Not since Toshiro Mifune co-starred with Lee Marvin in John Boorman's "Hell in the Pacific" more than 20 years ago has a major Japanese screen star had such a large role in an American film as Ken Takakura in Ridley Scott's "Black Rain."
"Black Rain" is an international police thriller starring Takakura as the Japanese police inspector who tries to calm and accommodate an abrasive, headstrong New York cop (Michael Douglas) who abandons all cultural graces in an attempt to get the man who killed his partner (Andy Garcia).
The movie proves to be an unexpected change of pace for Takakura, an icon of stoic strength in the Japanese cinema. No one who has enjoyed Takakura's reserved but sensitive heroes over the years would have expected to see Takakura singing--in English yet--a vigorous "What'd I Say" on a nightclub stage. It's almost as startling as Garbo's laughing fit in "Ninotchka." If Douglas and Garcia take some of the starch out of Takakura's dignified cop, he in turn teaches them some lessons in respect for Japanese ways.
Although "Black Rain" is sure to bring Takakura more international renown than all of his nearly 200 previous films put together, he initially turned it down. In person, Takakura, who was in town briefly for the film's opening, has a presence distinctly different from what he portrays on the screen. He has a sense of humor that few of his recent films have captured and, for a man who exudes such cool virility in his movies, he is surprisingly slight and unathletic appearing. However, at 58, he also looks at least a decade younger.
"When I was contacted about 'Black Rain' last year, I had just completed a picture and wanted to rest for two months at my hideaway in Southern Japan," said Takakura, who can speak some English but from time to time relied upon "Black Rain" production assistant Cellin Gluck to serve as his interpreter. "I didn't want to think about making another movie so soon, and I thought I was not right for the role."
As originally conceived, the inspector was to be a short, stocky man, a heavy-drinking burn-out case on the verge of retirement. Takakura recommended Shintaro Katsu, star of the Zatoichi series, as more physically suited to the part. But sensing that he could be tempted, the film's persistent director, Ridley Scott, had the inspector retailored as fast as possible for Takakura. Even so, Takakura admits he allowed himself to be persuaded to accept the role by Scott's enthusiasm rather than by the script (which he later realized had been poorly translated into Japanese).
"Black Rain" has received considerable press for its production difficulties, of clashes between the American crew and Japanese officialdom, and Takakura confirms that there were problems. "I've done a lot of physically demanding films," said Takakura. "I've been dragged to the South Pole and to the North Pole. I've had to climb glaciers and stand naked in sub-zero weather in Hokkaido, and I would say that making this film was just as tough, maybe even tougher, than any of them."
With so much large-scale shooting on busy Osaka streets, "Black Rain" is believed to be the most ambitious production ever attempted in urban locations in Japan. The physical complexity of the undertaking inevitably led to conflict with rigid Japanese restrictions on filming.
"There were times when I saw Michael's character Conklin in Michael himself and in Ridley too," said Takakura. "There was a lot of frustration, but I think being in the middle of all that conflict and experiencing it with them became some sort of emotive force for me."
"No matter what the pressures, Ken always had an enigmatic smile," said Scott in a phone interview. "He really became the catalyst, if you will, for Michael's character and was incredibly crucial in the film. Michael and Andy play such fast-talking characters, Ken had to be very agile, up on his English, which had grown rusty. He's great fun, but he's very dignified. I loved working with him."
"There were unbelievable obstacles, and not just the language barrier," said Gluck, elaborating for Takakura. "The governor offered the offices of the Osaka Prefecture for some of our interiors, and it got to the point where we were almost bringing the government to a halt. Then the governor started getting complaints from the left-wing press for letting us shoot there. He was really the target, not us. The left-wing radicals would walk through our shots, hoping one of us would take a swing at them, but there was not a single incident.
"Most of the steel-mill sequence at the end of the film was done in Japan, but we ran out of time. Also, it was against Japanese law for us to have actual gunfire, which could have ignited highly explosive gases, as the mill was in full operation. That's why this sequence was completed at a mill in Fontana."
Takakura has completed another film that opened the Tokyo International Film Festival last month. "It's called 'Ah-Un,' for the sound of exhaling and inhaling," explained Takakura. "The shrine dogs that face each other are called 'Ah' and 'Un,' and it's an expression meaning one can't do without the other, and the film is about two men who are close buddies. My friend is played by Bando Eiji, who was a baseball star and is a sports commentator. The trouble is that I am in love with his wife."
Nobuko Miyamoto, that "Taxing Woman," plays Takakura's wife, and Junko Fuji has come out of a 17-year retirement to play Eiji's wife. Fuji had been Takakura's frequent leading lady at Toei, the company to which he was under contract from 1955 to 1967 and where he had risen to stardom as the Japanese cinema's No. 1 yakuza (or gangster).
Takakura said he was drafted as an actor by a Toei Co. executive to whom he'd been introduced by one of his college professors. The professor was trying to line Takakura up with a job as a gofer for actor Hibari Misora's production company, but the executive saw something in Takakura he apparently liked.
" 'Who is this punk?,' " Takakura quoted the executive as saying. " 'Why don't you show up tomorrow, and we'll take some pictures of you?' "
Instead of running errands at Misora's studio, Takakura became a leading man there.
"Life is full of these stories," said Takakura, smiling. "I'm a believer in fate."