Forever Young,Tatsuya Nakadai

Tatsuya Nakadai as Hanshiro Tsugumo

Earlier this week was the great Japaneses actor Tatsuya Nakadia’s birthday, and after recently watching him in the great Samurai comedy/action film “Kill!”, I thought it would be important to reflect back on an actor who gets overlooked when discussing the greatest actors ever. Most commonly known for his work in  Akira Kurosawa’s two late masterpieces in the 80s (Kagemusha and Ran), Nakadia remains one of the most noticeable faces of Samurai cinema. Sadly he has often been overshadowed by Tashiro Mifune, often playing the antagonist in many of his samurai films (most notably Kurosawa’s Yojimbo.) But it shouldn’t be forgotten that Nakadia was a powerhouse actor in the 60s and has worked with some of the greatest Japanese directors who ever lived from Akira Kurosawa to Mikio Naruse to Kon Ichikawa to Hiroshi Teshigahara to Kihachi Okamoto. But it was with director Masaki Kobayashi, Nakadia gave his greatest performances; one of cinema’s great director-actor collaborations (up there even with Japan’s most famous, Kurosawa and Mifune). Working together in 11 films (including the expansive Human Trilogy and the horror masterpiece, Kwidan), it was in Hari Kiri where Nakadia solidified his place as one of the best actors of his generation playing the mysterious ronin Hanshiro Tsugumo. In a very physical and nuanced performance, Nakadia brings to life one of cinema’s greatest and most tragic anti-heroes from the pages of what might have been the greatest script ever written by Shinobu Hashimoto (the famous scribe for many of Kurosawa’s masterpieces including Rashomon and the Seven Samurai as well as Okamoto’s Samurai Assassin and Kobayashi’s Samurai Rebellion). But its also important to remember Nakadia’s range was incredible. Just compare his performance as a retired samurai in Kihachi Okamoto’s Kill!, where he plays a very laid back and almost comic role, to another film he did Okamoto, Sword of Doom, a performance that really is the polar opposite. But Nakadia is up for the challenge and delivers two great performances. The sad fact that always puzzled me though was why Kurosawa never gave him a lead role in one of his 50s or 60s films. While given juicy roles in those films as well as starring roles in the great director’s later films in the 80s, I would have loved to see him given a lead role earlier. Many times I hear the arguments about whether or not Tashiro Mifune could have been able to pull off Nakadia’s performances in either Kagemusha or Ran (an argument which I admit to have pondered myself), but I have always wondered how Nakadia would have done in one Mifune’s roles like Throne of Blood or Bad Sleep Well or what if the actors traded places in Yojimbo or Sanjuro? Obviously we’ll never know, but always something fun to think about. But with a resume of diverse characters and fantastic performances, Nakadia will forever remain not only one of the greatest but also one of the many unsung heroes of the Golden Age in Japanese Cinema.

for more, here’s a great essay about the legendary actor posted on the Criterion Collection’s website:


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