Ken Takakura, a veteran of over 200 films the AP calls one of the last great Japanese movie stars, has died at the age of 83. Takakura died on November 10, but the news was not announced in the Japanese media until after a private funeral service had been held. Takakura rose to fame playing tough-guy roles in yakuza films, before eventually becoming Hollywood’s go-to actor for Western movies made in Japan.
Takakura was born Goichi Oda in 1931 in Fukuoka, Japan, and joined the Toei film studio after graduating from Meiji University in 1955. The Japanese film industry operated under a studio system at that time, and at Toei Takakura labored on dozens of films, usually playing a stoic outcast who acts in defense of the poor and weak after being repeatedly provoked by the system. These roles endeared Takakura to the Japanese public, where a cult of personality Variety compares to Clint Eastwood grew up around the actor.
In 1965, Takakura starred in the breakout hit Abashiri Prison, which spawned a series of sequels Takakura would appear in for several years. But by the ’70s Takakura’s brand of honorable gangster had gone out of style, and he began to branch out into other kinds of roles. He reprised his famous yakuza persona for Sydney Pollack’s 1974 film The Yakuza, the first in a series of Western film roles, before leaving Toei in 1976.
Takakura continued to appear in hit Japanese and American films from the ’70s through the ’90s, including Yoji Yamada’s The Yellow Handkerchief (1977), Antarctica (1983)—the most popular Japanese movie of all time until it was displaced by Princess Mononoke in 1997—Railroad Man (1999), for which he won the Best Actor award at the Montreal World Film Festival, and as the manager forced to deal with Tom Selleck’s spoiled former major leaguer in Mr. Baseball (1992). But his most recognizable role for non-Japanese audiences was probably in Ridley Scott’s Black Rain (1989), where he played the Japanese cop caught between New York detectives Michael Douglas and Andy Garcia and a yakuza gang.
Takakura’s output slowed in the new millennium; his last film was 2012’s Dearest, where he played a retired prison guard who goes on a reflective journey to scatter his late wife’s ashes. Takakura received Japan’s highest cultural honor, the Order of Culture, in 2013, where he joked that he was surprised to receive an invitation to the Imperial Palace considering his onscreen reputation. “In movies, I’m most often an ex-convict. I’m grateful for the award despite many of these roles I’ve played,” Takakura said. “I really believe that hard work pays off.”