Bright Lights Film Journal

Japanese Cinema’s Uncommon Man: Tatsuya Nakadai’s Dissidents, Outcasts, and Shadow Warriors

“Like Hollywood’s new postwar men, he offered a multifaceted, ambivalent masculinity far from monolithic wartime ideals.”

Even the winds welcome him: clouds of dust swirl away from the tall figure as if awed by his menacing glamour. He smirks at the admiring camera, wearing his topknot like a Tony Curtis pompadour, a tartan scarf knotted rakishly above his striped kimono. From the folds of this kimono his bare arm slithers like a charmed snake from its basket, aiming a pistol. In Yojimbo, Kurosawa directed Tatsuya Nakadai to play the villain Unosuke with the fascination of a serpent, to be silk to the cotton of Toshiro Mifune’s rough-hewn hero. Nakadai modestly said that he felt like a “little child” compared with Mifune, but Kurosawa saw them as worthy opponents.1 Nakadai is smooth where Mifune is gruff, supple where Mifune is staunch, enigmatic where Mifune is direct. The images of snake and silk are apt: throughout his long career Nakadai has proved a uniquely flexible actor, both delicate and durable, and always mesmerizing.

Masaki Kobayashi, the director who formed the closest alliance with him, pinpointed Nakadai’s ability to embody qualities of Japan’s older, pre-World War II generation and its younger postwar generation, bridging a vast gap in experience and values. Trained in the theater, Nakadai is a disciplined craftsman whose performances are shaped by self-effacing devotion to technique and meticulous attention to detail.2 But he also studied the Method and brought to films a blast of energy, internal conflict, and emotional openness. Dividing his time between stage and screen, contemporary and period films, he has alternated naturalism and stylization, camera-oriented minimalism and heightened theatricality. He resisted settling into a signature style or character, making versatility his trademark. While his early modern-dress roles often dissected weak or damaged men, his fluidity and sensitivity did not preclude displays of rock-hard will or merciless killer instinct. Like Hollywood’s new postwar men (Clift, Brando, etc.), he offered a multifaceted, ambivalent masculinity far from monolithic wartime ideals.

Nakadai’s screen debut came a year after the end of the American occupation in 1952. During the war, Japanese filmmakers had been compelled to uphold the feudal values of loyalty, duty, and self-sacrifice; under the Americans they were forbidden to depict feudal subjects and ordered to advocate democracy and individual rights. When cinema was finally freed from both mandates, it became a lens for skeptical examination of Japan’s history, traditions, and current predicament. With his combination of adaptability and singularity, Nakadai fit this transitional moment and was able to act out diverse perspectives on what is arguably the central theme of Japanese cinema: the relationship between the individual and society, between personal desires or human feelings (ninjo) and obligations or loyalties imposed by society (giri). Whether playing dissidents, outlaws, or servants of the system, his performances reflect their historical settings and the power of cultural values, even those his characters reject.

“I seek to discover the individual man in the historical setting surrounding him.” ~ Masaki Kobayashi3

Kobayashi’s life and films were both shaped by his resistance to authority. He spent six years as a Japanese army conscript in Manchuria, refusing promotion above the rank of private as a protest against both the military and the war, which he saw as “the culmination of human evil.” Kobayashi channeled this experience into his three-part epic The Human Condition (Ningen no Joken, 1958-1961), creating an essential humanist document and one of cinema’s true rebel heroes. “I am Kaji in the film,” he acknowledged, and as his alter ego he cast Tatsuya Nakadai, the actor he had discovered working as a shop clerk in Tokyo and given his first leading film role as a gangster in Black River (Kuroi Kawa, 1957). Despite — or because of — growing up in a time when schoolboys were inculcated with the glory of dying for the emperor, Nakadai, who was born in 1932, shared the director’s anti-authoritarian outlook (“Even now in Japan,” he said at Film Forum in 2008, “You don’t have enough freedom.”), and he appreciated the way Kobayashi patiently allowed him to shape his own performances. The grueling four-year project of The Human Condition made him a star. He is in every scene of the ten-hour film and his character suffers more torments than Job: beatings, starvation, battles, forced marches, and insoluble moral dilemmas. It’s no wonder Nakadai said that in his twenties he felt as though he were climbing Mount Fuji, carrying on his back the heavy load of “everyone’s masterpieces.”4

The Human Condition is a vast and detailed portrait of a society that oppresses and devalues the individual. Kobayashi shows not only the injustices meted out by an authoritarian, hierarchical culture but its effect on human character: it breeds hypocrisy, bullying, petty vindictiveness, and the failure of empathy. The other side of humanity is distilled in Kaji: a tenacious dedication to justice, freedom, and dignity. This is a heavy burden for an actor to bear, difficult to achieve without coming off as self-righteous or saintly. (It must have been a relief when he took time off in 1960 to play the preening, cold-blooded Unosuke.) Nakadai succeeds by emphasizing not Kaji’s virtue but his frustration and vulnerability. His moral sense seems to reside in his nerve endings; he is helplessly compassionate, unable to resist sacrificing himself for others. Because he never becomes truly hardened, the viewer who identifies with him can’t harden herself against the relentless horrors onscreen. To hold the audience’s attention for ten hours Kaji must be lovable, but Kobayashi also used Nakadai’s heart-rending beauty to intensify his vision of war destroying the best of humanity.

Kaji starts off as an idealistic but ineffectual liberal, struggling to retain his honor while doing a job he knows to be dishonorable. Desperate for a draft exemption, he takes a post as a labor supervisor at a mine in Manchuria, hoping that he can improve conditions with humane methods. He discovers that the Chinese slave laborers are treated as expendable, and he is crushed between his superiors, who demand that he squeeze more work out of the slaves and stop them from escaping, and the Chinese themselves, who refuse to trust a Japanese and blame Kaji for promising what he can’t deliver. Resented for “trying to be better than other people,” he is alienated even from his wife, who can’t understand why he makes trouble for himself. As he grows tougher and more disillusioned over the course of the films, it becomes clear that his insistence on speaking out even when it can do no good is not reckless naiveté but his way of preserving his self-respect despite his unwilling complicity in evil. Ningen no Joken doesn’t really mean “the [general] condition of humanity,” it means “the [specific] condition under which one is human.” When Kaji explains to his wife why he wants to free seven Chinese prisoners slated for execution, he says, “If I don’t do this, I’m no longer a man.”

Unable to save them, he is forced to watch as the innocent men are beheaded with a samurai sword. We watch the execution play out in Nakadai’s sweat-glazed, agonized face. A tic flutters under one eye as the tension builds until he snaps and halts the execution, writing his own death warrant. His punishment is to be made a soldier. He is a skilled and disciplined recruit, yet loathes the army’s brutality. Even in uniform he remains stubbornly out of step, persistently challenging superiors and demanding accountability in a culture that frowns on confrontation. Looking away from Japan for answers, he reads “western books,” as a military policeman disgustedly notes, and imagines that the Soviet Union offers freedom and equality. (He is disabused of this notion when he becomes a Soviet P.O.W., and the callous Russian guards call him a “fascist samurai.”) He even shakes hands with the few kindred spirits he meets, a powerful gesture in a world where soldiers must bow to the officers who hit them across the face.

After The Human Condition, Kobayashi felt that he had gone as far as he could with Western-style realism and became “keenly attracted” to traditional Japanese aesthetics. In his jidai-geki (period films), he combined angry denunciations of feudal oppression with austere formal beauty, creating a tension between explosive emotion and serene ritual. The central image of his masterpiece, Harakiri (Seppuku, 1962), set at the beginning of the 17th century, is the courtyard of a clan compound arranged for a ritual suicide. Hanshiro Tsugumo (Nakadai), an impoverished middle-aged ronin (masterless samurai), sits in the center on a small raised platform, his black robe starkly outlined against white raked sand. The Iyi clan retainers sit in rows around the sides, immobile as carved figures. Isolated by this chilling display of ceremony and force, expected to disembowel himself in an honorable fashion, Tsugumo instead compels everyone present to listen to his life story and his grievance against the Iyi clan, who forced his son-in-law Chijiwa to commit suicide in the same courtyard. The spare, symmetrical compositions of Harakiri evoke the inhumanity of the feudal world, but Kobayashi said he was “delighted” by these traditional forms; he saw strength and beauty as well as cruelty in them. Tsugumo himself is the paragon of a warrior with his erect, graceful bearing and grave, stoic demeanor — a far cry from the scruffy, disaffected ronin heroes so popular in the 1960s.

For Nakadai the role of Tsugumo involved singular challenges. He spends much of his screen time kneeling, which was physically taxing and demanded all his intensity and charisma to make the static performance compelling. The dialogue was written in an archaic style of public storytelling that made it difficult to deliver naturally. Cast as a grandfather, he was only thirty. None of this shows in his performance; it merely underlines his exceptional self-discipline and powers of concentration. His threadbare supplicant projects calm dignity and single-minded purpose, but also the contained grief of a man with nothing left to lose. His stern samurai bearing is a vessel for tender-hearted emotion, and Nakadai’s haunted eyes burn holes in his cold surroundings as he appeals to his listeners’ buried humanity.

Though he ultimately resorts to violence, his first plan is to reason with his enemies. He argues that the vaunted samurai code is a hollow façade, and praises his son-in-law for cherishing his family above his own honor. Desperate for money when his wife and child fell ill, Chijiwa sold his blades; the Iyi clansmen view this as a disgraceful act, since a samurai’s sword is his soul, and they punish him by forcing him to disembowel himself with the bamboo blades he carries. But when Tsugumo realizes that he never even thought of selling his own swords, he lashes himself for clinging to worthless symbols while his loved ones suffered. Ironically, his revenge is chiefly symbolic: he proudly brandishes the topknots he cut from the heads of three retainers responsible for Chijiwa’s death, and his final action is to topple the suit of armor that represents the Iyi clan’s ancestors. His triumph is erased: the armor is restored to its place, an official statement announces that Tsugumo’s victims died of illness, and the clan log for the day records that “nothing of significance occurred.”

While he claimed he was not a pessimist, Kobayashi repeatedly depicted the futility of individual rebellion.5 Acting alone and through self-destructive violence, his heroes win nothing more than moral victories. The dissident cannot change his society or even separate himself from it. Though he protests the cruelty of bushido, Tsugumo dies a proper death according to its prescription. Kaji realizes that “It’s not my fault that I am Japanese, yet my greatest crime is that I am.” Still, he remains the most radically nonconformist of Kobayashi’s heroes, resisting the very notion of heroic action. In battle he urges his men not to throw their lives away, but they are too conditioned by the code of death-before-surrender to listen. As he loses faith in the possibility of doing good, he decides that he must survive at all costs, but in the end Kaji is driven to act decisively against evil. Knowing that Kirihara, one of his fellow prisoners of war, has raped a young girl and sadistically caused the death of a young man Kaji tried to protect, Kaji beats him to death with a chain. Even when Kirihara grovels and apologizes, Kaji replies, “Scum like you deserve to die.” He takes out on this one victim his frustration against all the wrongs he’s been unable to prevent, but the merciless action is also the death of his character, already corroded by suffering and by the crimes he has been forced to commit. He decides to escape from the camp, knowing there is little chance of survival in the desolate wilderness. He dies alone in the snow, still imagining that he is making his way home to his wife.

A devastating indictment of the recent past, The Human Condition was hugely popular in Japan and audiences adored Kaji. Before the release of the final installment, many viewers wrote to beg Kobayashi not to kill off his hero. But he felt that in death, Kaji, who refuses to renounce his country by defecting to the Soviet Union, could become an inspiration for postwar Japan, a symbol of resurrection and hope for a peaceful future.

“From the earliest age I have thought that the world we live in betrays us.” ~ Mikio Naruse

Many films of the fifties and sixties portray the Japanese emerging from defeat and occupation hemmed in by poverty and plagued by anxiety, disorientation, and nihilism. Traditional restrictions and obligations still weigh heavily, especially on women, while American influence encourages selfish, crass, inconsiderate behavior. The past can’t be escaped or regained, rejected or embraced. In Naruse’s When a Woman Ascends the Stairs (Onna ga kaidan o agaru toki, 1960), Nakadai looks the part of a hip modern bachelor with his cropped hair and sharp suits, his office filled with pictures of American movie stars. But his character Komatsu — an efficient, street-smart, slightly caddish bar manager — bears the self-inflicted wound of romantic infatuation with a virtuous widow, an exemplar of Japanese womanhood at its most faithful and self-denying.

Keiko (Hideko Takamine) is the bar’s head hostess or “mama-san,” but she hates the drinking and flirting her job demands, and slyly evades her customers’ advances with smiles and flattery. She loves one, a married banker named Fujisaki, but has remained true to her vow never to love again, formalized in the letter she placed in her dead husband’s urn. It is this gesture that wins Komatsu’s devotion; he is so obsessed by the story that he seeks out the priest who officiated at the funeral to learn whether it is true. Admiring her willpower — for five years she has been chaste — he vows never to touch her, but salves his frustration by seducing another of the hostesses, who is so much of a “pro” that she demands money afterward, proudly announcing, “I charge the men I like, too.” In contrast to the other hostesses in the Ginza, Keiko is honest and refined. She wears plain, tasteful kimonos and a simple hairstyle, and she is tied to her work by family obligations, supporting her widowed mother and ne’er-do-well brother. Komatsu is the only man who offers her friendship without ulterior motives, and she depends on his support while ignoring his unspoken but obvious affection.

His passion rarely breaks through his sleek nonchalance. After a painful scene when he tells Keiko that she can’t afford moral integrity and she responds with angry scorn, he vents his feelings by swatting at a little stuffed doll dangling from a string in his office. This pathetically small gesture crystallizes Naruse’s vision of modern men as ineffectual, spoiled by a culture that overvalues them and trapped by the narrowness of their imaginations. But Komatsu is different from Keiko’s selfish, callous, or weak-willed clients. The conflict between his livelihood and his ideals echoes her dilemma; both are forced to repress their feelings and accept lives without love.

Komatsu’s Ginza-bred cynicism only elevates his faith in the one woman he believes is an exception. When he learns that she has finally weakened — while drunk, she succumbs to a one-night-stand with Fujisaki, who promptly leaves for Osaka with his family — Komatsu is cruelly disillusioned. First berating her for losing his respect, he then begs her to marry him (she refuses, saying, “We know each other too well”), and finally realizes that she truly loves Fujisaki; her fault was not cheapness or lust but an emotion as powerful as his own. When we last see Komatsu, he is offering his services as a bartender to the “pro,” who has opened her own bar. He has always been melancholy around the edges, but now he looks crushed; the loss of his ideal leaves his life hollow and dirty. Keiko, by contrast, has the stoic resignation to go on with her life and maintain her identity through compromises, disappointments, and humiliations.

Nakadai said that he learned about film acting from Naruse and Takamine. The director’s style must have been trying for a stage-trained actor: in a scene with two actors he often filmed their dialogue separately and edited them together. He refused to discuss motivation or characterization with his actors (an approach also followed by Ozu and Mizoguchi), which Nakadai found painfully frustrating. But he adapted well to Naruse’s demand for restraint and naturalness — not to act but simply to be — giving a cool, minimal, buttoned-down performance. Only his puppy-dog eyes give him away, following Takamine around with pining glances. When he confronts her at the end, he finally gets to release his pent-up feelings, but there is nowhere for them to go: Naruse said of his characters, “if they move even a little, they quickly hit the wall.”

In Kon Ichikawa’s Conflagration (Enjo 1958), a harsher portrait of postwar Japan, the protagonist destroys his ideal, but not before it destroys him. Mizoguchi (Raizo Ichikawa) is tormented by self-doubt, a bad stutter, and a vulgar, grasping mother. When he was a boy his cuckolded father planted in his mind a symbol of pure, supreme beauty, the Temple of the Golden Pavilion in Kyoto. As a novice at the temple, Mizoguchi sees it defiled both by tourists (including an American G.I. who comes with his pregnant Japanese girlfriend) and by priests who are money-grubbing and fleshly (the head priest has a geisha mistress) and becomes obsessed with protecting its sanctity. In a touch typical of Ichikawa’s black humor, when he violently bars the pregnant girl from entering, the G.I. is thrilled because she falls downstairs and has a miscarriage, solving his problem. But when Mizoguchi burns down the temple, it’s not only because it has been tainted; the act is the ultimate expression of his sense of unworthiness.

The Yukio Mishima novel on which the film was based (inspired by the actual destruction of the temple in 1950) is dense with Zen koans and abstruse theories about the meaning of beauty, but Ichikawa replaced philosophy with psychology and sociology, dissecting Mizoguchi’s inferiority complex and the materialism and hypocrisy afflicting postwar Japan. The policemen who interrogate Mizoguchi keep talking about whether the temple’s destruction will hurt the tourist trade, speculating on how much it will cost to rebuild, and pompously referring to it as a “national treasure.” Ichikawa confirmed that “the building represented everything which oppressed [Mizoguchi],” and that it was an implicit symbol of the feudal system.6

The well-meaning but weak head priest, who sees Mizoguchi as a possible successor, pays for him to go to college. There he befriends the clubfooted Tokari (Nakadai), who is at once his opposite and his doppelganger. Embittered and malicious, Tokari is also keenly intelligent and as articulate as Mizoguchi is helplessly mute. Alienated by his deformity, he is a serial seducer of women. In another darkly satirical touch, he tricks a classy young woman into thinking that he injured his foot in falling off a wall because he was smitten with her beauty, and feigns to be in pain until she caresses his leg, frantic with guilt. Manipulative and corrupt, Tokari dismisses temples as “just buildings that escaped the bombing,” and when Mizoguchi insists that the Golden Pavilion will never change, he retorts, “Idiot! People, history, and morals all change.” His cynicism at once gleeful and angry, Tokari constantly mocks Mizoguchi’s naiveté and tries to shatter his illusions, eager to prove that he has none of his own.

Beneath his bravado Tokari is more like his hapless friend than he can admit, lonely and scarred by rejection. When his second girlfriend insults him as a cripple, his vulnerability is laid bare in his hysterical response. She is a teacher of ikebana (flower arranging), and her outburst is inspired by Tokari’s nasty comment that he is so good at it that he no longer needs her. Though destructive, Tokari is also, unlike Mizoguchi, capable of creating beauty, not only with flowers but with the shakuhachi (bamboo flute), an instrument originally played by Zen monks as a form of “breathing meditation.” Tokari plays sublimely, and the pure, otherworldly sound affects Mizoguchi the same way the sight of the Golden Pavilion does. At its climax the film cuts from the massive spectacle of the blazing temple to a wordless scene of Tokari playing a mournful tune on the flute, as though somehow sensing or participating in the tragedy. The ephemeral music outlasts the monumental beauty of the ancient building.

Nakadai attacks the role with scene-stealing gusto, making Tokari charismatic, vicious, funny, and pathetic — sometimes all at once. His electricity complements Raizo Ichikawa’s introverted, painfully convincing portrait of adolescent confusion. Like Lon Chaney, Nakadai makes his grotesque body riveting and its tortured movements perversely vigorous: limping flamboyantly, strenuously dragging his twisted leg, glaring fiercely, and speaking fast with a hard edge. He brings to life Mishima’s description of his character: “His walk was a sort of exaggerated dance, utterly lacking in anything commonplace . . . Physically he was a cripple, yet there was an intrepid beauty about him . . .” He glows with outrage, like all young people who feel betrayed by their world.

“I sought to convey the magnitude of human isolation and loneliness.” ~ Hiroshi Teshigahara7

Nakadai could play single-minded men, like his haunted avenger in Goyokin, but ambiguous roles like Tokari brought out his mercurial flair. In Kill! (an oddly sweet-tempered, tongue-in-cheek samurai film by Kihachi Okamoto), he is at once quizzical and world-weary, amused and melancholy, sly and ingenuous, hangdog and heroic. He doesn’t explain too much; he could be mysterious without seeming merely vague. In Okamoto’s Sword of Doom (Daibosatsutoge, 1966) he might be a personification of motiveless evil, an avenging angel, a psychopath, or an exemplar of samurai arrogance and single-minded devotion to the sword. “The sword is the soul,” another character says, but Nakadai’s Ryunosuke has no soul; his eyes glitter emptily, his face is dead except for a cruel twitch that occasionally pulls the mouth sideways. He is terrifying but also terribly sad, lurching from limp passivity to frenzied violence, embodying form without content, action without purpose, pride without identity.

Nakadai played another hollow man in The Face of Another (Tanin no Kao, 1966), directed by Teshigahara and based on a Kobo Abe novel about a scientist whose face is disfigured in a chemical accident. Nakadai spends the first half of the movie looking like Claude Rains in The Invisible Man, his head swathed in bandages, ferocious black eyes glinting through slits. Like the crippled Tokari, Okuyama is obsessed with people’s reactions to his deformity and lashes out bitterly, convinced that all his social ties have been severed. Because he looks like a monster, he becomes a monster. Okuyama’s wife assures him that his isolation is all in his head and that her feelings for him have not changed, but her revulsion when he makes an abrupt sexual advance convinces him that she is lying.

Okuyama believes that a life-like mask will restore his relationship with his wife and his connection to society. But the doctor who agrees to make the mask (a character invented for the film) does so because it fascinates him as a psychological and philosophical experiment. He envisions a world in which everyone is masked: morality would not exist, he argues, since people would feel no responsibility for the actions of their alternate identities. He believes the new face will change Okuyama’s personality, turning him into a stranger.

When the mask is fitted, it turns out to be the face of Tatsuya Nakadai. With only a little help from a fake mole, dark glasses, and a bizarre fringe of beard, Nakadai succeeds in making his own features look synthetic and eerily as though they don’t belong to him. (Teshigahara said that he cast Nakadai because of his smooth, “reptilian” face.) Sitting in a crowded beer hall on his first masked outing in public, he creates an overwhelming aura of uneasiness, keeping his features unnaturally still as though unsure of their mobility, chewing carefully, touching his face gingerly to explore its alien surface. Later, alone in his apartment, he takes off the glasses and makes faces in the mirror, gleefully discovering that he can open his mouth wide and wiggle his eyebrows.

Here it is hard not to see the film’s premise as a comment on the extraordinary plasticity of Nakadai’s face. Actors renowned for their shape-shifting often have nondescript features that are easy to disguise, but Nakadai’s equipment was anything but a blank slate; in youth his looks were so instantly striking that I once heard an audience wolf-whistle when he appeared on screen. But his beauty — those sculpted cheek-bones and pouting lips, those huge lustrous eyes — never defined or limited him. His features were recast for each role. Kaji’s soulful, liquid gaze hardens into a vitreous sheen in Unosuke’s eyes. In Sanjuro, he’s a saturnine brute, scowling and sneering; in Cash Calls Hell, he drifts through his sordid surroundings like a fallen angel, spellbound by melancholy, elegantly guilt-stricken. From the beginning Nakadai set out to avoid the typecasting that was usual for Japanese movie stars, and his lack of a fixed identity may help explain why he never achieved the same level of international recognition as Mifune. Even for an actor his protean quality is unnerving, changing each time you try to grasp it.

The Face of Another is a kind of horror film, evoking the fear that no one’s identity is fixed, that changing the skin can change the soul. The doctor turns out to be right when he predicts that the mask will have a mind of its own. Suddenly endowed with sleek good looks, Okuyama buys flashy suits to accommodate his new face and sets out to seduce his own wife. When he succeeds easily, he is outraged by her promiscuity, only to have her reveal that she knew who he was all along. After she leaves him in disgust, he descends into madness and random violence. In the final nightmarish scene, Okuyama and the doctor push their way through crowds of faceless pedestrians, the disconnected strangers who surround every city-dweller.

Both the film and the Abe novel couch their themes as universal rather than specifically Japanese; social isolation is “the modern illness.” But the doctor’s vision of “a world without family, friends, or enemies,” a world of “unbounded freedom,” without trust or betrayal, without home, names, or labels, is most starkly an inversion of the traditional Japanese world so rooted in fixed social roles, relationships, loyalties, and obligations. The Face of Another is set in anonymous urban spaces where modern, international-style design becomes surreal. The Munchen Beer Hall where Okuyama and the doctor meet is a setting of pure dislocation, with beer steins bearing the Munich coat of arms, foreigners mingling in the crowd, and a Japanese girl singing a song in German that asks, “I see your face, but where are you?”8 By creating the character of the doctor, the film splits the book’s protagonist so that he can argue with himself. Okuyama tries to preserve his identity, insisting, “I am who I am, I can’t change,” but the doctor insists he is “a new man,” with “no records, no past.” Without a past, he can have no true identity.

In Kurosawa’s Kagemusha (1980), Nakadai again plays a man who loses his identity by taking on the face of another. He creates two identical characters distinguished only by their body language: the stately, languid repose of the warlord Shingen Takeda and the awkward, bewildered bumbling of the thief hired to be his double (a kagemusha, literally “shadow warrior”). When the thief succeeds in capturing the physical presence of the dead lord — leaning regally on an armrest, lowering his eyelids and delicately stroking his mustache — so well that even those who know the truth are moved, he starts to lose himself, becoming possessed by the man he imitates. The performance that was external — hair, clothes, mannerisms — becomes internal, as the thief demonstrates his own bravery, assurance, and loyalty to the Takeda clan, and develops a strong bond with Shingen’s grandson and heir, Takemaru. But the feudal world recognizes only rank, not human qualities or feelings. When his overconfidence leads to the exposure of his true identity, he is expelled from the clan with no consideration for the ties he formed in it.

Until this point, Kagemusha seems to glorify the supreme feudal value of loyalty to authority and clan: the retainers who kneel at the lakeside as Shingen’s corpse is taken by boat to its resting place, the guards who unhesitatingly shield their lord from bullets with their bodies. But when the thief is cast out in the rain, forbidden to say goodbye to Takemaru and driven off with stones like a stray dog, the scene drives home the feudal system’s utter disregard for human feelings. Having given up his own identity to become a double, the thief remains a pitiful shadow, helplessly watching first Shingen’s official funeral and then the clan’s total destruction in battle. After dwelling on the gorgeous pageantry and pomp of war, the film ends with a horrific massacre when Shingen’s reckless son drives his entire army into the rifle barrage of his rival, lord Nobunaga. Deranged by grief, the thief dies on the battlefield, his corpse finally floating past the battle flag of his beloved lord. Stephen Prince reads the ending as celebrating the thief’s transcendent sacrifice,9 but the wanton destruction of the clan, resulting from the unquestioning loyalty of its generals and soldiers to an unworthy leader, looks forward to the despair of Kurosawa’s next film, Ran, with its vision of life as an endless cycle of destruction.

This view of the world as terminally violent and fundamentally unchanging fed the reactionary nihilism of chambara (swordplay) and yakuza (gangster) films, the genres that overtook the golden age of Japanese cinema in the 1960s. (Nakadai appeared in many such genre films, most often directed by Hideo Gosha, but frequently lamented the decline of Japanese cinema and his difficulty finding good parts after the first decade of his career.) But Kurosawa’s view was always more nuanced and ambivalent than that of filmmakers who either glorified or condemned traditional values.10 His films celebrate both loyalty and dissent, self-sacrifice and individualism. They view giri and ninjo not as opposing forces but as mutual necessities.

The profoundly mournful tone of Kurosawa’s late epics and their compassionate focus on human suffering both depend on Nakadai’s ability — first exploited by Kobayashi — to distill the essence of ninjo: vulnerable, compassionate, flesh-and-blood humanity. Kagemusha is an epic film that often seems more interested in pageantry than personality; and Nakadai is handicapped by the film’s vast scale and by a part written for a very different actor (Shintaro Katsu). But despite a broadly stylized performance and the distancing techniques of the film, he brings a level of emotion to the final scenes that is operatic and yet intimate. Here, as throughout his career, his acting is both highly externalized — devising signature mannerisms, body language, facial expressions for each role — and highly internalized, speaking through the windows of his eyes.

All great movie stars have idiosyncrasies that set them apart: peculiar accents, distinctive mannerisms, trademark features that invite caricature. They appear natural even when they aren’t naturalistic because their style is not an affectation but an affirmation of themselves. Nakadai is distinguished by his eyes, which at times look ready to start out of his head. They could be angelic or devilish, but they couldn’t be ordinary. Specializing in villains and tormented heroes, he rarely addressed the lighter side of life; he was “utterly lacking in anything commonplace.” A dedicated Shakespearean, he disliked mundane and unthreatening entertainment; he loved to burrow into strange, passionate, troubled souls. Even as the efficient, impersonal detective in Kurosawa’s High and Low he brings a level of avid engagement that borders on obsession. When faced with the wondrous or horrifying — like the snow spirit he unwittingly marries in Kobayashi’s Kwaidan — he draws on a bottomless fund of astonishment, a primal awe.

The one constant in Nakadai’s wildly diverse array of performances is intensity: fire and ice, a blend of silky self-possession and demonic fervor. It might come out in furious action or hypnotic stillness; in brooding melancholy or wide-eyed brio. He could be sinister, ardent, or grimly implacable, but some frozen flame always burned inside, the source of his “intrepid beauty.” He flowed into the molds of his characters the way the thief vanishes into his impersonation of Shingen, without losing his luminous, eccentric charisma. His mere presence, so distinct and charged with feeling, argues for the irreducible significance of the individual. “Wherever you are,” Kurosawa told him, “There is light coming from your eyes.”11

  1. Nakadai interviewed by Michael Jeck at New York’s Film Forum, June 24, 2008. “Even the winds welcome you!” is the line that precedes Nakadai’s first entrance in Yojimbo. []
  2. At 18, Nakadai joined the Haiyuza school in Tokyo, where he studied the style of theater known as shingeki or “new drama,” which presented Western and contemporary Japanese plays and focused on naturalistic acting. Throughout his career, Nakadai gave six months of each year to stage appearances, making films in the other six. In 1975, he and his wife founded an acting school, Mumeijuku (“school without a name”), which he still runs today. []
  3. All quotes from Kobayashi are from an interview with Joan Mellen in 1972, published in Mellen’sVoices from the Japanese Cinema (London: Liveright Books, 1975). []
  4. Nakadai in a video interview on the Criterion DVD release of Harakiri. []
  5. One exception is Kobayashi’s 1971 film Inochi Bo Ni Furo, We Give Our Lives for Nothing, which stars Nakadai as the knife-wielding leader of a band of smugglers who decide to sacrifice themselves to help a young man desperate to keep his fiancée from being sold into a brothel. Though they are all killed, they do achieve their goal; their deaths are not “for nothing.” In the U.S. this film is known as Inn of Evil, which I would award the highly competitive prize for the most ludicrous English re-titling of any Japanese film. []
  6. Interview with Ichikawa by Mellen, Voices from the Japanese Cinema, p. 128. []
  7. Interview with Teshigahara by Mellen, ibid., p. 175. []
  8. The song’s creepy, incongruous waltz tune forms the film’s theme music. The link to Germany joins an undercurrent of war references, brought out mainly in an unconnected subplot about a girl from Nagasaki with a radiation scar. []
  9. Prince’s audio commentary to the DVD release of Kagemusha. []
  10. Kuroswa’s 1945 film Men Who Tread on the Tiger’s Tail was banned first by the Japanese government for undermining feudal values, and then by the American occupation government for upholding feudal values, and consequently was not released until 1952. []
  11. Interview with Nakadai by David Memelstein in The Wall Street Journal, July 3, 2008. []