High and Low: Film Forum Presents: Nakadai

Tatsuya Nakadai

Running 20 June – 17 July 2008 at the Film Forum in New York City

New York’s Film Forum, in association with the Japan Foundation, is presenting an ambitious and inspired screening series this summer, dedicated to the films of Japanese actor Tatsuya Nakadai from the late ’50s to the mid ’80s. Heavy on his renowned samurai actioners and Akira Kurosawa epics, a healthy portion of the series is also devoted to movies rarely seen in the United States, including Masaki Kobayashi’s Black River, Mikio Naruse’s Untamed, and Kon Ichikawa’s I Am a Cat. The highlight is undoubtedly Nakadai’s upcoming trip to the United States, with Kurosawa’s long-time assistant Teruyo Nogami, for a seminar at the Film Forum on 24 June, with additional appearances at the Japan Society and the National Gallery of Art in Washington D.C.

Though a major film star, Nakadai is not as well known outside Japan as his contemporary Toshiro Mifune. Nakadai has a more studied persona, compared to Mifune’s burly sweaty appeal, and often disappears into his roles. Though handsome and charismatic, he is more of a character actor than movie star. His dedication to the uniqueness of each role can be traced to his training in stage acting, where he focused in Shingeki, a Japanese theater movement that specialized in realism. His work is consistently layered, with intriguing tensions among this naturalism, the more formal techniques of Noh, and the broader allures required of mainstream screen acting.

In an interview in Joan Mellen’s collection, Voices from the Japanese Cinema, the director Kobayashi says of Nakadai, “I still feel he was one of a small group of actors who combined the traditional Shingeki background with the fresh innocence and energy of our postwar generation. He could thus effectively represent both pre- and postwar people.” Nakadai ‘s transition from theater to movies helped to expand his art. In an interview for Criterion’s DVD release of When a Woman Ascends the Stairs, he says that because he was a stage actor, he was cast in films for different studios, unlike contract players, and so he worked with a wide array of directors. Few actors have worked such varied masters: Ichikawa, Naruse, Kobayashi, Kurosawa, Hiroshi Teshigahara, and Kihachi Okamoto.

Such variety helps to make the Film Forum series seem a lively primer on the emerging Japanese film styles from the late ‘50s to late ‘60s, from the popular appeal of Kurosawa to the frenetic violence of swordplay movies to the naturalistic minimalism of Naruse. Most of the films examine post-war society, offering allegorical criticisms of the moral and political shifts that produced it.

Salient among these are the films directed by Kobayashi. The series opens with Harakiri, a samurai drama and thinly veiled critique of the Japanese military’s anti-humane code of honor that proved disastrous in World War II, and it closes with an ambitious three-week run of The Human Condition, Kobayashi’s 10-hour epic about the brutality of war, with Nakadai in a major early role as a labor boss and everyman in Manchuria during World War II.


In Black River, Nakadai plays “Killer Joe,” a pimp and gang leader who exploits a run-down community near a U.S. military base. The character is beguiling and frightening, a cackling sadist fit for the jazzy beat noir tone. (Kobayashi had a great talent for setting and the geometry of film space.) But as the innocence of the two leads (Fumio Watanabe and Ineko Arima) is complicated by their efforts to outmaneuver Joe and transcend their circumstances, Nakadai deepens his portrayal to reveal Joe’s desperation and vulnerability, his comparative smallness, revealing that he is as likely to be chewed up by their onerous environment as anyone else.

Like Mifune, Nakadai’s fame largely rested on his work in samurai films (he was often cast with and billed below Mifune), and it’s here that he developed a star persona marked by fierce individualism. In lighter entertainments like Kill! and Hideo Gosha’s action movies, he has the ironic charm of the postmodern action star, delivering to generic requisites but also letting the audience know it’s all a lark, crossing from villain to hero throughout the film.

Sword of Doom

In Sword of Doom, Nakadai completely overshadows Mifune as the psychotic swordsman Ryonosuke Tsukue. His performance is marked by affectations — a flat, expressionless voice, hollow eyes, and a tic of a smile that suggests he’s a serial killer experimenting with the idea of human emotion. Though the movie is mostly told from his point of view, we never come to identify with or feel sympathy for Tsukue; we do understand the danger he embodies. The movie is ultimately a repudiation of the common samurai exhortation that “the sword is the soul,” playing this idea out until it becomes an endless orgy of mad violence.

For Kurosawa’s Ran, the actor’s face is almost entirely obscured by heavy make-up and costuming. But his physical precision takes the formal mannerisms of Japanese theater to an almost avant garde degree. He exudes an outsized foolish pomposity in the opening scenes, sits perfectly still while going insane in a castle keep while flaming arrows fly through the windows, and flails around the countryside with his court jester.

When a Woman Ascends the Stairs

Nakadai also had a subtler side where he showed off his training in Shingeki, appearing in films rooted in the classical tradition of Yasujiro Ozu and Kenji Mizoguchi. He delivers notable supporting performances in the two Naruse movies in the Film Forum series. It’s worth seeing When a Woman Ascends the Stairs again to focus on Nakadai’s gradations as a bar manager quietly struggling with his love for Keiko (the completely captivating Hideko Takamine) over his callow ambitious instincts. Nakadai also appears with Takamine in one of his first roles, in Untamed, as a young shop worker with questionable motivations.

In the Criterion interview, Nakadai says, “Naruse was quite unusual, and the unusual thing about him was how quiet he was.” (More to the point, perhaps, according to Donald Richie, in his A Hundred Years of Japanese Film, “Many are the stories of actors driven to despair by the director’s unwillingness [or inability] to describe what he wanted. Nakadai Tatsuya… said that he had never in his entire career suffered such frustration.”) Nakadai also notes that his exacting costar Takamine taught him moderation, “the difference between stage acting and film acting.” She also told him not to open his eyes so wide. As these are among the actor’s most distinctive features, her advice seems especially wise.


In I Am a Cat, Nakadai’s dark, expressive eyes, brows perpetually raised in a bid for sympathy, convey a range of emotions. (This film is rarely available for screening, and Nakadai personally requested this particular print be shown.) Ichikawa adapts Natsume Sōseki’s melancholy comic novel, written from the titular pet’s point of view, by centering the story on its owner Kushami (Nakadai) and his shiftless academic friends, who sit around drinking tea and beer, telling stories and arguing about life.

The cat, which pointedly has no name, is subject to constant abuse, marking its similarity to the beat-up humans. At first, Kushami says, “I envy it for its proud loneliness.” He eventually achieves a bittersweet redemption, realizing he has rights as an individual while accepting that he is subject to life’s rhythms. It’s an unusual film, in that the narrative structure seems lackadaisical. However, Ichikawa fashions a touching and unexpected ending, recreating the book’s final scene as told by the cat, and adding a twist that nicely reconciles its differences from the novel. Nakadai excels in his suffering everyman role, treading a fine line between dignity and bathos.

Nakadai’s styles and roles are as difficult to pin down as the times in which he lived. We want our stars to play ideals, but he never fit into the mold of a simple hero. Neither did he play villains straight, enhancing them with tragic faults as well as decency or loyalty, somehow gone awry. He provides every character with tendrils of complexity, every relationship with emotional and moral depths. And this series is as entertaining, provocative, and intricate as its subject.