emperor not just fully clothed but overadorned-a sentiment with which the Mifune of Yojimbo and Sanjuro would certainly concur. When the dying Unosuke asks the scruffy yojimbo if he might cradle his pistol for a final moment, tenderly admitting that he feels "sort of naked" without it, Mifune reluctantly submits; dead already, Murota is eulogized by Mifune as "a naked sword" whose tragic flaw suggests nothing so much as an actor out of costume: "He couldn't stay in his sheath."
There is a constant tension between aggressive displays of self and rubbed-raw refusals of inner identity running along the razor's edge of the actor's entire eiga-ography, but it's when he remains deep within the costume-drama folds of history's closet that Nakadai seems most sharply cross-dressed to kill. He was often reduced to a kind of dapper cadaver when constrained by modern dress, but Nakadai's polymorphous potential—he was not so much feminized as fatally attractive to foils of every sex—seemed to blossom beneath an ancient kimono, and a sense of preening, peacock pageantry lurks within the locks of his every teasing top-knot and rained-on ronin's rug. Composed with unmistakable innuendo, the image of Mifune hovering over Nakadai's supine body at the climax of Yojimbo merely inaugurates the proliferation of possibilities that inflect the costars' many rice paddy rendezvous yet to come. By the time, just a few years later, that the actor would once again lay bare his vulnerability to Mifune's advances, during the climax of Kobayashi's Samurai Rebellion, observant admirers might readily have recognized that it wasn't the fear of being penetrated that put a Paul Lynde look of panic on Nakadai's face, but rather the possibility that-having promised to raise Mifune's grandchild should Nakadai slay him during battle-fate might fling this solitary samurai border guard into that most heterodoxical of manly chasms: fatherhood.
Unanchored by the Edo era trappings of the jidai-geki, Nakadai's contemporary characters prove intriguing mirror images of his feudalistic fops, particularly as he was in the habit of taking the notion of the alienated romantic to the most mummified extremes. But while his samurai roles tend toward the frilly and flamboyant, it's a testament to the actor's chameleon-quick instinct for camouflage that one could perhaps make the opposite case—that, in fact, Nakadai never seems queerer than when he's playing things perfectly straight. In Ichikawa's Odd Obsession (1959), for example, his opportunistic doctor cluelessly believes he's seducing both the wife of an elderly patient (even though the woman will only submit to him when drunkenly comatose) and the woman's daughter, who returns Nakadai's affections with a cup of rat-poisoned tea. In The Face of Another, his character's countenance is left horribly disfigured by an industrial accident, and soon his psyche dissolves into an equally gelatinous morass. Fitted with a pasty-complexioned and beatnik-bearded prosthetic face mask by his overzealous psychiatrist, Nakadai begins plotting to seduce his own disaffected wife with his sporty new disguise. That his plan smacks of nothing so much as a cracked actor's far-too-close encounter with an open tube of spirit glue doesn't prevent the seduction from succeeding, though any hope for masculinity lastingly regained is quickly replaced by postorgasmic melancholy-and Nakadai's hetero modernicus soon vanishes into the same fun-house mirror as the renegade Psychology Today musings about "the inferiority complex in the shape of a finger" with which the film began.
As a police detective in the supercharged 1963 kidnapping thriller High and Low, Nakadai gets a costar's billing even as he turns in the most anonymous performance Kurosawa would ever allow him to give, and nearly ratifies in a single image the aversion his detractors have long evinced at the actor's inevitably "bug-eyed stare": seated in the jump seat of a prowl car that's speeding through the vortex of some endless underpass, Nakadai allows his eyes to bulge with such insectoidal intensity you can almost hear the stingered trumpets of the Green Hornet fanfare begin to buzz and scream. Scarcely disgraceful, that shot nevertheless remains inadvertently comic, and it must have been chilling for the actor—who'd willed his career into being with The Human Condition and had once been praised by Kobayashi as the only modern Japanese star capable of embodying the pathologies of both the nation's pre- and postwar pasts—to consider that his role might seem less a character study than a cartoon. Nakadai surely recognized his relative invisibility at the lower end of the High and Low spectrum as a new kind of crossroads in his career, and quickly determined that wafting prematurely into the wings of anonymity wasn't for him. He soon began to move more and more into the comforting realm he'd long since conquered as a crisply defined superswordsman, eminently suited to illuminating the samurai genre's period-picture mists. It would be almost twenty years before he'd work with Kurosawa again.
The decades that followed Nakadai's High and Low noon would prove as punctuated with greatness as it was polluted with peppered cheese. Of the latter, one can number many of the films Nakadai would make with director Hideo Gosha, whose penchant for erotic-grotesqueries, in movies like Bandits vs. Samurai Squadron (1978) and Hunter in the Dark (1979), would typically trump episodes of staggering ultraviolence with the still more nauseating tortures of epically enervated make-out scenes. Fond of tightly framed tongue-tangos between aging Ozu starlets and chipped-granite former he-men like Tetsuro Tamba (the George Kennedy of the Japanese silver screen), Gosha often seemed convinced that the Floating World had mainly been kept aloft on piano-and-strings treacle even Rachmaninoff wouldn't have endured. The actor's collaborations with Okamoto, however, tilt the scales well back toward greatness and remain astonishing to this day. Take, for example, Okamoto's 1966 master's thesis on whirling dervish nihilism, that saber dance of annihilation known as The Sword of Doom.
Forever fraught with the compulsion to muscle in on Kurosawa's mighty kingdom, Okamoto made samurai features that abound with complexly Oedipal attempts to trump the action-triumphs of his distinguished directorial predecessor, and often delight in amplifying the Emperor's occasional flirtations with absurdist humor into noise symphonies of hilariously razored extremes. While a film like Kill! is quite intentionally comedic, even a resolutely stoic and savage foray across the valley of moral darkness like The Sword of Doom pauses to spare a moment or two for mirth. Take, for example, the outsize bamboo lampshade worn by Nakadai's increasingly psychotic swordsman as he wanders from one eviscerative set piece to another, searching for a punch line that will cap his comedy of existential chaos by literally bringing down the house. Swallowed by the labyrinth of his ever-expanding anguish, Nakadai's quasi-cosmic superassassin once again doubles back against the actor's earlier accomplishments, fusing the screams of seven thousand samurai into one singularly inhuman condition. An entire plague of infernally buzzing locusts couldn't have escaped the last slashing gasps of The Sword of Doom's apocalyptic end point, and thus did Nakadai, squashed forever against the windscreen of the film's last freeze-frame, finally close those haunted insect eyes.
That the actor should at last return to cap his long-lived relationship with Kurosawa, first with Kagemusha (1980) and finally with Ran (1985)—a pair of color-mad horrors-of-war stories about the historical double-troubles of rulers brought to ruin through vanity and narcissistic self-regard—might in many ways seem foreordained. Never mind that Kurosawa's long estrangement from Mifune, and his precipitous dismissal of Shintaro Katsu, Kagemusha's originally intended star, on the film's first day of shooting, had as much to do with the decision as any of the actor's undeniable skills. Nakadai had always been Kurosawa's "shadow warrior," ever since that legendary three-second saunter-through of yore, and in the twilight before the director would lapse forever into a dotage of painfully "painterly" kitsch-parades, who better to inhabit his last recognizably human characters than the forever filial stage-craftsman who had always served him well?
Though Ran has historically accumulated the preponderance of the two films' admirers, it might be time to reconsider Kurosawa's perhaps-too-aggressive expressionist excesses in burying Nakadai's deranged and ranting Lear-like God-king beneath an avalanche of Christian Dior. As celebrated and inherently expressive a cinematic shape-shifter as Nakadai hardly required such a fright-mask to imbue the film's enfeebled patriarch with pathos. Surely the undervalued unpredictability and vapor-powdered eruptiveness of Nakadai's performance in Kagemusha, by striking contrast, allows the actor far more flashes of hard-earned humanity and occasional hilarity. Indeed, for the first half of Kagemusha, while one is left in doubt as to just which one's the double, the walrus-whiskered Nakadai's confusion results in one of the most unsettling performances he'd ever give.
Nakadai's post-Ran filmography is distinguished mainly by the absence of even a single name of post-1990 directorial note, or so much as the obscurest of festival-circulated titles, as if—having remained faithful to the end to the best-known Japanese director in the West—he'd finally exhausted any desire to extend his international appeal and had now resigned himself exclusively to some secondary and far more shadowy Japanese cinema, filled with films entirely resistant to export. And though he is still quite active in television and in movies made directly for Japan's enormous V-cinema home video market, Nakadai's acting passions appear to be mostly concentrated around his Studio for Unknown Actors, the Mumeijuku, which he founded with his late wife, Yasuko Miyazaki (stage name: Tomoe Ryu), back in 1978. Indeed, Nakadai's greatest recent contribution to Japanese cinema isn't a performance he's given us, but a performer: Koji Yakusho—the much-in-demand celebrity best known for his work in chill-master Kiyoshi Kurosawa's Cure (1997) and Charisma (1999)—whom Nakadai mentored at Mumeijuku from the predawn of his career.
But if the absences in Nakadai's post-1990 filmography prove as pregnant with possibilities ("What might a mannequin-attuned auteur like Shinya Tsukamoto do with Nakadai?" "Wouldn't Nakadai look great as one of Takashi Miike's surrealism-challenged toughs?") as its inclusions, it's important to remember that his career has always been strangely thus. For every major director he was paired with in the sixties, his accomplishments can be just as usefully backlit by the names of those for whom he never worked: there are no Nagisa Oshima or Shohei Imamura art films on his résumé, no Seijun Suzuki or Kinji Fukasaku potboilers to pump some pop into his pulps. Indeed, Nakadai's career-long legacy of refusals and rejections is altogether extraordinary, and he remains one of the few Japanese actors never associated with yakuza genre flicks, giant monster movies, rope-wrapped roman poruno, or pinku-tinted S-and-M soft-core.
Oh, but how he sauntered through the jidai-geki swordscape, an emotively ambidextrous genre giant for hire, skinhead skullcap in one pocket, ratty rug of whiskers in another, as spaghetti Eastern-saucy among the tumbleweeds as he might be switchblade-sudden when shifting from stoicism to savagery upon the shogunate's command. Nakadai forever—the glinting shingggs! of his fearsome swordplay faster than any shutter speed, his ceaseless ferocity as razor-edged and brilliant as it was brutalizing and buggy, and those mad and maddening insect eyes forever bulging, forever burning behind his ever-changing face.
Chuck Stephens, a contributing editor to Film Comment, writes frequently for the Village Voice, Cinema Scope, the San Francisco Bay Guardian, and a variety of publications around the world. He lives in Bangkok.