Ken Takakura dies at 83; outlaw and hero in Japanese films

Black Rain
Ken Takakura and Michael Douglas in the 1989 movie “Black Rain.”
(David James / Paramount Pictures)

Ken Takakura, a quiet, craggy-faced star known for playing outlaws and stoic heroes in scores of Japanese films, has died. He was 83.

Perhaps best known abroad for his role as a police inspector in Ridley Scott’s 1989 film “Black Rain,” Takakura died Nov. 10 at a Tokyo hospital, where he was being treated for lymphoma, according to his office and media reports Tuesday.

He surged to stardom after his 1956 debut, becoming an icon in yakuza films such as “Abashiri Prison” in the 1960s. Much of his appeal to the Japanese public stemmed from his image as a hero fighting authority figures on behalf of the poor and weak.

But in a career spanning more than 200 films, he sometimes played comic roles, such as his 1992 portrayal of a coach in “Mr. Baseball,” starring Tom Selleck.


Likened to Clint Eastwood, Takakura starred in detective stories and dramas, including the 1977 film “The Yellow Handkerchief” and 1999’s “Railroad Man,” which won him a best actor award at the Montreal World Film Festival.

In “Black Rain,” an action-adventure movie set in Osaka, Takakura portrayed a by-the-book police official opposite his renegade American counterpart played by Michael Douglas.

Born in 1931 as Goichi Oda in Fukuoka, southern Japan, Takakura was recruited to be an actor by a major film production while he was applying for a managerial position.

Even though he played many outlaw roles in yakuza films, Takakura said today’s gangster movies didn’t interest him.


“I like movies that picture the human heart and linger with me,” he told an interviewer of the Japan Subculture Research Center. “The Deer Hunter,” “Gladiator” and “The Godfather” were among his favorites, he said.

In the 2012 award-winning “Dearest,” the last of Takakura’s films, he plays a retired prison warden who goes on a soul-searching trip with a postcard that arrives after his wife’s death.

According to a fax released by his office, Takakura was preparing for his next project while in the hospital.

In 2013, when Takakura attended a ceremony to receive Japan’s highest cultural award, the Order of Culture, at the Imperial Palace, he joked that he had often played characters considered most distant from the exalted realm of the palace.

“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.”

Yamaguchi writes for the Associated Press.