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An Evening with Tatsuya Nakadai

You might be tempted to pay no attention to the crisply-dressed elderly gent with the wire-rimmed glasses, tailored suit, power tie, and elegantly-clipped beard. But this dapper septuagenarian on the makeshift stage at a packed house at New York’s Film Forum is no retired bank president or philanthropist. This man is the legendary Tatsuya Nakadai, probably the greatest living film actor in Japan, who in a career spanning over 50 years, has appeared in the films of the cream of Japanese directors — Akira Kurosawa, Mikio Naruse, Kon Ichikawa, Khachi Okamoto, Hideo Gosha, Hiroshi Teshigahara, and Masaki Kobayashi, with whom Nakadai made 11 films (including the psychologically tortured samurai film Harakiri and the mammoth ten-hour epic The Human Condition).

In film roles as disparate as the demonic killing machine in Sword of Doom, the intense, facially-scarred businessman in The Face of Another, the psychopathic gangster in Black River, the clear-eyed police detective in High and Low, the mad King Lear-like lord in Ran, or the pretentious educator upstaged by his pet cat in I Am a Cat, Nakadai is a truly cinematic actor, his body poised and mannered, while his gaze speaks of an inner turmoil and an unblinking view into the dark nights of his characters’ souls. Or as a nurse in The Face of Another put it, ‘It’s a pleasant face, but it has a few quirks.’

Nakadai’s appearance here was delayed a bit and the excited chatter in the audience eventually descended into a quiet hush. But when Nakadai at last appeared the audience rose to their feet and applauded. Alas, this would be the high point of Nakadai’s appearance, as the event became an ephemeral clip fest with Nakadai, through his translator, ponderously remarking in the most general way on his film career.

After a stunning clip from Harakiri, Nakadai unfurled his pre-film life: a poor child who couldn’t afford university admittance and decided on taking up acting because his only other option, being a boxer, involved getting hit. Besides, Nakadai admired American films and loved John Wayne, Gary Cooper, and Marlon Brando.

So, he was in and managed to land his first role as a walk-on samurai in Seven Samurai, pissing Kurosawa off because Kurosawa didn’t like his walk, spending five hours with the director trying to get his walk to look authentic. A clip featuring Nakadai slapping the hell out of a woman from Black River brought Nakadai notice but it wasn’t until Nakadai’s role in Kobayashi’s The Human Condition that his acting career really took off, Kobayashi offering Nakadai the role of the labor boss because of his ‘devil eyes.’ Nakadai further honed his position by his appearance in Naruse’s When a Woman Ascends the Stairs, where the director demanded the actor stop acting and pare down his style to a ‘daily realism.’ Returning to Kurosawa in Yojimbo at the recommendation of Kobayashi, Nakadai got to have his first showdown with Toshiro Mifune.

The blood geyser death of Nakadai in Sanjuro prompted an extended discussion at the Film Forum of the technical problems of pumping the fake blood through an underground hose and out from Nakadai’s chest. Special guest star Teruyo Nogami (Kurosawa’s longtime script supervisor) then appeared to extend the blood pump discussion even more (a podcast of which will probably keep Quentin Tarantino in a state of extended excitation).

That was the tipping point, and the Nakadai appearance wound down with a collection of moments including a screwy spaghetti western appearance by Nakadai, a kinetic train sequence from High and Low (Kurosawa wanted Nakadai to look like Henry Fonda and have a high forehead), Samurai Rebellion, the Sword of Doom walking massacre, a quieter, gentler Nakadai in I Am a Cat, and the climactic walpurgisnacht from Ran.

In a cute moment at the end of the evening, Nakadai was awarded a Hideki Matsui Yankee shirt, which Nakadai displayed proudly to the cheering throng. But for my money, the highlight of the evening was Nakadai’s comments on Toshiro Mifune, claiming his own skills with a samurai sword were on par with Mufune’s but finally acknowledging that Mifune had the edge (so to speak): ‘He must have been better because he always killed me.’

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